The Spirituality of Modern Art: An Introduction

As a ‘reconstructed’ Christian I see the world differently from how I saw it before my passage of ‘deconstruction’ in the 1990s. I did not use that term then, but use it now to reference and relate to the experience many Evangelical Christians are going through today. I am not sure how to label myself anymore. Sometimes conservative Christians call me liberal, liberal Christians call me conservative- I hope that means I have some sort of balance in my theology! As an introduction to the spirituality of modern art, we will be looking at work from artists: Otto Dix, Mark Rothko, Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Agnes Lawrence Pelton.

Thankfully my faith in Christ became stronger as I questioned taken-for-granted beliefs. One of them was the message I often heard about Modern and Abstract Art- that it was ungodly, that it only portrayed despair or destruction and therefore was unsuitable or dangerous for Christians to engage with. I have been attending church for over forty years now, and still today I hear the same objections.

dark shadow figure hovers over Jesus of Nazareth, the spirituality of modern art

Satan Tempting Jesus by Otto Dix ,1960. Lithograph.

Christians Objections To Modern and Abstract Art

Attitudes such as a Christian leader saying “I can feel the demons emerging from that painting”; or a participant in a Christian conference describing modern art as an ‘insult’. Another Christian leader complained that art had lost its way after van Gogh. More recently, at a theological school, realism and careful crafting were held up as the ideal Christian art form because it presents wholeness and unity instead of fragmentation and brokenness. I often hear the idea that modern art is about shock value as though that’s all it is. These views are such a contrast to what I have learned from art history and what I know about contemporary art today. As a contemporary artist myself, I understand artists to be deeply engaged in the life they find themselves in and searching through their art for something that authentically relates to their lived experience.

the spirituality of modern art

No. 6 (Violet, Green, and Red) by Mark Rothko, 1951. Oil Painting.

Modernism began amid society experiencing significant social and intellectual change in the mid to late 19th century and early twentieth century. The age of scientific exploration had opened up the Amazon, Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific. Flora and fauna Western minds could hardly imagine had scientists rethinking their ideas about nature and its origins. Scientific discoveries such as the atom and then electrons opened up our ideas about the solidity of existence.

Exposure to societies such as India, China, and Japan to the West revealed different approaches to spirituality. The disruption of slavery in Britain and America challenged the idea of white superiority and its presumed rights. The discovery and implementation of electricity and the radio unhinged power and communication from obvious material sources. Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon the need for authentic mystical experience, instead of the dry dogmatic practices of a Christianity that had become a cultural construct without soul. The soul itself was opened to scrutiny by the pioneers of psychology Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung.

the spirituality of modern art

Hilma af Klint, Group IX/SUW, The Swan (Svanen), No. 9, 1915. From The SUW/UW Series, 1915. Oil on canvas, 58 7/8 x 58 11/16 inches (149.5 x 149 cm). The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm, HaK 157

All these changes happened during a time when Christianity was still the default narrative of the West. Scientists and thinkers such as Darwin and Emerson, were still deeply committed to Christian theism even as their writings encouraged questions about established religion. Yet rejection of Christian assumptions was also strong. Thinkers such as Nietzsche, and Marx, outright called for a rejection of religion, even as they in reality were rejecting their upper-class nominalism that had been wedded to a rigid class system.

Then consider that the Twentieth century was the most violent period in the history of the world. It is in this context of tremendous discovery, change, and violence that modern art emerged. Considering the times in which Modernist works were made, would we not expect to find art that honestly portrayed tragedy, destruction, and existential confusion, along with curiosity, experimentation, and new ways of perceiving the world? So much art has been made in the last one hundred years, yet culturally many people including Christians are pining for a culture more typical of the Victorian era.

the spirituality of modern art

Improvisation 29 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1917. Oil painting.

Modernism Began With Impressionists

We don’t think of Impressionists who departed from the aesthetics of the Victorian era as modern now, but Modernism began with the Impressionists. Their paintings are a result of artists being fascinated with the new science of light. New science also meant paint was put into tubes which made plein air painting practical. Breakthroughs in chemistry meant new vibrant colours were available to artists. Impressionists were roundly despised when they first began to exhibit, yet not one Christian would consider a Monet scandalous today. Van Gogh who is possibly the world’s favourite artist was met with incredulity while he was alive, and now his paintings are worth millions.

It was from the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that the Modern art of the twentieth century emerged. Look closely at a section of Monet’s Water Lilies and you will see an abstract painting. Feel the emotional power of van Gogh’s, Starry Night and we can see where Expressionism emerged.

Another movement also had its origins in the late 19th century, Christian Fundamentalism. This movement was a direct reaction to Modernism. Today I hear the terms ‘Modernism’ and ‘Post Modernism’ used as shorthand for ‘enemy of Christianity’, and ‘society’s sickness.’ Yet what is being questioned by modern thinkers and artists is a Christianity that has reduced itself into a social construct that rejects the world, even while it says it believes in Jesus who loves the world; it finds its identity not in love but in being the opposite of what it considers ‘liberal,’ immoral, contemporary, socialist, scientific and experimental.

the spirituality of modern art

Forgetful Angel by Paul Klee, 1939. Pencil on paper.

How is it that many Christians are still rejecting modernist and contemporary art?

Christians ought to be cautious about a type of religion that ignores science, rejects art, and sets itself up with the world as its enemy. Our call as disciples is to be in the world and not of it. That doesn’t mean we are cut off from our society; it means that we engage with our society, and approach it with love and care and justice, not as an enemy. Ironically, Christians have absorbed so much that has emerged through Modernism- the car, medicine, psychology, music, technology, TV, radio, Wi-Fi, the internet, x-rays, and radiation treatment for cancer. How is it that many Christians are still rejecting modernist and contemporary art?

Has the Church rejected the wisdom of the artist?

I believe that we remain under the influence of Christianity which has rejected the wisdom of the artist. The Reformation saw the destruction of monasteries which along with serving the poor and the sick, nurtured contemplative spirituality and artistic gifts for the community. Stained glass windows in churches were smashed, and statues of the Madonna and saints were beheaded. England experienced the greatest destruction of art in history. The Netherlands lost 90% of its art. The rejection of the artistic contribution to Christianity occurred on a grand scale during the Reformation and we today are trying to be artists within a religion that has evolved without the creative gifts of the artist. One of the gifts and abilities of the artist is to integrate spiritual teaching for the community so that it is relevant to the times in which they live.

the spirituality of modern art

From the Lake No. 1 by Georgia O’Keefe, 1924. Watercolour painting. 

Christianity is not being rejected because people no longer want God, but because it is no longer based on Jesus’s teachings and contemporary life. How can a religion that rejected its contemplative and artistic roots nourish the need of people for spiritual wisdom and renewal? For over 500 years church has been growing away from the creative wisdom of artists and, therefore away from being integrated into the lives of everyday people. Not only that, how can a religion that has rejected its creative and contemplative roots expect to survive? Thankfully the Christian contemplative tradition has found its way back to Christianity and hopefully, it seems art is making its voice known again.

Searching For Meaning

If, as many of us have noticed, modern artists were marginalized or negated by church circles, how was God going to speak something new through artists if not through those who were seeking spirit and truth outside of prescribed religious parameters? A search for meaning, and God is a ‘becoming’ not a definitive choice for some people. I choose to see where God is working in an artist’s life as they are, not as they should or could be. That many were making art about spiritual and religious questions and truths is amazing considering how alienated from conventional religion they were (and many contemporary artists still are.) But perhaps they were met by a Christianity that was not open to questions or the new.

Today, many Christians including those moving through ‘deconstruction’ are asking the same questions that modern artists, writers, theologians, and philosophers were asking more than 100 years ago (and since.) I would like to look at some of these artists who were pioneers in searching for something beyond the nominal, or militant Christianity of their day. Not a few of them found hope through Christian spirituality. I hope the work and thoughts of these artists might illuminate our own questions.

the spirituality of modern art

Star Gazer by Agnes Pelton, 1929. Oil on canvas. Collection of Susan and Whitney Ganz.

The Artist Stereotype Does Not Apply

I look at the lives of many artists and see how the stereotype of what we imagine an artist to be does not apply. Many artists are seeking to live authentic lives Some have experienced lives of such brokenness one can only wonder at how beauty and truth emerged through their art. Yet I remember the words of St. Paul: We have this treasure in earthen vessels. The cracks are “how the light gets in,” says Leonard Cohen.

As we learn about these artists, let us think about how it might have been if their doubts and seeking, their longings and hurts were met by a Christianity vast and generous enough to listen to a modern artist’s voice- I can’t help but feel that if it had, perhaps Christianity today would be open and gracious for many others. I see in much modern art a search for spirit and truth, and so I have hope and believe these artists too are ones whom Jesus says in the ‘last days’ God is looking for. (John 4: 23,24.)

Cornelia van Voorst is a visual artist and theopoetic practitioner with a studio practice in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her recent work honours stories of endurance and compassion in the face of both personal and collective adversity.  Living with a complex form of PTSD influences van Voorst’s engagement with intergenerational trauma. Her work is an empathetic integration of the personal with the historical that resonates within our contemporary context.