FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE PART 110 A look at the BEATLES as featured in 7th episode of Francis Schaeffer film HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE? Part H The History of Fragmentation in Art and Music leading up to the Beatles! (Artist featured today is Robert Wagner)

Above is John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Christmas card to Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Do you see the contrast between these 2 Beatles songs? One has the fragmented message brought to us by pessimistic modern man and the other an unified message filled with resolution.  

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I know that John Lennon and Paul knew Karlheinz Stockhausen and that he was put on the cover of SGT PEP. Francis Schaeffer noted that during the centuries philosophers have embraced the idea that we are the result of chance and there is no way to get meaning or values. Yet man cries out for meaning and love. I think we can see that in the volume of LOVE SONGS that the Beatles put out.

Olivier Messiaen having a laugh with Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Stockhausen on cover of SGT PEPPER’s

In IN

In Episode 8 THE AGE OF FRAGMENTATION  Francis Schaeffer commented concerning modern art:

I want you to understand that I am not saying that gentleness and humanness is not present in modern art, but as the techniques of modern art advanced, humanity was increasingly fragmented–as we shall see, for example, with Marcel Duchamp The artists carried the idea of a fragmented reality onto the canvas. But at the same time being sensitive men, the artists realized where this fragmented reality was taking man, that is, to the absurdity of all things. ….The opposite of fragmentation would be unity, and the old philosophic thinkers thought they could bring forth this unity from  the humanist base and then they gave this (hope) up. 

The man who perhaps most clearly and consciously showed this understanding of the resulting absurdity fo all things was Marcel Duchamp (1887-1969). He carried the concept of fragmentation further in Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), one version of which is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art–a painting in which the human disappeared completely. The chance and fragmented concept of what is led to the devaluation and absurdity of all things. All one was left with was a fragmented view of a life which is absurd in all its parts. Duchamp realized that the absurdity of all things includes the absurdity of art itself. His “ready-mades” were any object near at hand, which he simply signed. It could be a bicycle wheel or a urinal. Thus art itself was declared absurd.

Francis Schaeffer in his book HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE? noted on pages 200-203:

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is perhaps the clearest example in the United States of painting deliberately in order to make the statements that all is chance. He placed canvases horizontally on the floor and dripped paint on them from suspended cans swinging over them. Thus, his paintings were a product of chance. But wait a minute! Is there not an order in the lines of paint on his canvases? Yes, because it was not really chance shaping his canvases! The universe is not a random universe; it has order. Therefore, as the dripping paint from the swinging cans moved over the canvases, the lines of paint were following the order of the universe itself. The universe is not what these painters said it is.

Image caption Pollock, seen here in 1945, was renowned for his style of drip or splatter painting

The third way the idea spread was through music. This came about first in classical music, though later many of the same elements came into popular music, such as rock. In classical music two streams are involved: the German and the French.

The first shift in German music came with the last Quartets of Beethoven, composed in 1825 and 1826. These certainly were not what we would call “modern,” but they were a shift from the music prior to them. Leonard Bernstein (1918-) speaks of Beethoven as the “new artist–the artist as priest and prophet.” Joseph Machlis (1906-) says in INTRODUCTION TO COMTEMPORARY MUSIC (1961), “Schoenberg took his point of departure from the final Quartets of Beethoven.” And Stravinsky said, “These Quartets are my highest articles of musical belief (which is a longer word for love, whatever else), as indispensable to the ways and meaning of art, as a musician of my era thinks of art and has to learn it, as temperature is to life.”

Beethoven was followed by Wagner (1813-1883); then came Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Leonard Bernstein in the NORTON LECTURES at Harvard University in 1973 says of Mahler and especially Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, “Ours is the century of death and Mahler is its musical prophet…If Mahler knew this (personal death, death of tonality, and the death of culture as it had been) and his message is so clear, how do we knowing it too, manage to survive? Why are we still here, struggling to go on? We are now face to face with the truly ultimate ambiguity of all…We learn to accept our mortality; yet we persist in our search for immortality…All this ultimate ambiguity is to be heard in the finale of Mahler’s Ninth.” Notice how closely this parallels Nietzsche’s poem on page 193. (Oh Man! Take heed, of what the dark midnight says: I slept, I slept–from deep dreams I awoke: The world is deep–and more profound than day would have thought. Profound in her pain–Pleasure–more profound than pain of heart, Woe speaks; pass on. But all pleasure seeks eternity–a deep and profound eternity.) This is modern man’s position. He has come to a position of the death of man in his own mind, but he cannot live with it, for it does not describe what he is.

 

Photograph:Arnold Schoenberg.

Leonard Bernstein pictured in 1946

Then came Schoenberg (1874-1951), and with him we are into the music which was a vehicle for modern thought. Schoenberg totally rejected the past tradition in music and invented the “12 tone row.” This was “modern” in that there was perpetual variation with NO RESOLUTION. This stands in sharp contrast to Bach who, on his biblical base, had much diversity but always resolution. Bach’s music had resolution because as a Christian he believed that there will be resolution both for eah individual life and for history. As the music which came out of the biblical teaching of the Reformation was shaped by that world-view, so the world-view of modern man shapes modern music.

Among Schoenberg’s pupils were Allen Berg (1885-1935), Anton Webern (1883-1945), and John Cage (1912-). Each of these carried on this line of nonresolution in his own way. Donald Jay Grout (1902-) in A HISTORY OF WESTERN MUSIC speaks of Schoenberg’s and Berg’s subject matter in the modern world: “…isolated, helpless in the grip of forces he does not understand, prey to inner conflict, tension, anxiety and fear.” One can understand that a music of nonresolution is a fitting expression of the place to which modern man has come.

In INTRODUCTION TO CONTEMPORARY MUSIC Joseph Machlis says of Webern that his way of placing the weightier sounds on the offbeat and perpetually varying the rhythmic phrase imparts to his music its indefinable quality of “hovering suspension.” Machlis adds that Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-), and the German Cologne school in general, take up from Webern with the formation of electronic  music which “generates, transforms and manipulates sounds electronically.” Stockhausen produced the first published score of electronic music in his ELECTRONIC STUDIES. A part of his concern was with the element of chance in composition. As we shall see, this ties into the work of John Cage, whom we will study in more detail below. But first let us look at the French stream.

karlheinz stockhausen GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE

Stockhausen Interview

The French shift began with Claude Debussy (1862-1918). His direction was not so much that of nonresolution but of FRAGMENTATION. Many of us enjoy and admire much of Debussy’s music, but he opened the door to FRAGMENTATION in music and has influenced most of the composers since, not only in classical music but in popular music and rock as well. Even the music which is one of the glories of America–black jazz and black spirituals–was gradually infiltrated.

It is worth reemphasizing that this FRAGMENTATION in music is parallel to the FRAGMENTATION which occurred in painting. An again let us say that these were not just changes of technique; they expressed a world-view and became a vehicle for carrying that world-view to masses of people which the bare philosophic writings never would have touched.

John Cage provides perhaps the clearest example of what is involved in the shift of music. Cage believed the universe is a universe of chance. He tried carrying this out with great consistency. For example, at times he flipped coins to decide what the music should be. At other times he erected a machine that led an orchestra by chance motions so that the orchestra would not know what was coming next. Thus there was no order. Or again, he placed two conductors leading the same orchestra, separated from each other by a partition, so that what resulted was utter confusion. There is a close tie-in again to painting; in 1947 Cage made a composition he called MUSIC FOR MARCEL DUCHAMP. But the sound produced by his music was composed only of silence (interrupted only by random environmental sounds), but as soon as he used his chance methods sheer noise was the outcome.

But Cage also showed that one cannot live on such a base, that the chance concept of the universe does not fit the universe as it is. Cage is an expert in mycology, the science of mushrooms. And he himself said, “I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operation, I would die shortly.” Mushroom picking must be carefully discriminative. His theory of the universe does not fit the universe that exists.

All of this music by chance, which results in noise, makes a strange contrast to the airplanes sitting in our airports or slicing through our skies. An airplane is carefully formed; it is orderly (and many would also think it beautiful). This is in sharp contrast to the intellectualized art which states that the universe is chance. Why is the airplane carefully formed and orderly, and what Cage produced utter noise? Simply because an airplane must fit the orderly flow lines of the universe if it is to fly!

The following article mentions the influence John Cage had on two Beatles’ songs:

John Cage’s reach extended well beyond experimental music 

He influenced the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon and artists in several other genres.

September 02, 2012|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
Brian Eno, left, and John Cage in London, circa 1982.
Brian Eno, left, and John Cage in London, circa 1982. (Michael Putland, Getty…)

John Cage’s ideas have long inspired artists inside and outside the experimental music subculture. Besides new-music figures considered disciples or associates — Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and David Tudor, for example — he had an effect on the most famous rock band of all time: Paul McCartney became interested in Cage in 1966, and the chaotic orchestration of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is thought to have derived from Cage’s ideas, as had several of John Lennon’s songs during the band’s last years, including “Revolution 9,” with its debt to Cage’s notions of randomness.

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Francis Schaeffer went on to write:

Sir Archibald Russel (1905-) was the British designer for the Concorde airliner. In a NEWSWEEK: European Edition interview (February 16, 1976) he was asked : “Many people find that the Concorde is a work of art in its design. Did you consider its aesthetic appearance when you were designing it?” His answer was, “When one designs an airplane, he must stay as close as possible to the laws of nature. You are really playing with the laws of nature and trying not to offend them. It so happens that our ideas of beauty are those of nature. That’s why I doubt that the Russian supersonic airplane is a crib of ours. The Russians have the same basic phenomena imposed on them by nature as we do.”

Cage’s music and the world-view for which it is the vehicle do not fit the universe that is. Someone might here bring in Einstein, Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty and quantum, but we have considered them on page 162, and so will not repeat the discussion here. The universe is not what Cage in his music and Pollock in his painting say it is. And we must add that Cage’s music does not fit what people are, either. It has had to become increasingly spectacular to keep interest; for example, a nude cellist has played Cage’s music under water.

Francis Schaeffer in the film Age of Fragmentation notes: 

What a contrast to Bach who had much diversity but always resolution. Bach as a Christian believed there was resolution for the individual and for history. 

As the music that came out of the Biblical teaching of the reformation was influenced by that worldview so the worldview of modern man shapes modern music. Is this art really art? Is it not rather a bare philosophic, intellectual statement, separated from the fullness of who people are and the fullness of what the universe is? The more it tends to be only an intellectual statement, rather than a work of art, the more it becomes anti-art. 

The Best of Bach

 

 

Paul McCartney -Little Rock, Arkansas -2016- And I Love Her

Paul McCartney – MICHELLE – HDTV-FullHD

The Beatles – The Long and Winding Road (LIVE – 90´s)

Paul McCartney (George Harrinson, The Beatles – Something (Live)

Beatles If I Fell, BBC Version, excellent audio quality

 

The drug culture and the mentality that went with it had it’s own vehicle that crossed the frontiers of the world which were otherwise almost impassible by other means of communication. This record,  Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, became the rallying cry for young people throughout the world. It expressed the essence of their lives, thoughts and their feelings. to life in the answer of reason.

Francis Schaeffer below is holding the album Beatles’ album SGT PEP in the film series HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE? episode 7 “The Age of Non-Reason” in which he discusses the Beatles’ 1960’s generation and their search for meanings and values!

 

Roger Wagner is the featured artist today

Marching to an Antique Drum? – Contemporary Christian Art – Roger Wagner

Published on May 4, 2012

Artist Roger Wagner offers an overview of his own career and perspectives on the pressures faced by a modern Christian artist. He details the influence of artists such as Giorgio de Chirico and TS Eliot on his work, as well as his resistance to what Robert Hughes has called “institutional modernism”.

This talk was a part of the Gresham College conference, ‘Thinking Theologically about Modern Art’. The full conference can be accessed on the Gresham College website:
http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and…

Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues today with all of our five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from our website.
http://www.gresham.ac.uk

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The Rev’d John Collins

Oil on board

 

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Roger Wagner Artist Profile

Roger Wagner

Born in 1957, Roger Wagner read English at Oxford University before studying at the Royal Academy School of Art. He has been represented in London since 1985 by Anthony Mould Ltd exhibiting there many times. Other one man shows include retrospectives at the Ashmolean Museum in 1994 and 2010. He has produced several books of illustrated poems and translations: Fire Sonnets (1984), In a Strange Land (1988), A Silent Voice (1997), Out of the Whirlwind (1997). ), The Book of Praises – a translation of the psalms Book One(1994), Book Two (2008), Book Three (2013). His major work Menorah was acquired by the Ashmolean Museum in 2010 and hangs in St Giles Church Oxford. His first stained glass window was installed in St Mary’s Iffley in 2012 and will be joined later this year by a font cover designed in collaboration with Nicholas Mynheer. He recently painted the first portrait of Archbishop Justin Welby which was installed earlier this year in Auckland Castle.

 

Writings by Roger Wagner
1984 Fire Sonnets, The Besalel Press
1988 In a Strange Land, The Besalel Press
1994 The Book of Praises: A Translation of the Psalms, The Besalel Press
1996 A Silent Voice, The Besalel Press
1993 Out of the Whirlwind, Solway
2006 Art and Faith, in Public Life and the Place of the Church, Ashgate
2008 The Book of Praises:A Translation of the Psalms (Book Two), The Besalel Press

2013 The Book of Praises:A Translation of the Psalms (Book Three), The Besalel Press

Group Exhibitions
1981 Royal Academy Diploma show
1989-1990 New Icons Mead Gallery University of Warwick, Royal Albert Museum Exeter, Usher Gallery Lincoln
1991 Images of Christ Albermarle Gallery London
1993 Images of Christ Northampton Gallery and St Paul’s Cathedral
1994 The NatWest Collection The Royal Society of Arts
1995 The NatWest Collection The Royal Academy
1999 Landscape and Imagination The Prince of Wales Architectural Institute
1999-2000 The Light of the WorldThe Edinburgh City Art Gallery
1999 Europe Art et Passages Paris-
2000 The Salutation Oxford
2001 Help the Hospices Auction Thomas Gibson Fine Art and Sothebys
2001 Blake’s Heaven Scolar Fine Art
2002 Roads to Damascus The Brewhouse Gallery Eton College
2004 Presence St Paul’s Cathedral
2004 Loughborough University
2004 The North Light Gallery
2004 The Ark-T Centre
2005 St Giles Church Oxford
2006 Queen’s College Oxford
2007 Queen’s College Oxford
2007 Blake’s House London
2008 Exeter College Oxford
2009 Queen’s College Oxford

2010 Lent Concerts Queens College Oxford

2011 Insights into British Art TodayKunstammlungen das Bistums, Regensburg

2012 The Ocean in a Tree Snape Maltings

2014 Lent Concerts Queens College Oxford

 

 

Films and Broadcasts about Roger Wagner

1994 The Heart of the Matter ‘Blasphemy” Joan Bakewell

2012 The One Show Sister Wendy Beckett 12 December

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The Roger Wagner Website.

Born in 1957, Roger Wagner read English at Lincoln College Oxford before studying under Peter Greenham at the Royal Academy School of Art.

Contemporary Christian Art – The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth

Published on Apr 10, 2012

Contrary to much opinion, the current scene of faith-related art is very much alive. There are new commissions for churches and cathedrals, a number of artists pursue their work on the basis of a deeply convinced faith, and other artists often resonate with traditional Christian themes, albeit in a highly untraditional way. The challenge for the artist, stated in the introduction to the course of lectures above, is still very much there: how to retain artistic integrity whilst doing justice to received themes.

This lecture is part of Lord Harries’ series on ‘Christian Faith and Modern Art’. The last century has seen changes in artistic style that have been both rapid and radical. This has presented a particular problem to artists who have wished to express Christian themes.

The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:
http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and…

Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues today with all of our five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from our website.
http://www.gresham.ac.uk

_________________________

Roger Wagner Artist Profile

Roger Wagner

Born in 1957, Roger Wagner read English at Oxford University before studying at the Royal Academy School of Art. He has been represented in London since 1985 by Anthony Mould Ltd exhibiting there many times. Other one man shows include retrospectives at the Ashmolean Museum in 1994 and 2010. He has produced several books of illustrated poems and translations: Fire Sonnets (1984), In a Strange Land (1988), A Silent Voice (1997), Out of the Whirlwind (1997). ), The Book of Praises – a translation of the psalms Book One(1994) Book Two (2008). His major work Menorah was acquired by the Ashmolean Museum in 2010 and hangs in St Giles Church Oxford. His new stained glass window was installed in St Mary’s Iffley in 2012. His most recent exhibition ‘The ocean in a tree’ (with Mark Cazalet) was held at the Snape Maltings Concert Gallery at the end of last year, and this year he will be exhibiting again in London at the end of April.

Artist of the Month: August 2000

Roger Wagner

In Roger Wagner’s work, several strands merge: the Renaissance, the pastoral, English landscape and poetry, and Christian biblical meditation. Wagner’s paintings, for all their vigor of composition, often possess that sense of stillness at the center of the storm, that idea of hope in the face of despair. Wagner is not afraid to grapple with issues of judgment and suffering, but his theology is based on the all-sufficient love of God.

Rupert Martin wrote extensively about Roger Wagner’s visionary landscapes in Image #10. Click here to read that story in full. Martin’s story contained five reproductions of the artist’s work, three of which can be found below. Wagner’s painting, The Harvest Is the End of the World and the Reapers Are Angels, shown to the right, is one of the most popular to appear in our pages.

Current Projects

Ash Wesnesday, 1982. Oil on canvas. 19 x 23 inches. Private collection.

“My current projects divide into three categories: the purely visual, those where the visual and the literary intersect, and the purely literary. Projects under the first heading include Roads to Damascus: a series of paintings arising out of a recent trip to Syria that focus on the theme of Paul and Ananias. The second category includes producing the second book of my illustrated translation of the psalms and getting together a collected edition of my illustrated poems. In the thrid category is a book I am writing in collaboration with a professor of physics at Oxford with the working subtitle: An Illustrated Theology of Science.”

Biography

Roger Wagner was born in London in 1957, read English at Lincoln College Oxford 1975-78, and studied under Peter Greenham at The Royal Academy School of Art, 1978-81. His paintings have been shown in many solo and group exhibitions and are part of the NatWest Collection London, The Takeover Panel City of London, The Ashmolean Museum Oxford, and The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge.

Menorah 1993. Oil on canvas. 61 x 76 inches. Collection of the artist.

As well, his work has appeared in several publications including Fire Sonnets, 1984; In a Strange Land, 1988; The Book of Praises (a translation of the psalms), 1994; A Silent Voice, 1997; and Out of The Whirlwind, 1997. Most of these are available from The Besalel Press. The Book of Praises, Wagner’s illustrated translation of the first book of psalms, and Out of the Whirlwind, illustrations to the book of Job are both handbound (hence their expense). The former is $75, 50 GBP,and the latter is $105, 70 GBP. Other books are Fire Sonnets ($15, 10 GBP) and A Silent Voice ($96 GBP).

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Roger Wagner, 1957

Ash Wednesday, 1982

Roger Wagner read English at Oxford, where he obtained a First, then studied art at the RoyalAcademy. His work is totally unlike any other modern artist working on Christian themes, being on the one hand painstakingly old fashioned in its sheer artistic skill-he can spend a year or more on a painting- and surrealistically modern, in its mythopoeic powers. It is interesting that of modern painters the biggest influence has been de Chirico, even though he does not usually respond to surrealism. He saw an exhibition of his in Venice when he was at school and it affected him deeply. The colour, energy and empty spaces gave a sense of strangeness that made him see the poetry in painting. Whilst he admires Picasso’s talent and virtuosity, the only painting to which he responds is Guernico, which he regards as a great work. As far as modern painters depicting Christian themes, he tends to admire individual works rather than a whole oeuvre. For example, Graham Sutherland’s early crucifixions rather than his work in Coventry Cathedral.[1]

 

In addition to his painting Wagner is both a poet and someone who has learned Hebrew, and a major feature of his output is his fresh translation of the Psalms published in limited editions with his own woodcuts. Although the emphasis of his work is sometimes on the visual and sometimes on the literary, in fact they seem to interact all the time. Take for example Ash Wednesday, 1982, which both has a surrealistic feel and immediately brings to mind the opening lines the poem of that name by T.S. Eliot.

 

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper- tree

In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety

On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained

In the hollow round of my skull. And God said

Shall these bones live? Shall these

Bones live?

 

 

We can see from this that Roger, not surprisingly, has a highly visual literary imagination. It is not surprising therefore that he also reads, and therefore paints, the biblical stories in a highly visual way, which is at once old fashioned and surreal for they are always set in a contemporary setting, and have a contemporary meaning, as we see in Walking on Water, 1995. Roger is also an accomplished poet, and sometimes he has written a poem to go with a painting.

 

‘Lord if it is you’ Peter replied
‘tell me to come to you on the water.’
‘Come’ he said. Matthew 6v27

To step out of ourselves on to that sea
Forsaking every safety that we know
Becoming for one moment wholly free
That in that moment endless trust may grow.
To step into that love which calls us out
From all evasions of one central choice
Besieged by winds of fear and waves of doubt
Yet summoned by that everlasting voice.
To walk on water in astonished joy
Towards those outstretched arms which draw us near,
Then caught by winds which threaten to destroy
We sink into the waters of our fear.
Yet underneath all fears and false alarms
Are sinking, held, by everlasting arms.

Walking on Water ll
When it is pointed out that his method of painting biblical scenes against a contemporary background is what all the great artists in the past have done, he said that he had never been drawn to be an archaeological painter, trying to imagine the past. Nor was it simply a question of making recreating the scene. Rather, it was more a question of seeing the contemporary burgeoning with a biblical element. Rembrandt is an example here, for you do not know if the scene is biblical or contemporary. It is this which gives depth and meaning to the painting. He mentions Tobias Jones, who when he paints a wall leaves the impression that there is something mysterious and important behind it. Here we have a clear contemporary setting.

Oak Tree, 1995
Wagner does many studies of Poplar’s on Port Meadow in Oxford which, as his poem on one of them indicates, he sees in mystical terms.

He makes winds his angels
His servants flames of fire Psalm 104v4

Who hears the ocean roaring in a tree
That rustles like a thousand angels wings
And feels the rising wind he cannot see,
Is seeing to the burning heart of things.
For as a book has pages stamped with ink
While yet some meaning rustles all its leaves,
So all things are as words that forge a link
Between the writer and the one who reads.
And that exulting love which made all things
Whose laughter is the ocean in a tree
that rustles like a thousand angels’ wings
Stirred by a wind no human eye can see,
Breathes love into a world he would inspire
In winds that flame with Pentecostal fire.

 

There is a River

He has done a series on Job, and also as mentioned, has produced a series of books on the Psalms. The strong biblical images occasionally with a Renaissance feel as here, entered his being via Italian Renaissance paintings that hung on the walls of his parent’s home-part of the collection of his uncle, Henry Wagner, who donated many of them to the National Gallery.

 

This is an illustration of for his translation of Psalm 46

 

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
Though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Selah Come and see the works of the LORD,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Perhaps the first major painting of Wagner to catch the eye was The Harvest is the end of the World; and the reapers are angels. 1989, Matthew 13, 39. There is no better comment on it again than the poem he himself wrote.

I saw the cherubim one summer’s night
Reaping it seemed a field of endless wheat.
I heard their voices through the fading light
Wild, strange and yet intolerably sweet.
The hour such beauty first was born on earth
The dawn of judgement had that hour begun
For some would not endure love’s second birth
Preferring their own darkness to that sun.
And still love’s sun must rise upon our night
For nothing can be hidden from its heat;
And in that summer evening’s fading light
I saw his angels gather in the wheat:
Like beaten gold their beauty smote the air
And tongues of flame were streaming in their hair.

[1] Interview with the author.

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Close up of Angel

As we might expect Roger Wagner has been acutely aware of the challenge presented by modern art to artists who want to explore Christian themes and has written thoughtfully about it.[1] But he did not deliberately set out to meet that challenge, rather he refers to Kenneth Clark saying that when he read something he had written earlier he recognised his own voice. He says his own style and subject matter emerged out of himself. He first recognised his own voice in his angels reaping, having been dissatisfied with the first attempt as well as the first attempt at the Menorah, where he could see what he was trying to do but had not done it. In the later version he said he had achieved what he had set out to do. Asked about its contrariness compared to the current zeitgeist, he says he has never taken the slightest notice of the zeitgeist. He likes paintings which convey a sense of a country where he is not quite sure where he is.

 

Menorah, 1983, Ashmolean, hanging in St Giles, Oxford

A commentary on this painting can be found in The Passion in Art[2] but here are Roger’s own words on it. The Menorah is the seven branched candlestick ‘with cups made like almond-blossoms …the whole of it one beaten work of pure gold’, which in the Book of Exodus Moses is instructed to place in the Tabernacle in front of the Holy of Holies: the place where God’s presence dwells with his people. The Menorah thus becomes a kind of visible symbol of God’s invisible presence. When the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed the Menorah was among the treasures carted off to Rome, and a depiction of it can be seen among the reliefs on the arch of Titus. Throughout the Bible though the Menorah also appears in prophetic dreams and visions, and its last mention, in the New Testament, comes in the Book of Revelation where Jesus is seen walking in the midst of the seven candlesticks ‘his hair white as wool, white as snow, and his eyes as a flame of fire’.

 

When I first saw Didcot power station through the window of a train from Oxford to Paddington, the smoke belching from the central chimney reminded me more of a crematorium than a symbol of God’s presence. And yet having said that, the astonishing sky behind the towers looked like the arch of some great cathedral, while something in the scale of the cooling towers themselves, with the light moving across them and the steam slowly, elegiacally, drifting away, created the impression that they were somehow the backdrop of a great religious drama. Both these ideas remained in my mind for many years, and developed in a series of paintings and sketches. On the one hand the crematorium-like chimney and the inhuman scale of the buildings brought associations with the industrial genocide of the twentieth century and the blank inhumanity of so much in human existence while on the other hand within the strange beauty of the scene was the insistent sense of some great redemptive moment. It wasn’t until I realised that the towers, from the angle I had seen them, had lined up to form the shape of the Menorah, that I realised how these two impressions could be united, and realised that the drama to which they were the backdrop must be the drama of the crucifixion. In no other religious event is the absence of God so closely linked with his presence, or the tragedy of human life so intimately linked with its redemption. The extraordinary Jewish prophecies which see in the mysterious servant of the Lord, a figure apparently ‘smitten by God and afflicted’ but in reality ‘pierced for our transgressions’, say of him ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’. Likewise the disciples of Jesus who see the crucifixion as the fulfilment of these prophecies, describe him both as a man crying out ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, and as one who, even before his birth was named by the angel as ‘Immanuel, that is “God with us” ’.

 

The Road to Emmaus

Of late there seems to have been an emphasis in his paintings on the fact that Christianity is essentially a hidden affair. Here is the road, but we have to look hard to find the supper room.

 

Abraham and the Angels, 1995

The story in Genesis of Abraham offering hospitality to three strangers and discovering they were angels was taken by the church from an early age as a sign of the Trinity, and resulted for example in the wonderful Icon on this theme by Andrei Rublev in the 14th century. But the Abraham story is followed by the destruction of the cities of the plain, so here Wagner has set the meal against the background of Sizewell Nuclear Plant. Asked about the way he showed the biblical image as almost hidden against the background, he says that this is the way it was. He pointed out that Breughal did the same, though he himself had done this independently.

 

Abraham and the Angels, 2002

After a trip to Syria some years later a number of his painting were given a Syrian background, and the one here features the meal in close up, reflecting the hospitality of the Bedouin, against the background of a cement factory indicating the destruction of Sodom and Gomorah.

[1] Roger Wagner, “Art and Faith” in Public Life and the Place of the Church: Reflections to honour the Bishop of Oxford, ed. Michael Brierly, Ashgate, 2006, p.133 but see the whole chapter

[2] Richard Harries, The Passion in Art, Ashgate, 2004, p.134ff

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