15 JANUARY 2005, Page 39

Essential truths

Angela Summerfield

Seeing is Believing: Faith in the Tate Collection Tate Liverpool, until 2 May This is a brave and thoughtful exhibition, for it addresses the needs both of a multifaith city, Liverpool, and an exhibition programme reliant on the collection resources of Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Representatives of several religions were given open access to the Tates’ collections. Part of the selection process acknowledged the dominant Christian– Judaic nature of these collections, both in content and in the biography of artists. An interesting departure point for those involved, therefore, became the examination of and lively discussion about the merits of 20thand 21st-century abstract and non-representational art. The inclusion of this genre was crucial in presenting the Islamic faith and acknowledging its prohibition on images.

While the exhibition is accompanied by explanatory panels devoted to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, its layout presents both challenging and spiritually restorative thematic interfaith groupings. These refer to ideas of creation, contemplation, prayer, harmony and reflection, as shared aspects of the religions involved. Given this, the space that the art work and the spectator occupy takes on special significance; unfortunately, the inclusion of a disappointing video by Mark Wallinger serves only to disrupt an otherwise well-articulated display.

Short statements, either from the actual artist or from a member of the advisory group, accompany some of the works, and in doing so serve to remind us of the communality of experience, which is central to the exhibition; throughout 2004, Liverpool celebrated Faith in One City.

A dramatic point of departure on this spiritual journey is Anish Kapoor’s vibrantly coloured floor sculpture: ‘As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers’. Here the artist evokes Hinduism’s Festival of Holi (also known as the Festival of Colours), which takes place in India during March. Colour pigment is thrown as part of these public celebrations. Kapoor’s sculptural forms, heaps of red and yellow pigment, are suggestive of both the passage of time involved in this festival and of the clamour of spiritual fervour.

Christianity is explored through both figurative images of Christ, the Madonna and Saints, and in more abstract evocations of faith and spirituality. Artists such as Elisabeth Frink, Craigie Aitchison and Graham Sutherland evoke Christ’s crucifixion through their own pictorial vocabulary. In Frink’s plaster sculpture, ‘Crucifix for a Lutheran Church’, and in Aitchison’s large-scale oil painting, ‘Crucifixion 9’, there has been a paring-down and abstraction of traditional iconographic and expressive detail, such as the crown of thorns. Frink’s image is memorable for its etiolated body and limbs. Since 1958, Aitchison has pursued a lifelong engagement with the subject of the crucifixion; his father was a Presbyterian minister, and Aitchison has also acknowledged how his own study of Italian Renaissance Art served to reinforce the validity of modern art as a means of spiritual expression both personal and universal. His crucifixions, both in the intensity of colour and abstracted landscape forms (notably Scottish hills), focus on the essence of spiritual experience. Aitchison often favours optically dark backgrounds, but here we do not find the ecclesiastically associated colours green and purple disquieting. The figure of Christ and an inquisitive dog (one of Aitchison’s beloved Bedlington terriers) appear as forms sharply illuminated by a divine light within.

By sharp contrast, Graham Sutherland’s immediate post-war paintings of the crucifixion are redolent with the physical and psychological pain suffered and endured by so many. In 1944, Sutherland was commissioned to create his first painting of the crucifixion, for St Matthew’s Church, Northampton, by the far-sighted clerical patron of contemporary art, Walter Hussey; the Tate’s example relates to this commission. Sutherland’s interpretation draws pictorially on his earlier interest in the spiky hedgerow forms found in the Pembrokeshire landscape; his work as a war artist recording the scars of destruction wrought upon landscape; knowledge of the famous Grünewald altarpiece in Colmar; access to the images of concentration-camp victims; and a sense of guilt that he had survived in relative safety and comfort, as part of Lord Clark’s coterie of British artists. Predictably, Stanley Spencer is represented by the ever-popular picture, ‘St Francis and the Birds’, and through the homely, down-to-earth panels of the robing and disrobing of Christ; the latter, dated 1922, are the earliest works in the show.

More challenging works, through their simplicity, are the abstract paintings by Barnett Newman, which roughly predate his more famous ‘Stations of the Cross’. In such works, Newman is concerned with the self and how spiritual works can be created to function independently of conventional religious dogma and church settings. Shirazeh Houshiary’s recent pictures, ‘Shroud’ and ‘Veil’, also seek to stimulate debate within a contrary Western and secular world; while the series of blind embossed prints of mosques’ floor plans, by Langlands and Bell, capture the sense of a religious place; if only we had been allowed to explore these through the sense of touch!

There are roughly 30 artists represented here, and the exhibition organisers aim through its richness and diversity to attract new audiences to art. In having so contentious a subject as contemporary religious belief brought into the public art gallery, we are reminded of belief’s essential truths: trust, confidence and faith.