Art vs. the State: An Interview with Robert Priseman
Lucy Cox: Is making an artwork an act of faith?
Robert Priseman: If we look at western art historically, it would be easy to think so. The roots of European painting lie in the celebration of the Christian story. For hundreds of years, the Church and its patrons largely funded the production of art. This changed quite radically by the end of the 20th-century, with art shifting its primary focus from the Church to the individual’s experiences and relationship with the state.
To gain some sense of comparison, let us examine two works of art, made 500 years apart: the Mond Crucifixion by Raphael, completed in 1503, and Banksy’s 2003 stencil Rage, The Flower Thrower. The wool merchant Domenico Gavari commissioned Raphael to paint the Mond Crucifixion as the altarpiece for his burial chapel in the Church of St. Dominic in the small Italian city of Città di Castell. Gavari expected Raphael to transform the visual horror of the execution of Christ into a vision of beauty and majesty. The painting itself is dedicated to Saint Jerome, who tamed a lion by pulling a thorn from its paw, which in some small way reflects how Raphael removes the image of pain and presents a comforting portrayal of the Crucifixion. Saint Jerome kneels to our left; behind him stands the Virgin Mary; and opposite them, Mary Magdalen and Saint John the Baptist. In attendance, two angels catch Christ’s blood in chalices as it issues from his wounds. In the sky above, the Sun and the Moon appear as silent witnesses to one of the most famous events in history that took place just outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
The Mond Crucifixion is modelled in the classical tradition. The composition is arranged into a formal rhombus design that helps establish balance and order. Elsewhere the rich use of colour and atmospheric perspective in the landscape all contribute to present a scene that radiates a feeling of immense beauty. Renaissance artists like Raphael employed geometrical principles so that paintings would reflect the mathematical order observed in the stars’ movement. Using the golden section, the Fibonacci sequence and Euclidian geometry mirrors the divine order of Heaven upon the world and places human behaviour at the centre of a celestial symmetry.
Raphael leads our emotions to experience the scene as one of God’s grace enacted on human drama. Heavenly order triumphs over the chaos of feeling, where our own pain is removed, and death is finally defeated. By using beauty in painting to reframe capital punishment as salvation, the artist creates a metaphor of deliverance from sin and transforms despair into hope.
In 2003 the British artist Banksy painted Rage, The Flower Thrower, which became one of the most reproduced artworks globally. Created 500 years after Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion, it offers a very different kind of art. Painted almost entirely in black and white, the artwork portrays an angry young man, with his arms outstretched, wearing a baseball cap and a mask to hide his identity. He is poised, ready to throw an object. At first glance, we assume this object is either a brick or a Molotov cocktail because the artwork resembles a 20th-century newspaper image of a rioter. However, Banksy’s man does not hold a petrol bomb. Instead, he aims to throw a brightly coloured bouquet of flowers that indicate not a call for war but for peace. This meaning has been widely interpreted as a criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, perhaps connected to its location on the sidewall of a garage, on Ash Salon Street, in Beit Sahour, which lies to the east of Bethlehem on the road leaving Jerusalem.
It is generally believed that Beit Sahour is described in the Christian Bible (Luke Chapter 2:8-20) when an angel appeared to a group of shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus Christ. The grazing land where the shepherds lived, located behind the Ash Salon Street garage, now houses the Chapel of Shepherd’s Field. In many ways, it marks the physical location of the first announcement of Christ’s birth to a general population; as a result, this small community is 80% Christian. However, since the Six-Day War of 1967, Christians have lived under Israeli occupation; many were driven out of their homes due to subsequent court rulings that made Christian houses illegal and consequently subject to demolition.
Although this might lead many to commit acts of violence, Beit Sahour has become a symbol for peaceful resolution with the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between Peoples (PCR). Established in 1988, the non-profit and non-religious organisation operates in human rights to help stimulate dialogue between Palestinians and non-Palestinian people and enable peaceful solutions to the country’s nationalism issues.
In this broader context, Banksy’s painting seems to be purposefully placed. It presents support for liberal beliefs, which do not seek to condemn government but instead asks it to aspire to higher ethical principles. The man (the flower thrower) is a globalist who appears on his own as an individual yet is linked to others worldwide by an ideology of tolerance and the promotion of social inclusion.
LC: What, if anything, do the Mond Crucifixion and Rage, The Flower Thrower have in common?
RP: Aside from their geographical identification (the Mond Crucifixion is pictured outside the walls of Jerusalem), both present an image of a man with his arms outstretched as a direct result of an act of defiance against the state. For Raphael, the defiance is against the State of Rome and traditional Jewish teaching while Banksy resists social intolerance and policies of exclusion.
In contemporary Western politics, Christianity is generally regarded as representing a right-wing, conservative viewpoint. Rage, The Flower Thrower and other works produced by Banksy support social diversity, a core idea underpinned by left-wing liberal beliefs that promote globalist equality of all people before the law, regardless of wealth, class, religion, and sexual identity and orientation. Whilst Christianity represents faith and accepts inequality as a part of life we must bear, liberalism, which grew out of the Enlightenment, symbolises reason and equality for all. Both share similar iconography yet do so for different philosophical ends.
Raphael utilises beauty to soften the visual appearance of suffering and creates a calming sense of transcendence from pain, acknowledging the unpleasant sensation as a part of life whilst transforming it into a universal message of hope. Banksy, on the other hand, offers a rebellious cry against social injustice. He calls for an end to the sorrow acquired through an emotional identification with individuals’ angst and distress at the hands of the state and a desire to limit the extent of government power over the citizen.
LC: Can you elaborate a little further on Western painting’s evolution in the Church and how this morphed during the 20th-century?
RP: In the European tradition, we consider the Italian Renaissance as the high-water mark of creative achievement. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling perhaps represents its crowning glory alongside other great treasures such as The Last Supper by Leonardo and The Flagellation of Christ by Piero Della Francesca. These artworks and many others, rooted in icon painting, depict Biblical scenes.
Icon paintings began in the early days of Christianity when monks produced portraits of Jesus as devotional objects. According to Christian tradition, Saint Veronica, who today is known as the patron saint of photographers, made the first-ever portrait of Jesus. In the 14 Stations of the Cross, which describe the sufferings of Jesus on the day of his execution, the 6th Station recalls how a woman named Veronica offered Christ a cloth to wipe away the blood and sweat from his face. Christ accepted the offer, and when he returned the veil, the image of his face was captured on it, resulting in the relic becoming known as the Veil of Veronica. This apparent first portrait of Christ influenced icon painting thereafter.
Interestingly, no descriptions of Christ’s physical appearance feature in the Bible. The earliest images of him show a beautiful clean-shaven youth. After his death, Romans believed only someone who possessed good-looking features and charisma could attract a large following. Later, through artistic depiction, his image became that of the Man of Sorrowsshown with a crown of thorns, as painted by Albrecht Dürer (1493) and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1515).
Over time, his imagery changed again, pictured with a golden crown as King of the World. Perhaps the most established and settled-on image is Christ as Philosopher in which a bearded and long-haired Christ resembles ancient Greek thinkers. These iconographies show us that the presentation of art adapts to reflect the social interests of the time.
The origin of icons dates back to early Christian art when paintings included imagery of martyrs, first publicised after the Roman legalisation of Christianity, under Emperor Constantine, in 313 AD. Icons generally depict Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other saints with the head rendered in a stylised manner, surrounded by gold leaf to denote the subject’s sacred nature. This evolved into broader depictions of biblical scenes, such as the Annunciation and Crucifixion. The gold leaf is often pushed back into the frame, which allows space for landscape and other figures. During the Renaissance, portraits depicted kings, popes, and wealthy families as saints or participating in religious scenes alongside them. The genre further evolved into the traditions of history, portrait, landscape, and still-life painting, with the final abandonment of Christ altogether in Francis Bacon’s 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
LC: What are your thoughts on the relationship between art and the state?
RP: In presenting Crucifixion as salvation, Raphael uses painting as a metaphor of deliverance from sin, and by utilising concepts of beauty, manages to transform despair into hope. By the 19th and 20th centuries, this morphed into the depiction of realistic imagery, usually with a secular theme, such as figures executed in the name of the state, and increasingly the abandonment of beauty. This style still often includes the subject adopting a cruciform pose, representing universal human suffering and salvation. Examples include Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier, and Nick Ut’s 1972 Vietnam War photograph The Terror of War taken after a South Vietnamese Air Force napalm attack in Trang Bang. Looking at such pictures, we identify personally with the subjects’ distress. Their pain metaphorically becomes our pain; partly because of the way the images are composed. The main character becomes the core narrative around which all the other components revolve.
After considering the Mond Crucifixion for some time, I became interested in exploring how one might engage with the theme of execution in the 21st-century. Around the same time, I completed a set of paintings of empty hospital interiors. Struck by their similar appearance to American lethal injection facilities, in 2007, I painted Lethal Injection Gurney as part of a larger series titled No Human Way to Kill. It depicts the interior of the execution facility at The Walls in Huntsville, Texas [USA].
Lethal Injection Gurney presents us with an enclosed interior removed from daylight, nature and any reference to its geographical location. The beautiful turquoise wall colouring, soft fawn curtains, subdued lighting and the crisp white sheet stretched over a soft, thin mattress for the comfort of the condemned shows us that the hospital’s iconography is adopted deliberately. We observe that all life subject to treatment is handled without hierarchy. In a windowed room, a witness sits to the right-hand side; on the left, the two-way mirror behind which sit guards who administer the lethal injection observe the room without being seen. The overriding impression is one of a calm disconnection from reality that helps steer our feelings as far as possible from any sense of physical and emotional trauma connected to the execution. We observe that all life, subject to treatment, is handled without hierarchy. In a windowed room, a witness sits to the right-hand side; on the left, the two-way mirror behind which sit guards who administer the lethal injection observe the room without being seen. The overriding impression is one of a calm disconnection from reality that helps steer our feelings as far as possible from any sense of physical and emotional trauma connected to the execution. This scene is not for the benefit of the person put to death but for ours. It is us, the viewers, who should not be distressed by what we witness, a sense further enhanced by the knowledge that such events happen in private, behind closed doors.
It would appear, then, that our emotions are subject to external influences. Raphael’s presentation of suffering and death leaves us feeling a sense of tranquillity. And just as Raphael can guide our emotions, so too can the state.
LC: Are there parallels between being religious or having faith and being an artist?
RP: I think making art is an act of faith in its very broadest sense. Even if an artist doesn’t hold a religious belief, they desire to make something and release it into the world to create a new perspective for others. Realising an idea is in itself an act of faith. In Christian art, artists use beauty to transcend suffering. Liberalism encompasses the reality of human suffering at the hands of the state with no transcendent quality, focusing not on the notion of heaven but instead a humanist understanding of the world. This idea is underpinned by a call on the government to perhaps relieve human suffering through a principled statehood approach. Where Renaissance artists painted suffering and applied beauty to create transcendence and the redemption of heaven, late 19th-century liberal artists focused on the world’s material quality and explored the human intellect and inequality.
What makes Banksy’s Rage, The Flower Thrower so interesting is that it plants a man firmly in the world of human politics. Presented as urban graffiti, he is bleak, black and white, yet also holds a bouquet of colourful flowers. The colourful flowers present beauty as a universal bridge we can all cross together in unity and hope.
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Alastair Gordon, God Art: Signs of Faith in Contemporary Art (London: Morphe Arts, 2017)
Ana González Mozo, Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Rennaisance (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019)
Banksy, Wall and Piece (London: Century, 2005)
Beth Williamson, Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2004)
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (London: Atlantic Books, 2007)
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Oliver Stone, Chasing The Light: How I Fought My Way into Hollywood (London: Monoray, 2020)
Rina Ayra, Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World (London: Lund Humphries Publishers, 2012)
Robert Capa, Death in the Making (Bologna: Damiani, 2020)
Robert Priseman, No Human Way to Kill (Wivenhoe: Seabrook Press: 2018)
Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1979)
Robert Priseman, founder of Contemporary British Painting and co-founder the Priseman Seabrook art collection, is a British artist, collector, writer, curator and publisher who lives and works in Essex. Over 200 works by Priseman are held in art museum collections worldwide, including the V&A, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Honolulu Museum of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland.
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