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Issue No.114
23 November 2017

Inspiration through art

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Sarah Middleton reflects on the past, present and future of an art collection focused on the life of Christ

 

THE METHODIST MODERN ART COLLECTION HAS A FASCINATING HISTORY. Owned by the British Methodist Church, this prestigious collection of modern art majors on scenes from the life of Christ and contains paintings, drawings and reliefs by leading names from the art world of the last 100 years such as Elisabeth Frink, Graham Sutherland and Maggi Hambling.

The Collection was an early 1960s' initiative of Methodist layman Dr John Morel Gibbs, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference in 1959. He was very conscious that within the Methodist Church and indeed within nonconformist churches in general, there was little appreciation of the insights that contemporary artists could bring to the Christian story.

He wanted to encourage a more imaginative approach to the commissioning and buying of paintings, sculpture and church furnishings.

It so happened that he knew the Revd Douglas Wollen who, a few years earlier, had been the minister of Albert Road Methodist Church in Penarth, just outside Cardiff. Aware of Wollen's interest in the visual arts, John Gibbs invited him to create a collection of contemporary religious works of art.

Starting in 1962, Douglas Wollen visited London galleries, a great many exhibitions and contacted a range of artists whose work he knew and felt might be appropriate. Some purchases were made on what he described as his 'Bond Street Crawl' when he was in London for Methodist meetings.

Under the title The Church and the Artist - contemporary paintings on Christian themes, a total of 38 works toured the UK between 1963 and 1965. They were seen by over 100,000 people at 29 venues. From Plymouth to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, from London to Preston, these included major art galleries such as the Walker in Liverpool and Manchester City Art Gallery. The National Museum of Wales showed it at their out-station Turner House in Penarth where a diary entry records "two people rushed in and out in umbrage, about, apparently, the combination of modern art and religion" (14 March 1965*).

In the ensuing years, indeed up till the current day, works were added to the Collection and loans were made to churches, cathedrals and universities. Schools and colleges borrowed two or three works at a time as an aid to the teaching of RE. For some years the Collection was housed at Southlands College in London. It found favour at the Turner House a second time round in the 1990s when it was hung as part of the Penarth Festival of Christian Art, along with additional loans of work by Stanley Spencer, Frank Brangwyn and David Jones.

In 1997, the Collection was given to the British Methodist Church.Managing trustees were appointed to "care for, develop and promote the Collection in order to encourage people to enter into conversations about God in Christ in the contemporary world". As part of this purpose, I was asked to conduct some research into how different borrowers of the Collection had exhibited the works, tackling questions such as, "What makes a work of art 'religious' - is it to do with the subject matter, or the intention of the artist, or the effect on the viewer?" The richness of the response led, in part, to the publication of Creative Spirit, a visual resource aimed at giving people confi dence in contemplation and inspiration for worship.

'Look … Respond … Pray' is the format of Creative Spirit, encouraging viewers fi rst to gaze and then to identify what they can see, bearing in mind that quality digital reproductions, whilst versatile for projecting in house groups or church sanctuaries, are only that. Attention is drawn to the size and the medium of each original art work, remembering that the skill of the artist is also in choosing and using textures and colours. This is especially true of Michael Edmonds' The Cross over the City, a relief panel made of polyester, brass and mosaic, and the stencil and ink on paper of one of the most recent acquisitions, People visit the Stable, by the twentieth century Japanese artist, Sadao Watanabe.

There are now over 50 works in the Collection, which has developed a worldwide reputation as well as a strong international dimension through the artists it represents. Anglo-Indian Jyoti Sahi's Dalit Madonna has drawn attention to the plight of Dalit people in his native Bangalore; John Muafangejo's black and white linocuts refl ect the harsh apartheid regime in South Africa during the years he was working (1968-1987) as well as his deep biblical knowledge and Christian commitment. His Judas Iscariot betrayed our Lord Jesus for R.3.00 raises questions of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In 2016-7 the trustees of the Collection ran a series of Focus Groups with exhibition organisers and visitors as part of a consultation about the Collection's future. Informed by the consultation and some academic research projects, the trustees believe that this Methodist treasure has a key missional value.

Those who borrow the works are always encouraged to lay on programmes of associated services and events. "We had a singing chef, a brass band and art spaces where local artists painted in the churches" said Rosalind Lowry, Arts and Events Development Offi cer of the Braid Arts Centre, in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. The Collection was shown here in 2015, some 25 miles north of Belfast. Supported by nine local churches, it was its fi rst time across the Irish Sea. "All the churches are working together, whatever denomination they are," noted Lowry at the time. "They're helping each other out. But this isn't a good relations project, it's an arts event. The best art has the capacity to inspire."

 

Further information, including an online gallery of the works and the exhibition programme of the Collection, can be found at w: www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection

 

*from The history of the Methodist Collection by Roger Wollen in his 2003 Catalogue of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art, published by the Collection trustees.

IMAGE © METHODIST MODERN ART COLLECTION TRUSTEES