Christian art in Europe has had a long-standing tradition of depicting Biblical narratives through paintings, frescoes and sculptures. What emerges from this vast repertoire of images is the fact that in their visual re-enactment and irrespective of the medium, many of them certainly do not appear to be for the faint-hearted. Gory episodes from the depiction of hell and Judgment Day to the Crucifixion of Christ to other Passion scenes featured heavily in art and their graphic depictions of blood, mutilation, torture and flaying are meant to evoke a multitude of emotions.
‘The face of Christ’ in Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece executed in the Renaissance is not a divine being bathed in a golden halo of divine light but an ordinary face of a man contorted in pain, his lips are bloodless while his mouth is parted. Yet our recognition of Christ in the hierarchy of figures is instantaneous. We know who he is and why he is important.
While this kind of art certainly served to reiterate belief and faith in religion, it was also exemplified by instilling, on a collective level, a combination of fear and guilt in people. Looking at such scenes was like a visual confrontation — an electric shock to the conscience, a visual reminder that would serve to constantly induce people to condemn injustice and tragedy whilst instilling piety. This was art in the service of religion.
Contemporary art has pushed boundaries as paintings no longer have to depict exact visual representations of historical events
However, when religion and society in the West began to part ways the artist was no longer content to remain a narrator but became a more active commentator/participant when it came to establishing a relationship with his viewer. Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya’s etchings and aquatints titled ‘The Disasters of War’ demonstrated this stance in the most compelling manner. The series showed the atrocities of war inflicted upon people during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain. Violent and steeped in despair the scenes of anarchy, torture and bodily mutilation serve as a reminder for the human capacity to inflict violence upon itself.
Starkly lit, raw and without colour, these detached depictions of headless and dismembered bodies were the antithesis of history painting. While their titles such as ‘I Saw It’ and ‘This Is How It Happened’ assert Goya’s individual outrage it also taps into and confronts our morbid curiosity about violence. There are no prophets and saints to move us or direct us towards a higher meaning; the gloves are off and instead of riding the coattails of religion and hiding behind piety we are confronted by our morbid curiosity and a simultaneous repulsion of violence. We are fearful and ashamed as we witness the desecration of nameless people we do not know and never will but it is Goya’s moral outrage and self-righteousness implicit in phrases such as ‘I Saw It’ that absolves us of the guilt of staring shamelessly.
Contemporary art has allowed artists to push such boundaries even further as paintings no longer have to rely on making exact visual representations in order for them to qualify as art. In fact, the birth of installation and video art ushered in the idea that an environment can be created, exploited and manipulated by the artist so that the viewer can interact or immerse oneself in an experience.
In Two Wings to Fly, Not One, an exhibition featuring Imran Qureshi and Ayesha Khalid’s work at Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) Islamabad, Qureshi has turned the floor of the amphitheater of the PNCA into what is essentially a beautiful red bloodbath of exploding colour and painted foliage. Titled ‘Come Then, It’s Time to Come Back Home Now’, there are no human figures and no battle scenes, so there is no one to identify with or put blame on. No heroes and no villains. There is only the viewer who can choose to cringe and squirm as he imagines his feet squelching through imaginary blood yet simultaneously yearns to walk, run, jump or at least stand in the midst of that amphitheatre or the stairs on a sunny day with a cool breeze- participant or spectator — victim or perpetrator — the choices are there, and so is the unease.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 23rd, 2017