ArtWay

We should think of our humanity as a privilege. Marilyn Robinson

ArtLyst Interview Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

ArtLyst interview

Jonathan Evens interviews Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

November 2018

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor-in-chief of ArtWay, a website which seeks to stimulate reflection on the role of images in church and open up the world of the visual arts to the Church. She has a background in musicology and worked for many years as an editor, translator and writer. Having written extensively about popular music, liturgy and the visual arts, she has also edited the Complete Works of her father, art historian Hans Rookmaaker, and produced the magazine LEV for Dutch L’Abri.

Hans Rookmaaker was a professor of art history at the Free University of Amsterdam who wrote and lectured on art theory, art history, music, philosophy, and religion. His writings have had significant influence on the way in which some contemporary Christians engage with culture, and especially with the arts. His influence reached a wider audience through books such as Modern Art and the Death of a Culture and The Creative Gift, and also through his relationship with L’Abri Fellowship.

Rookmaaker was a good friend of Francis Schaeffer, the theologian and philosopher, who established L’Abri in the village of Humoz, Switzerland in 1955. The L’Abri communities are study centres in Europe, Asia and America where individuals have the opportunity to seek answers to honest questions about God and the significance of human life. Hans and his wife Anky opened a Dutch branch of L’Abri in 1971.

In this interview, I discuss with Marleen the inspiration and vision for ArtWay, the legacy left by her father and her plans for new projects. Marleen intends ArtWay to showcase and open up what has been and is being written about art, whether popularly or scholarly, philosophically or theologically, meditatively or liturgically oriented. In this way, she hopes it will be a platform for reflection about art and to stimulate dialogue enabling the Christian world to become familiar with the quality art that is increasingly available.

Q. ArtWay was established in 2010 to stimulate the reflection on the role of images in church, noting that we live in a visual culture and that Christians have become more directed towards imagery as a contribution to the deeper inner experience for which we are searching as people of or time. Can you say more about the original inspiration for ArtWay and the changes that you perceive among Christians in recent years towards imagery?

A. ArtWay was established not only to stimulate images in the church. That was only one part of our vision. We also wanted to see more Christian artistic activity in society at large. But one way to open the average churchgoer up to the visual arts is to bring them into contact with artworks that speak to their faith and are able to touch their hearts. When people become aware that artworks can be deeply meaningful to them and that they can be positive and sound and enriching, a world has been won. From there it should be possible to broaden their view by showing them different kinds of artworks: works they may buy for their homes or a sculpture in the park of their city that turns out to be really significant when they pause to take a good look at it. We are about ‘opening eyes, hearts and minds’ as we say on our frontpage. We want to help people look at art and become knowledgeable about it. That is the very foundation of ArtWay.

However, we definitely also have an agenda for art in the church. I live in the Netherlands where Protestant churches tend to be Calvinistic and thus tend have a suspicion towards images in our places of worship. Though the Van der Leeuw Foundation (based on the ideas of the theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw) has been active in the area of art in the church since WW II and a good number of liberal churches opened up to the arts, this did not reach the more orthodox Reformed denominations. For the more traditionally minded art in the church is still a dangerous thing. Yet I do observe a growing openness and I am happy that ArtWay can play a role in this by offering reflection and materials. In my own congregation, for instance, an art committee was started three years ago and, apart from having constant expositions in our church buildings, we were given a painting recently and commissioned a sculpture. Both these works were welcomed with a service that gave special attention to the specific work and the Bible passage it was addressing. That would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

Q. One of your key initiatives are weekly visual meditations, each devoted to one work of art, old or new, with an eye for voices of truth, hope and love in the art of the past and the present, whether or not by Christian hand, and for content formed by the spiritual dimension of a work, whether Christian, Buddhist, or postmodern. How are voices of truth and the spiritual dimension of an artwork identified?

A. Looking at art is interpreting art. We look at an artwork and we want to understand what it means. We are aware that it is not just a thing of beauty, though that is also part of its meaning. We interpret it to the best of our ability. Human communication is always complex and never an easy thing, yet the artist and artwork deserve that we take the trouble to try and do justice to the work. This may involve reading up on the artist and the artwork and taking time to look carefully at it. It also involves knowledge, expertise and sensitivity; three things we can develop by spending time with art. All these things combined is what an ArtWay visual meditation ideally should offer, while our authors also explore the spiritual meaning of a work. Once its content has been uncovered, our readers can make their own judgment as to its truth, just like they weigh everything else. Yet, as we are a Christian website, we ourselves see truth as related to Christ – which in my mind is a wild truth that puts things on their head, that challenges convenient ideas and comfortable actions. I would definitely not equate anything Christian with the truth and everything else with untruth. Truth can be found in unexpected places, while believers may be mistaken about things.

Q. You have stated that you understand Christian art to be not merely art that deals with Christian religious themes, but all art that is rooted in a Christian view of life. Could you illustrate the difference between these two approaches using artworks that have featured in the visual meditation series?

A. If you say that only art with Christian religious themes is Christian, you narrow Christianity down to the religious dimension of life. To discern whether this is the case in the work of an artist, you have to look at his or her total artistic output. Obviously there is nothing wrong with religious themes per se, but it is the limiting of Christian art to only religious themes that I would suggest is not Christian art at its best. Then art becomes dualistic, flowing from a theology that is characterized by a dualistic approach to reality with a division of life into high and low, nature and grace or sacred and secular (hence the importance of theology for art!). This occurs most often in the Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical traditions, but also the Calvinist tradition has not been without its influence. The music of the Evangelical tradition can serve as an example: gospel or CCM first focused on evangelism and later on narrowed down even further to worship, both with religious themes only.

In contrast Christianity to me is about all dimensions of life. The world with everything in it is God’s creation and Christ gave his life to redeem all of reality. This means that all of life is ‘Christian’ and may concern Christian artists, whether they portray the beauty of a bird in the sky or the outrage of a refugee having to live without the comfort of a place she can call her home. This broader view of the Christian life was at the basis of much Dutch 17th-century art – which had its roots in Calvinism – in which various genres besides biblical scenes gained prominence, such as portraits, landscapes and still lifes, church interiors, domestic scenes and genre paintings. I could point to James Romaine’s discussion of a landscape painting by Jacob van Ruisdael as an example, see http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=1234&lang=en&action=show. But also to the work of a contemporary artist like Zak Benjamin, see http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=1850&lang=en&action=show or the portraits made by Catherine Prescott, see http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=1973&lang=en&action=show.  

What sets these artworks apart as Christian, even though they deal with ‘ordinary’ subjects, is the Christian mentality and approach to life that is at the basis of these works. Ruisdael’s painting speaks of God’s presence and providence. Zak Benjamin’s painting speaks about the horror of the destruction of life. Catherine Prescott paints real human beings with their inner tensions and weaknesses. As we are surrounded by so many other worldviews these days, the Christian’s way of presenting a subject may differ from other voices in our culture, though that needs not always be the case. As to old art, look at the difference between a Jan van Goyen landscape and one by his humanistic contemporary Poussin, the latter being much more idealized, not as ‘true’.

Q. On the site you suggest that, in recent years, the number of Christian artists who produce good work has grown and that in North America and Asia this growth has been documented but for Europe this still needs to happen. Where can the documentation for North America and Asia be found and why has a similar level of documentation not occurred in Europe?

A. I wrote this almost ten years ago. In the meantime the number of art websites and organizations worldwide has considerably grown. At that time CIVA with their artist directory and magazine SEEN stood out as well as IMAGE (website and journal). In Asia there was the Asian Christian Art Association (ACAA), which was founded in 1978 and published Image Magazine. These organizations have stimulated reflection and discussion, they have featured artists and helped Christian art to become less of a well-kept secret that only a few initiated knew about.

I wouldn’t say that there was nothing of this kind in Europe, think for instance of Art and Christianity Enquiry in England and their journal and similar organizations and publications in other European countries. But the difficulty with Europe is that it consists of many countries which each have their own language, culture and Christian tradition(s). That makes it hard to gain an overview and bring documentation of the various countries together. European countries still tend to be turned inwards, each living within their own cultures. To bring knowledge about artists in Europe together is one of the things ArtWay has been working on.

Q. You have a Dutch background but live in Switzerland. Are there particular Dutch or Swiss artists whose work is of particular interest to you or to ArtWay?

A. Actually, we live in the Netherlands but we spend about five months a year in Switzerland for my husband’s work. As you suggest, this has given me the opportunity to get to know the art and faith field in Switzerland a bit as well, though – again – Switzerland has four language areas and they function quite separate from each other.

There are two Dutch artists who are believers who stand out, not just in the Christian world but in Dutch culture at large. Marc Mulders and Henk Helmantel have both been elected Dutch Artist of the Year in recent years and both rank among Holland’s best-selling artists. Marc Mulders is primarily a painter and glass artist, who also makes windows for churches. He often mixes elements of nature with religious themes and iconography, besides works that have nature itself in its beauty and decay as its subject. www.marcmulders.com Henk Helmantel focuses on still-lifes and church interiors. Even though his technique leans heavily on that of his 17th-century predecessors, his work has a contemporary feel to it. His work is serene and very beautiful. www.helmantel.nl

Marc Mulders

Henk Helmantel

In Switzerland I would point to Hans Thomann, who is a sculptor and installation artist. His work is about what it means to be human and comments on contemporary life. He is original in his use of a broad spectrum of media and also makes works for churches. http://hansthomann.com/  

Q. Your father, Hans Rookmaaker, has been a source of inspiration to those involved with ArtWay. The six volumes of his Complete Works, from his time as a student and music critic until his time as the Chair of Art History at the Free University in Amsterdam, range from accessible art-historical articles, art criticism and theory, to learned philosophical aesthetics, Bible study and to popular music (jazz, blues, black gospel, rock). What would you want to highlight from his writings as being of particular relevance to those involved in the interplay of art and faith today?

A. My father, who lived from 1922-1977, believed in an integrated Christian approach to art history. He was not a theologian and he did not think it necessary to be a theologian to be able to talk about art and faith. It is actually a bit ironic that only through the involvement of theology plus the growing interest in art for the church the art and faith discussion started to take off and flourish – dualism at play yet again.

My father deemed the study of art and art history important not only to enrich and deepen our own lives, but also to gain a deeper understanding of the history and present state of western culture. He was very concerned about its downhill development since the Enlightenment and the impoverishment of life due to the reductionism of rationalism and technology. He called his book on modern art ‘Modern Art and the Death of a Culture’, because he took the philosophers and artists of the past century very seriously. It was this concern for our culture that made my father specialize in modern art and urge Christians to take note of modern art and ‘to hop on a train’ to go and see important exhibitions. This is also why he founded the Dutch branch of L’Abri: he empathized with the questions of the lost young people of the sixties and wanted to point to the Bible for not easy or cheap but real answers. He wanted Christians to be involved with our culture and not withdraw, to be present right in the middle of it to suffer with the suffering and weep with the weeping. 

Even though the cultural climate of today is different from that of the fifties through the seventies, I believe this is still a valid message that is just about absent in the art and faith discussion today. We tend to be much more relativistic and don’t feel a real urgency to combat the darker sides of western culture. We are happy with any openness to ‘religion’ in the cultural debate and like chameleons we adapt to our surroundings to gain a place at the table. Some promote any religious art – not necessarily made by Christian believers – even for our churches, rather than artworks that are rooted in biblical Christianity.

Q. How do you think your father's legacy impacts on the practice of artists today or those who write about the visual arts? 

A. My father opted for the Dutch tradition of Calvinism and neo-Calvinism after his conversion around 1943 in a POW camp in Poland. Neo-Calvinism provides a solid foundation for anyone who wants to become an artist, as it sees art as one of the good, rich and deeply meaningful creational gifts of God to humankind. ‘Art needs no justification’ is the title of one of my father’s books. Art does not need to be made to do certain things (such as be a tool for mission or an enhancement of devotion), but art is free to be just art, playing various roles in human life as it is. This implies that artists are free in their choice of style, genre and purpose of their work. A still life is just as legitimate as an altar piece. An artist can opt to be an installation artist, with or without a social or political edge, or to be an abstract or figurative painter. A work for the wall of a neighbor is just as valid as a painting that hangs in a museum. We do not need to aim for a place in the artworld, if that is not who we are. Artists are, just like anybody else, called to serve the world around them and as such they have a high calling. They do not need to question the validity of their work, as God wanted art and creativity to have its own important place in human life. That is what my father said 60 years ago, which helped a lot of young people to choose to become artists then and can still help young artists full of doubts today. 

For me it has been interesting to observe that my father’s work has become part of the history of the reflection on art and faith. His books have become part of the curriculum. That means that he was not only deemed relevant while he lived, when the art and faith discussion was yet to begin in the more orthodox or evangelical denominations, but is deemed relevant still, now that we see the arts flowering (or at least starting to flower) in many of these faith communities. Three things may stand out in this respect: first the strong and down to earth framework for the place of art in the Christian life, whether we are practitioners or partakers; secondly the plea to not stay safe and hidden within a subculture of our own, but to be light and salt (salting salt as my father used to say) for all to see; and thirdly his art-historical work that aimed to understand what works and how works and certain eras reflected reality and human life as given by God and in what works this was lost. This discerning mindset, at once open and critical, is continued today by various art historians who are following in his footsteps.

Q. Your background is in musicology and you have written extensively about popular music, also within liturgy. What was it that led you to your current interest in visual arts, the field of expertise inhabited by your father?

A. An interest in the visual arts has been part of me all along, except for my childhood years when I rather played outside than visit yet another museum or ancient church. As a teenager I loved accompanying my father to his lectures and as a university student I took art history as a minor and had my friends in the group of international students that had gathered around him. I have loved my studies and work in the field of musicology and always had working in university as my future goal in mind. But then my dissertation on U2 shipwrecked for lack of a professor who could help me along (10 years later that would have been different) and I went under in a dark and difficult period of my life. When I surfaced again, I had worked as an editor, translator and writer for over 10 years and had the choice to go back to my old field or choose for something fresh. I chose the latter, partly because as an editor I had refreshed my art-historical knowledge by working on my father’s Complete Works. Also spending time with my artist and art history friends through the years had helped me to grow in my love and understanding of the visual arts. They taught me to look through their eyes at art and at the world.

Q. You are currently working on a project to bring a version of the Stations of the Cross public art project initiated by Dr Aaron Rosen to Amsterdam. What has attracted you to this project and what do you see as its relevance for Amsterdam?

A. When I was corresponding with Aaron Rosen about an article of his that I wanted to post on the ArtWay website a few years ago, he told me about the Stations of the Cross that he and Catriona Lang had initiated and organized in London and Washington D.C. As he was keen to organize a project like this in Amsterdam as well, I asked him if I could assist him as this would be a great learning experience for me and in turn I would be able to help him with the search for fitting works by Dutch artists. From there my involvement evolved and we are now working on this with quite a large Dutch team with ArtWay as the organizing party.

The Art Stations will take visitors on a contemplative journey, using Jesus’ final journey through Jerusalem and the story of the Passion to reflect upon Jesus’ suffering and historical and contemporary injustices. As Amsterdam is a port city, we have chosen Troubled Waters as our theme with stations that deal with the sea as a site of trauma. Subjects range from the boat refugees, drowning, the slave trade, polluted water, our fear of rising waters to victims of sex-trafficking. We have added a 15th station, a resurrection station. All the works are contemporary, some are site-specific or interactive. There will be stops in 14+1 sites (religious and secular spaces) across the city centre of Amsterdam. The route will be walkable (less than two hours) but can also be done by bike or partly by tram.

An exhibition like this is new to Amsterdam and The Netherlands, especially because we include a good number of Christian artists, Dutch and international. Others may be challenged by the inclusion of artists of other faiths and perspectives on life. We want to put forward that in suffering and in compassion we are all one in our humanity and responsibility to care. We intend the Stations to be like a pilgrimage – a contemplative time of reflection and repentance during Lent. We hope that the visitors will be challenged either artistically, morally or spiritually, or on all these fronts. We trust the Holy Spirit to work in mysterious ways. A program of guided tours, artist talks, church services, concerts and symposia will be built around the Stations and there will be informative and meditative texts on the artworks available at the sites (also via an app). 

Q. Can you whet our appetite for Stations 2019 Amsterdam by telling us about some of the artists, institutions and works to be included?

A. The artists are Arent Weevers, Jan Tregot, Janpeter Muilwijk, Hansa Versteeg, Erica Grimm, Lynn Aldrich, Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Güler Ates, G. Roland Biermann, Masha Trebukova, Yona Verwer, Iris Kensmil, Anjet van Linge, Karin Daan and Bill Viola. Seven artists are Dutch and the others come from countries like Turkey, Suriname, England, Canada, the United States, Russia and Italy.

The locations include churches of different denominations like the St. Nicolaaskerk (Roman Catholic), the Oude Kerk (Reformed), the Waalse Kerk (a French Huguenot church) and the Moeder Godskerk (Syrian Orthodox). Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, the Amsterdam Museum and the Small Museum at rock temple Paradiso will be visited, as well as the Gay Monument that remembers the gay people who were sent to camps in WW II. There are two sites in the old Jewish quarter of town with works by Jewish artists. Another work is in a small chapel in the Red-Light district, where a community of Christians has worked under the marginalized for about five decades.

Arent Weevers

One of the artworks is the video installation Josephine’s Well by Dutch video artist Arent Weevers, which is to be viewed with 3D glasses. The video is projected inside a black box, a quiet and dark space. The projection shows a well with water inside, that the viewer looks into from above. The 3D stereoscopic installation, a 3.5-minute loop, shows a young girl with blonde hair who slowly floats upwards from the depths. After some time, a second and a third girl follow. One by one they direct their gaze upwards, towards us, and then disappear into the darkness. Then a naked woman appears – also with long blond hair. She floats towards the viewer with an outstretched hand, so close that she almost seems to break through the virtual floor. Music – in turn angelic and dissonant – accompanies the images. The work makes our paradoxical relationship with the other painfully clear – the other whom we reach towards and whom we desire, but whose radical otherness we have to accept.

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First published on ArtLyst, click here

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar, Partnership Development at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. A keen blogger, he posts regularly on issues of faith and culture at http://joninbetween.blogspot.co.uk. His journalism and art criticism ranges from Pugin to U2 and has appeared in a range of publications, including Artlyst and Church Times. He runs a visual arts organisation called commission4mission, which encourages churches to commission contemporary art and, together with the artist Henry Shelton, has published two collections of meditations and images on Christ's Passion. Together with the musician Peter Banks, he has published a book on faith and music entitled ‘The Secret Chord’.