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Barnett Newman: Cathedra

ArtWay Visual Meditation 27 October 2019

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Barnett Newman: Cathedra

The Throne of God

by Grady van den Bosch

A large, almost vibrating, blue surface of more than 5 meters wide and 2.5 meters high is traversed by two vertical stripes. It is a monumental work of art. It makes an impression and elicits questions. The maker of Cathedra, the American artist Barnett Newman, advised people to go and stand close by it in order that the blue would overwhelm them and they would have a special experience. With this in mind I approached the painting when I visited the Municipal [Stedelijk] Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Positioning myself very close by, I felt myself embraced by the painting and absorbed in the shades of blue and the two stripes. I thought about the throne of God, to which the title Cathedra, refers. Would I be able to experience something of that throne? Is that what the artist had in mind?

Cathedra is one of the works in which Newman, who was of Jewish descent, incorporated elements from the Jewish or Christian faiths. In addition to the Bible, he also sometimes referred to the kabbala and mythology. In every case Newman reflected on the relationship between humanity and the divine. In Cathedra the Old-Testament God of the Israelites has been rendered. The painting refers to Isaiah 6:1: “I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” With the title the spiritually attuned Newman wanted to make clear how he felt connected with higher things and the mystery of life, while he was painting the Cathedra. Newman was not a believer in the traditional sense of the word. He considered religion to be outmoded. He used elements from the Bible when he experienced a relationship with its themes.

Newman’s works, with their large colour planes, are called ‘colour-field paintings.’ Just like other color-field painters, such as Mark Rothko, Newman aspired to a metaphysical art, for instance based on the Bible, partly as a reaction to the cruelties of World War II, such as the holocaust and the bombardments on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Newman believed that the modern world with its conflicts, tragedies and angst had made traditional subjects and styles invalid. He wrote: “Old standards of beauty were no longer relevant: only the sublime, the elevated was suitable – an experience of enormous magnitude that would be able to lift modern humanity out of its stupor.”

Newman’s work was a break with European traditional art and with the abstract language of his contemporaries. He strove to return to the beginning – to the void – and to reject every established form of art, whether figurative or abstract. From his point of view this was the only possible response to WW II. Instead he developed a way of working that avoided the conventional contrast of figure and background.

With the vertical stripes that would come to characterize his work, Newman created a symbol. He called them ‘zips.’ Newman indicated that they are comparable to human beings, with whom you can communicate and have an encounter. That is why they are life-sized. And furthermore that they represent a higher power that is infinite and therefore incomprehensible. Cathedra has two zips. One is white and the other has a green glow, where Newman painted a transparent ultramarine paint directly over the yellowish cotton, which he had first taped off. Cathedra has regularly been compared to a heavenly vision, where the zips would represent divine beams of light. Newman’s friend and biographer Thomas Hess interpreted them as guards who watch over Makom, the place where humans stand in ecstatic contemplation of the Throne.

The monochrome blue Cathedra is far from static. The intense blue has been carefully built up in seven separate layers of paint in various pigments of blue, six of them in oil, the last one in acrylic paint. If you look carefully, you can see various colours underneath: red, yellow, green and black. In that way he created a deep and richly variegated colour surface that evokes a spatial illusion.

The deep-blue colour tells us that we are in the presence of royalty. With this colour Newman refers in a literal sense to the heavenly canopy. In Ezekiel 1:26 the throne of God is described as lapis lazuli, a translucent stone with a sky-blue colour, with its glow shining through the firmament. When I was standing close to the canvas with the Throne of God in mind, I imagined that the various shades of blue were the fingerprints of God and I experienced the left zip as a chink into heaven, behind which stood the radiant throne of God. Cathedra unfolds an artistic and religious universe for those willing to see.

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Barnett Newman: Cathedra, 1951, 543,5 cm x 240 cm, oil and magna (acrylic paint) on canvas. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, acquired in 1975. 

‘Cathedra’ is Greek for seat or chair and is usually applied to a chair for people of high standing, such as a bishop or the Pope. A cathedra can be found in a cathedral. Cathedra is considered to be a key work in the oeuvre of Newman and he was very attached to it. In 1997 the painting was slashed with a box cutter by a vandal, the same one who also destroyed Newman’s work Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III in 1986. The restoration of that painting was very controversial. Cathedra was restored with great care. If you look very carefully you can still see where the tears were. According to the director of the Municipal Museum at the time, Rudy Fuchs, the attack is, in view of the character of the work, to be considered as an attack on ‘fragility, vulnerability and purity.’ “The canvas is too pure”, according to the director, “and that is something that annoys people, that causes them to become aggressive.” The criminal himself said that the work was too orderly considering the disorder of the world. 

Sources: Various online sources, e.g.: www.barnettnewman.orgwww.nrc.nl,
www.stedelijk.nlwww.trouw.nlwww.artsalonholland.nlwww.theartstory.orgwww.khanacademy.orgwww.youtube.com (Barnett Newman speaks about his art). www.guggenheim.org  www.washingtonpost.com and my own visit to Cathedra
Photos: Photo 1: verenigingrembrandt.nl, Photo 2: www.barnettnewman.org Photo 3: thinkingmuseum.com.   

Barnett Newman (1905-1970), a pseudonym for Baruch Newman (his parents were Jewish-Polish immigrants), is counted as one of the most important representatives of American Abstract Expressionism, with his color field paintings, along with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He was the first to paint in such a large format. Newman developed his style in the course of his career out of surrealism. At first his color field paintings, which he started in the 1940’s, were not well received. His influence was recognised later by succeeding generations and he was seen as one of the most important 20th-century American artists. He objected to being linked to an established group or artistic style. His varied oeuvre, which does not only consist of paintings but also of drawings, prints, sculptures and even an architectural model, concerns on the one hand colour and space, but on the other hand, meaning. Occasionally Newman himself referred to his style as ‘abstract expression’ or ‘the abstract sublime.’ In general, Newman’s art is about the experience of standing in front of the work. The experience that he wants to give the spectator standing close to the painting is an overwhelming physical and emotional experience of one’s own self and one’s own place in the universe. In his book The Sublime Is Now Newman writes about his ideas about beauty and that it should not be the intention of art. Conversely the task of art is to bring about the greatest, preferably metaphysical, experiences.

Grady van den Bosch is Master of Education in Arts. She lives in the Netherlands. She runs a business as educator in art and music and as an artist: Studio Grady Art & Arteducation. She is actively involved in various national and local organisations in the area of art in the church. www.gradyvandenbosch.nl

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3. RUBENS EXHIBITION IN BUDAPEST HUNGARY - 30 October – 16 February 2020, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Dózsa György út 41, Budapest: Rubens, Van Dyck and the Splendour of Flemish Painting. The exhibition of the Museum of Fine Arts running from late October showcases the Golden Age of Flemish painting through the art of the foremost Baroque master of European art, Peter Paul Rubens, and that of his contemporaries. The 120 or so displayed works have been loaned from forty prominent public collections, including the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Prado in Madrid, the National Gallery in Washington DC and the National Gallery in London. In addition to almost thirty masterpieces by Rubens and more than a dozen by Van Dyck, visitors will be able to see excellent works by other Flemish masters too. For hours: https://www.mfab.hu

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