Knippers, Edward: Violent Grace: A Retrospective
Violent Grace: A Retrospective by Edward Knippers, with essays by Gregory Wolfe, Howard Fox, Theodore Prescott, John Walford, William Dryness, Roberta Green Ahmanson, and Timothy Verdon (Albuquerque, NM: Fresco books; 2015) 208 pages + curriculum vitae.
The Biblical Word, Bolded
by Denis Haack
I’ve only met Edward Knippers one time, in his studio in northern Virginia. It was delightfully disheveled, with splashes of paint spread about, brushes, bottles and cans on tables and floor, the sharp smell of oil and turpentine in the air, and huge wooden panels leaning against the wall. In some studios the artwork seems to fade into the background in the presence of the artist, but in Knippers’ studio the opposite was true. His artwork overwhelmed everything and everyone, demanding my attention as if it were a booming echo of a king’s command. Everything about them was bold—their huge size (6 x 8 & 8 x 12 feet), each consisting of three door-size wooden panels, the confident strokes of paint, the nudity of the figures, the fearless color palette, and a demanding, expressionistic style that is unwilling to let us remain neutral before what is depicted. Art historian Monsignor Timothy Verdon feels the same before Knippers’ artwork as I did:
The staggering size, furious execution, and searing color of Edward Knippers’ painted panels overwhelm, and their physicality shocks. Indeed, given his chosen field, Biblical illustration, the raw violence of Knippers’ art deeply disturbs. For viewers whose knowledge of the Old Testament may stop at the “fresh, green pastures” and “restful waters” of the 23rd Psalm—or who conventionally visualize Jesus as blond and sweet—these hot, muscled forms constitute premeditated assault. [p. 209]
This is art that refuses to disappear into background decoration. And every biblical narrative Knippers’ paints changes how I understand the text for good.
Christ in the Wilderness, oil on panel, 2011
Knippers himself is soft-spoken, thoughtful, gentle, and quietly passionate about his calling as an artist. He told me that day that he considered himself the servant of the Word—meaning the Word of God in the text of the scriptures. Art historian E. John Walford captures well Knippers’ passion and goal:
Edward Knippcrs has devoted his artistic career striving to effectively represent visually what most people within the modern and contemporary art world deem beyond the fitting reach of such practice. His sustained effort and primary goal has been directed toward the revival of a practice depicting biblical narratives on a scale large enough to command attention and strong enough to provoke substantive thought in viewers. He stands undeterred by a consensus within the art world that such an enterprise belongs to the past and has no place in a modern, secular society. For his part, as an artist who is a Christian, he is driven by the conviction that such an artist is called to engage the most substantive and significant themes that are within the reach of his or her artistic capability. To this end, Edward Knippers has spent his career mastering the most effective means at his disposal for embodying aspects of the biblical narrative in a potent and dramatic form, centered on the human figure, which for reasons grounded in his convictions about the nature and universal relevance of that narrative he has rendered nude.
Ever since the time of Christ, Christians have struggled to articulate the mystery of this man Jesus Christ, the Son of God, being, as he himself asserted and his followers believe, both fully man and fully God. Church leaders, teachers, theologians, and artists have wrestled to come to terms with and effectively articulate this essential conundrum for which there is no precedent and no complete reiteration. However, if as is asserted in Scripture, man is created in the image of God, then all human beings also carry within themselves the image of this dual, and from a mortal point of view, contradictory reality, for each of us contains within ourselves the seeds of both mortality and immortality. But historically, for an artist as for any other to articulate this complex reality without falling off the bench at one end or the other, has proven extremely hard to accomplish. The challenges facing a contemporary artist with Knippers’ aims are thus, theologically, the paradoxical reality of the humanity and divinity of Christ, and artistically, the absence of any effective living tradition of biblical art from which to build.
Most viewers familiar with Edward Knippers’ work would recognize that he has spent most of his artistic career asserting the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, as possessing absolute and complete humanity, embodied in a gendered body, just like ours. For this reason he places the physical palpability of the human body, including Christ's body, at the center of his work. In so doing, he seeks to strongly resist all forms of Gnosticism that would spiritualize or sentimentalize the potent message of the biblical narrative, at the core of which he sees God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem our mortal flesh—soul, mind, and body. However, in 2005 Knippers lost his wife Diane to cancer, and since that time he has complemented his signature themes and approach with themes that address the Resurrection and Transfiguration of Christ, and by extension, of his believers. [p. 58-59]
Convinced that both the liberal and the evangelical views of the Bible are mistaken—the one mythologizes Christ, the other ignores his humanity—Knippers paints so as to catch their attention and say, “Take another look!” The more I stood before his work in his studio that day, the more I thought of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—two superb artists boldly speaking the truth to a society unwilling to hear.
Such callings, as you might guess, are not pursued without controversy. Once while lecturing at a Christian college on the biblical worldview I was asked to speak to an art class, and so included a number of Knippers’ works in my presentation. The professor in whose class I was the guest was not impressed. He made it clear the paintings I showed were unworthy of a Christian artist, and argued against my interpretation of them. Knippers’ use of the nude was, I was told, offensive. One fellow elder said, with obvious distaste, “He paints nudes!” and considered the matter closed. They are both wrong, but nothing I said was persuasive.
Violent Grace: A Retrospective is a large format book that showcases Edward Knippers’ art and includes seven thoughtful, accessible essays exploring various aspects of the artist and his work. I realize such books are on the more expensive side of the publishing spectrum, but art books enrich a home and allow reflection and discussion. Violent Grace is one I recommend to you warmly.
Edward Knippers is an artist whose work will make you see grace in a more primal way, as the raw, compassionate, furious determination of God to redeem his fallen world.
Art book, large format, recommended: Violent Grace: A Retrospective by Edward Knippers, with essays by Gregory Wolfe, Howard Fox, Theodore Prescott, John Walford, William Dryness, Roberta Green Ahmanson, and Timothy Verdon (Albuquerque, NM: Fresco books; 2015) 208 pages + curriculum vitae.
Denis Haack is editor of Critique and Director of Ransom Fellowship (www.ransomfellowship.org), a writing and speaking ministry designed to help Christians be discerning about life and culture in our postmodern and post-Christian world. A visiting instructor in practical theology at Covenant Seminary (St Louis, MO) he is working on a book about the shape of Christian faithfulness in an increasingly pluralistic world. He and his wife, Margie live in Savage, Minnesota, and are members of Church of the Cross (Anglican Church in North America).
This review was first published in Critique 2015:5—Paper & Canvas.