‘Art as the image of God’

Exhibit of William Congdon’s work explores ‘nature of faith’

Crocefisso No. 9 (Crucifix), 1961 Oil on Masonite 50×60 (19.68×23.62) Private collection, Milan.


By Steve Scarpa

Images ©The William G. Congdon Foundation, Milan, except where otherwise noted, courtesy of the Knights of Columbus Museum

What is the nature of faith? What is man’s relationship to God? How can human beings learn to make sense of terrible tragedy? How can two men’s journeys toward spiritual understanding help us make sense of the modern world?

An exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum asks these very questions by juxtaposing the work of the leading lights of the American Abstract Impressionist movement with the writing of one of Catholicism’s leading scholars.

The exhibit, The Sabbath of History: William Congdon – Meditations on Holy Week, is on display at the museum through September 16. The exhibition marks the centennial of William Congdon’s birth and the 85th birthday of Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, in 1927. In addition to a retrospective of Congdon’s life, the exhibit examines Ratzinger’s seminal work, Meditation on Holy Week, written in 1967 at a point in the future pope’s career when he was formulating his own personal Catholic theology.

“No Christian can be left cold by Good Friday, at least no Christian that is struggling for the right path,” Ratzinger wrote. “Is it not strange that an apparently ruined man, who departs in extreme pain and forsakenness, is portrayed as the redeemer of all men? … It occurred to me very early that the connection between love and pain was the central question of the cross.”

William Congdon in studio at Beato Lorenzo, 1964, © Foto Elio Ciol, Casarsa.

This quote, the inspiration for the exhibit, links the thought processes of the two men. Congdon repeated used the image of the cross as inspiration.

“They challenged themselves with profound questions of faith… these were risky ventures taking a certain amount of courage, and these questions were open-ended,” said Daniel Mason, a co-curator of the exhibit. “Their situation opens questions for you the viewer and you the reader.”

Congdon was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1912. Educated at private schools and at Yale University, where he earned a degree in English in 1934, Congdon sought to forgo working in his family’s business and have a career as an artist.

“He was very unique, unlike any painter I’ve encountered, both in his work and his life,” Mason said.

The exhibition chronicles Congdon’s life through his art, a journey that began in earnest after his service as an ambulance driver in World War II. He was among the American units responsible for the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen death camp.

“It was an insane asylum in reverse. The insanity had been imposed by the insane on the normal,” Congdon wrote.

Prior to the war, Congdon was a skilled, but conventional sculptor. An individual artistic voice had yet to emerge. Without the tools of a sculptor available to him during his service, Congdon turned to drawing as a way of making sense of what he saw. Because he served as an ambulance driver and stretcher-bearer, many of his drawings chronicled the wounded and the dead.

“The drawing was partially a way to process the horrors he’d seen,” Mason said. “The drawings become, in a sense, the means of his spiritual survival in the war. It was not a professional or recreational activity. It became therapy and a survival mechanism. It became something to keep himself human … Drawing humanized himself and those he was drawing.”

He used his work to escape the conventions of his New England upbringing and Yale University education, a background that could have stifled his artistic creation.

“He is painting his internal drama… for example, when he paints New York City, it is really a portrait of William Congdon,” Mason said.

Morgen Tod, Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp (Tomorrow Death), 1945 Conte crayon on paper 26×33 (10.24×13).

After the war, Congdon moved to New York City, where he took the Bowery and recreated it as a dark, foreboding urban landscape. His work, painted on boards with palette knives, took on the texture and feel of sculpture. Congdon was working in an age when artists were exploring new ways to use paint, through pooling, pouring, and splashing. The boom of postwar abstract Impressionism gave Congdon the space and the license to explore.

“In creating images from the chaos of my surroundings, I began to give shape to myself,” Congdon wrote.

“Congdon had internal conflicts that he was able to confront and sometimes resolve through the creative act,” Mason said. “Painting was his way of being in the world.”

Congdon, however, never completely abandoned real life, using abstraction to channel recognizable landscapes all throughout Italy, his adopted home, and the rest of the world. In 1959, Congdon converted to Catholicism and embarked on a series of remarkable paintings of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, many of which are seen in the exhibit.

The images are haunting, with dark tones full of suffering and, in many cases, a kind of hope. Repeatedly, Congdon returned to Jesus’ death, exploring what his sacrifice meant in the world. Though abstract, the man at the heart of the drama of crucifixion is not lost. It becomes the conduit for further personal exploration.

“There is something about painting that subject that is strong medicine for him,” Mason said. “The subject of pain and suffering becomes his métier.”

Congdon spent the remainder of his days living an ascetic lifestyle as a layman in monasteries. He died in 1998.

One of the things that make Congdon unique among the American Abstract Impressionists was the length of his career, Mason said. He worked for over five decades, whereas many of his more famous contemporaries, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, died young. Mason believes that Congdon’s life and work allow us to see how the evolution of this particular style of art might have gone if its leading practitioners had survived to old age.

William Congdon in Henry Hensche’s drawing course, Provincetown, MA, the summer following his graduation from Yale (B.A. English 1934).

There is a disquieting feel to Congdon’s work, a sense of the palpable struggle of a man trying to make sense of the vagaries of modern life. Congdon was trying to capture an instant, a moment inside of himself in which believed God could be found.

“The work of art as the image of God in all things is a part of suspension, a part of waiting, like a bridge between sky and earth; it springs forth from the earth, but it origins is not in the earth; it is in the sky,” Congdon said.

They are works bred in passion, created in turmoil, with the art itself a kind of release. The tension of the ideas in the work is palpable and arresting. Congdon didn’t feel that modern art was elitist, remote, or inaccessible, Mason said. He felt exactly the opposite. Art enabled man to learn things about himself, and about the greater extremes of the world.

“What can more relevant for our times?” Mason asked.

For more information about the Knights of Columbus Museum and the exhibit, visit http://www.kofcmuseum.org.

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