Reviews: Signs of Grace and Sounding the Seasons

80140100487710LKristin Schwain. Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008, xi + 172 pp., £22.75/$31.50 cloth.

In this exploration of late nineteenth-century religious art in America, Kristin Schwain, Associate Professor of American Art and Architecture at the University of Missouri in Colombia, MO (USA), engages four representative artists of the period, arguing that American art in the gilded age was under the mercy of social acceptability as well as the shift of American Christianity from institution to individual. Schwain organises her work into four chapters, one for each of the following: Thomas Eakins, Henry O. Tanner, F. Holland Day, and Abbott Thayer.

For Eakins, Schwain focuses on his late career after his dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-1880s. The artist who had disdained religious institution finished his career painting fourteen clerical portraits for Roman Catholic prelates. Schwain unravels this curious incongruity and questions its relation to a possible disdain for the other.

For Tanner, her attention is directed toward the tensions of African-American Christian spirituality in a white Christian America. Schwain examines how images in African-American communities had to take on intellectual and response-based relationship in order to mirror, and thereby integrate, with white spirituality and cultural American piety, which disenchanted the rural religious imagination and adopted a more individual and private response to abstract religious ideals.

For Day, Schwain shifts the focus of her investigation into troubled waters. Day’s photography marked a splintering of cultural norms, for sacred objects were considered profaned if represented in a way that did not editorialise their significance as, say, a painting would. Coupled with Day’s alleged homosexuality and his tendency toward edgier demonstrations of his work, he marks the particular strangeness of incongruous religious and artistic experience. Focusing on his The Seven Last Words of Christ (1898), Schwain roots the narrative influence that would have led to the creation of the series but also explores the psychological and religious elements that could have accounted for such a strange blend of religious devotion and religious rejection.

Finally, Schwain considers Thayer and the fascinating trope of the American Madonna, wherein an image of the Virgin is secularised and reinterpreted as the patronus of American exceptionalism and the religion of the State. Here, Schwain is able to round her study with this dramatic shift from religious art as such to religious art that is in service of the State. Ultimately, she argues, this is the turn that religious devotion in America takes: a secularisation that it is not entirely aware of itself, but nonetheless feeds into its own mythos about its origins, purpose, and blessedness by God.

What makes Schwain’s study particularly effective is her ability to sympathetically consider the artists she engages. She carefully does not write off the period or the ideological problems within it, but illumines those problems through a thorough examination of the artist and work as they are, without editorial, before she moves into a critical response of the problems such ideological constructs creates. In short, anyone having interest in the American Gilded Age and the particular way that its art illumined the incongruity of its own thinking and methodology would be well-served by this excellent, well-written book.

Review by Preston Yancey


9781848252745Malcolm Guite. Sounding the Seasons: Poetry for the Christian Year. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012, xvii + 82pp., £9.99/$14.99 paper.

This new collection from poet-priest Malcolm Guite is no typical book of poems, but a “journey through the year;” in this case, the church year. He places the poems in the same tradition as George Herbert’s The Temple, John Keble’s The Christian Year, and Geoffrey Hill’s “Lachrymae” sequence, and in an appendix, Fraser Watts suggests ways to integrate Guite’s sonnets into the Anglican liturgy. All of this puts a considerable  pressure on the sonnets to work at several different levels: as accomplished sonnets in a long and daunting tradition, as devotional works for private meditation, and as public texts for yearly liturgical use.

The collection succeeds more on the latter two of the three levels than the first, but two out of three, as they say, isn’t bad. Sonnet-lovers looking for mastery of the volta or irony, wit, and self-inception would do better with Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets or Geoffrey Hill’s several sequences in King Log and Tenebrae. Still, there are many treasures here, the 15 sonnets making up “The Stations of the Cross” for instance. Guite is at his best, as most poets are, when he imagines for us scenes that are at once new and inevitable. A fine example of this is found in the last five lines of “Annunciation:”

… She heard the voice,
The promise of his glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice.
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred.
The Word himself was waiting on her word.

Guite draws us in with simple language, then presents an arresting portrait of the arrested Gabriel—a welcome image in a collection which sometimes suffers from lack of the concrete. Then we have the paradoxical and mysterious final line, where Guite marries his priest’s mind for theology with a poet’s verbal play.

Inevitably, some of the seventy sonnets hit a wrong note; that note is usually one of redundant or uninspired language. I, for one, find the use of the phrase “wind beneath our wings” in the first line of “Pentecost” wholly inexcusable for a poet of such clear creative talent. Guite’s love for repeating a key word in paradoxes and verbal flips is often welcome and beautiful, but the sheer proliferation of these flips can become tiring, as if the poet were content to play the same game over and over instead of exploring more various poetic inventions. Perhaps a more careful reading of Hill could have helped him avoid such redundancy. But these are little quibbles. Guite’s Sounding the Seasons has largely accomplished what the poet seems most interested in, which is giving Christian readers carefully crafted sonnets for festal meditation. This reader, at least, wishes more poets would do so.

Review by Tim Bartel

Image Credit: Cornell University Press and Canterbury Press

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