There are a number of artists whose intimate spiritual beliefs have been expressed through their art. One can mention Josef Kalleya, whose complex theosophy of an all-inclusive eternal salvation owes its multifaceted origins to the apokatastasis of the fourth-century heretic Origen, besides a number of literary sources. He kneaded this knowledge into his sculptures, paintings and drawings to produce an oeuvre that is deeply spiritual but one that requires explanation and enlightenment at most levels.
Other artists, like the American William Congdon (1912-1998) and the French Fauvist Georges Rouault (1871-1958), the former a convert to Catholicism, expressed themselves in their own signature way which, however, drew on established Roman Catholic iconography. Congdons stylised manner developed from his abstract expressionist beginnings. His depictions of the crucifix evoke an empty desiccated husk of a chrysalis, a lifeless body without a soul. Rouault reinterpreted established Christian iconography as stern reminders of the empirical value of tradition.
Anthony Mahoney (b. 1935) weaves deeply personal prayers into his paintings as narratives of spiritual redemption and hope. He often uses an impressionist technique to achieve this, the language of Turner, Whistler and Monet.
His landscapes, although thematically not restricted to religious subject matter, emit an otherworldly mysticism. They can be considered as meditations on the beauty of nature and architecture. The pantheism of the landscapes and seascapes and the features of cities like Venice and Mdina are clothed in a white diaphanous membrane that conceals and selectively reveals.
In some instances, Mahoney reduces the human presence to mere Corot-like representations that add to the narrative poignancy of particular paintings. The artist suggests that, although microscopically tiny in the general scheme of things, humanity still has the power to move mountains and redeem itself.
In his essay on Mahoney for the catalogue of the 2014 BOV retrospective, critic Norbert Ellul-Vincenti compartmentalised the artists oeuvre into four distinct phases. The impressionist play of light on landscape and architecture can be considered as the main ingredients of the paintings belonging to the first and second phase. A romantic sensitivity in the spirit of Caspar David Friedrich also permeates the works as bleak silhouetted elements in either dusk or dawn, barren trees contorting existentially. Mists endow the compositions with a preternatural milky glow.
The Maltese artists third phase, aptly known as The White Phase, is characterised by white shafts of light, as undisturbed pristine canvas space. In Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaards words, the function of prayer is not to influence God but, rather, to change the nature of the one who prays. The artist distils the stillness of a personal prayer into a pictorial murmur like a shudder passing through ones soul.
The surprising eclecticism of the artist is his fourth phase, which essentially can be defined in his abrupt shifts in style and theme.
Although the spiritual undercurrent persists throughout all of his work, the signature ephemeral quality of the three previous phases gives way to more pronounced compositional elements. The defining quality of these works as a group lies in the fact that they are thematically independent of each other and, ironically enough, cannot be grouped.
This fourth phase deviation from a general formulaic self-defining representation is intriguing and completes the artist as it frees him from any restrictive stylistic shackles.
The spiritual dimension always lurks in Mahoneys paintings, even in the most abstract of them all
Paintings like The House of Three, 1979, demonstrate a release from the mists of impressionism. An abstracted foreground overwhelms the perspective which leads towards some sort of prison camp. The de Chirico-esque clock tower fixes official time as three oclock in an afternoon as sunlight excludes the other alternative.
The spiritual relevance of this, as the time of Christs last breath, is probably intentional. The barbed wire fence traverses the composition, enclosing a house and the tower within its perimeter. The empirical shape of the number itself meanders, river-like, as a defining element of the composition. The surreal mood defies straightforward interpretation. The enigmatic title, intended numeral reference and all, behaves like a clue, The Hour of Three, one of many in some cryptic puzzle to be solved.
State of Mind, 1979, is another work that stands out. The vertical and horizontal architectural elements are reminiscent of Charles Sheelers industrial high-rises and New York cityscapes, such as Skyscrapers, 1922. The American artist remarked that our factories are our substitute for religious expression.
Mahoneys painting might be a collage of personal thoughts and eclectic artistic influences from the most diverse of sources (A New York State of Mind was a popular mid-1970s song). Quoting Sheeler again: In a period such as ours, when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. The spiritual dimension is never far removed from Mahoneys frame of mind.
Still lifes are not a staple of Mahoneys output. Requiem on a Rose, 1977, stands out as an outstanding exception to this rule. The cubist, sharp vertical volume suggests the vase in douard Manets Roses, Tulips et Lilas dans un Vase de Christal.
Mahoney reduced the composition to bare essentials the thorns, the red of the withered rose is an organic coagulated stain at the base of the plinth-like vase. The vases reflection, refracted and deconstructed, shatters the space, evoking the jagged swaths of Clyfford Still. The flower seeps blood, sullying the white slab of the epitaph. Symbolically, the red rose represents Jesus Christ and the divine blood spilt for universal salvation. The spiritual dimension always lurks in Mahoneys paintings, even in the most abstract of them all.
Paintings like The Birth of Ichthus, 2012, and Christs Milky Way, 1973, demonstrate the artists ability at transforming traditional Christian iconography in the first case, and, in the second case, at adding poignant narrative power to an annual outdoor manifestation of Christian belief in death and resurrection, that is the Good Friday procession.
The artist explores his knowledge of Paleo-Christian terminology. Ichthus, translated from Greek as fish, is also the acronym for Jesus, Son of God, Saviour. This outstanding painting is immersed in semiotics as Mahoney presents a Nativity scene that sings with symbols and hidden meanings.
A solemn procession weaves its way across the valley; the iconic crucifixion statue known as Il-vara il-kbira, carried shoulder-high as the most spiritually salient moment of a timeless Good Friday.
The title, Christs Milky Way, 1973, implies cosmological relevance. The flow of humanity mimics the stream of the tiny points of starlight, indeed part and parcel of the galaxy to which our planetary system belongs, that meanders through the night sky. Mahoney, thus, attaches universal significance via the unity of the heavenly with the terrestrial. The silhouetted church in the background completes the narrative.
George Rouault claimed that his only objective was to paint a Christ so moving that those who see him will be converted. Mahoneys paintings have this latent power that reaches out to the depths of our soul and invite us to take a step back from the mores of our daily life to, hopefully, rediscover that silky silence conducive to contemplation.
The artist monograph, Mystic Artist Anthony Mahoney A Study of his Works and Development 1968-2017, is published by Horizon Publications. It is available from leading bookshops.
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