I am borrowing again from my learned priest friend Emily Hylden (with her express permission this time) who has a knack for locating the most intriguing religious art and piercing the mysteries behind it so as to extract the very essence of what was intended by the artist. The above piece titled the “Lynching” is by Julius Bloch (1888-1966) an American artist just one generation away from German Jewish immigrants. To give you some background I quote from the website of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, see Philadelphia Museum:
Julius Bloch (1888-1966) had a natural empathy for working people, whom he captured in moving portraits. He approached the subject of a stevedore, a prisoner, a factory worker, or a dispossessed farmer with the dignity and formality usually reserved for commissioned portraits. The financial hardships of Bloch’s own family–German Jews who emigrated (sic website spelling) to Philadelphia in 1893–made him attentive to the emotional burdens of the Depression, its crushing effect on the morale of the average person.
Bloch’s compassionate identification with the suffering of innocent people naturally drew him to the Black community, which was faced with racial discrimination as well as economic privations. Powerful images of lynching in his work of the 1930s were followed by sympathetic portraits of Black community leaders and artists such as Horace Pippin.
Emily viewed this piece during an exhibition appropriately titled “America is Hard to See” put on by the Whitney Museum in New York as the inaugural exhibit of a new building the museum had just opened. “America is Hard to See” contains five prints, of which Lynching is one portraying racially motivated murders in the guise of vigilante justice. There is a link in Emily’s posting that provides access the Whitney’s website containing additional information about the exhibition: see The Whitney. I will reproduce just a bit of the description just to provide some more background:
The Whitney’s new building allowed the museum to send curators deep into its archives to resurface artworks that hadn’t been seen in many years and tell new stories. One of the more disturbing, and thought-provoking, moments in the inaugural exhibition, “America Is Hard to See,” are five prints of lynching’s — racially motivated murders in the guise of vigilante justice — created by artists in the 1930s in protest of the then-widespread mob-rule barbarity. The Tuskegee Institute counts 117 African-Americans killed in this manner that decade.
These larger tensions make the images especially pertinent 80 years later, in light of massive protests around the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown as well as the recent uprising in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. These events were “developing as we worked on this show, so it’s not in response to that specifically,” Foster says. “It’s unfortunate that these are so timely. It shows that this problem is a long-standing one.”
Unlike my learned friend, and my other learned clerical friends, I am but a babe in the woods when it comes to theology but I see two questions in this dark foreboding work. First, how can God permit his creation, which is supposed to reflect his goodness and love, wreak such destruction on itself in such a brutal way? And, the image of the lynchee (a new word coined by Paul ala legalese) bears a not too subtle resemblance to another victim very familiar to us all who hung on a similar tree but with more proportioned Roman lines. I am talking about Jesus, of course.
As for the first question it dovetails into a discussion in a post I did on Friday, October 2 concerning lessons learned about creation. God above all wants us to love him and to obtain that love he sets us free to live our lives as we will in the hope that we will truly love and serve him as a voluntary act and not one which has been coerced. In this piece we see what happens when creation becomes corrupted. When creation becomes the captive of prejudice it tends toward its own destruction. Little did those self-appointed vigilantes know it but they were actually destroying themselves by their act of vengeance. We all engage in this sort of behavior in various degrees thinking that if we just exert enough force on those we hate, or do not like, we can make everything right. Like Dylann Roof who thought that if he could just kill enough black people he could set in motion a waive a “cleansing” to make everything the way it should be.
The second question is a bit more subtle. If you examine the bindings of the lychee and the positions of the figures it appears that the lynchors took great pains to make sure that the lynchee could not escape from that tree. The artist has taken a slight liberty here in that the rope around the neck is missing but the arms, legs, and body are very securely fastened. This suggests to me that perhaps what the artists might have had in mind was the idea that generally we prefer to keep Jesus in his place firmly fixed to the crucifix or enshrined in a church. We keep him fixed and enshrined because we fear his coming off that crucifix and actually entering our lives will force us to make changes which we simply do not want to make.
I am not sure either of my sentiments reflect what the artist had in mind, but it is what I see when I contemplate this work. I welcome comments by anyone who sees something different.
Note: Along with George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland Julius Bloch was a very decidedly American artist who was just one generation away from immigrant parents. Consider what would we have missed had his parents been denied entry into our country?