Rosemary Crumlin discusses the sacred and the secular in contemporary art, starting with the exhibition she curated at the National Gallery of Victoria: Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. Running form 24 April to 26 July 1998, the exhibition features an extraordinarily broad and diverse account of twentieth century art - European, American, South American and Australian - ranging form Maurice Denis to Cindy Sherman, including Kokoschka, Beuys, Kollwitz, Kandinsky, Bacon, Sutherland, Ensor, Tapies, Dix, Matisse, Roualt, Newmann, Beckmann, Schmitt-Rottluff, Tanning, O'Keefe, Krasner, Rothko, Motherwell, McCahon, Spencer, Picasso, Rover Thomas, Audrey Flack, Danile Goldstein, Grosz, Kahlo, Jenny Holzer, Carrington. The paintings are sourced from public and private collections across Europe, South and North America and Australia, including the Tate Gallery, Fitzwilliam Museum, Vatican Museum, Folkwang Museum Essen, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Metropolitan Museum New York, MOMA New York. She is interviewed by Juliet Peers.

JP : In terms of the Australian public's experiences of the public gallery, this show is a who's who of twentieth century art. This is one of the more concerted accounts of mainstream twentieth century art seen in this country since the 1975 Modern Masters exhibition, which (despite the many remarkable overseas loan shows that were seen in Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s) captured public imagination about the possibility of the "blockbuster", as understood in Australian public galleries.
RC : I would hope that that is true. I think that the exhibition is particularly strong in current work. Especially it is strong in the work of artists whom we rarely see in Australia, who are collected and talked about overseas. The advantage of working with living artists is that I was able to ask each artist: "are you interested in this sort of exhibition. Do you wish to be in it?". I discussed with them what the exhibition was about, or had someone else do that. A number of women artists said to me when I talked to them: "Well if it is about the Scripture and about being pious in faith, I'm not interested, but if what you are concerned about is what's going on in the world, what's happening in my body, what about justice and injustice, then I want to be part of it."
JP : This exhibition will be an enriching experience as you are showing certain artists who have not been seen here before in a public gallery, including many of the German and Mexican paintings.
RC : Somebody like Frida Kahlo, to my understanding has only been seen in this country once before, in Adelaide. I don't think works by Leonora Carrington have been here at all or Maria Izquierdo. They are artists who are so well known in Mexico and increasingly in America.
JP : A lot of these artists are known in Australia, but their paintings have not been seen. At one level, this exhibition is about people's experiences of art history. Many of these names are known to students, in particular, and art professionals, through the availability of publications, but despite the prominent place that they hold in students' imaginations, (especially the surrealist women) how rarely have our galleries brought these paintings out to their public?
RC : Not all of these paintings are so easy to get. When setting up an exhibition, the first task is how do you get the paintings that you want? We have been very lucky in that a number of people around the world are very interested in this show. For instance the wonderful Remedios Varo Creation of the Birds, is being lent by the major collector of her works, who is taking it off his own wall.
JP : Having been reproduced in a number of books and seen on the internet, it is a work that people will be very familiar with.
RC : That's true also of Dorothea Tanning's Guardian Angel. If you look in almost any book on feminist art history you will find a reproduction of it. There is that stream going through the exhibition, not only the German artists, the Mexicans, the Aboriginal and the women artists, but quite a few surrealists as well.
JP : Where did you start building up the knowledge of these paintings, including the iconic works as well as those by artists about whom there is relatively little information circulated in Australia?
RC : I had a network of very significant international scholars, who are specialists in the field, such as Mark C. Taylor, Diana Apostolos Cappadona, Friedhelm Mennekes S.J., Horst Schwebel, Tom Devonshire-Jones. It's not an exhibition that I have done alone; it has been made possible by people around the world at different levels who have felt the exhibition was worth doing and have contributed their expertise. All credit to the National Gallery of Victoria for taking the show on and to its sponsors.
JP : Unlike other institutions in Australia, the Gallery does not have a significant history of taking on projects that are not 'recognisable' in terms of known parameters of Australian connoisseurship and gallery practice.
RC : In terms of content, it may not be what people expect. An exhibition like this is not about sacred art, that is art that is connected with worship, the forms of worship associated with the Church. There are issues around the difference between what's sacred and what's spiritual and what's spiritual and what's religious. They are very important distinctions to make, otherwise there will be endless confusion at the time of the exhibition. People will go to it thinking that they are going to get some pious images that they can pray in front of and find that they will be confronted by images that will raise very radical questions.
I have always believed that most people in their lives would face some sort of fundamental question at some stage, even though the twentieth century has reacted very strongly against institutionalised religion and there has been a loss of that sort of faith. I believe that artists have still asked the same fundamental questions and explored them in their own way.
What I am trying to do in this exhibition is to track these questions across the century. These questions can be generally talked about as religious questions or questions of a religious imagination. They start at the beginning of the century with explicitly Christian images and then as you get the influence of primitive art and Eastern art and the loss of power of the Christian institutions, then we get work that becomes more diverse and more generally spiritual. That is the sort of tracking you get across the century.
JP : There is a parallel movement in the aesthetics as well as the content.
RC : You get a shift from a narrative, figurative art into something that comes to be totally abstract, then back out of it again, in a way, into pop, realistic art, into all the diverse things that are happening now, into post modernism. There is a shift that you are tracking at the same time, the shifts in major style and also in ethics: what the society holds valuable.
JP : There is a saying "After Auschwitz there cannot be any poetry", which could be taken to mean that the human experiences of the twentieth century defy - are impossible to come to terms within - accepted creative language, whereas you are saying that twentieth century art does not shy away from contemplating its social and political context nor a sense of responsibility about those issues.
RC : I think that as long as people are people, they will try to do that. Art is a language of communication, the same as music and literature are. The reality is that all that has not stopped since Auschwitz. There are still people struggling to express the horror of it, or the joy of what their life is or the sheer frustration of trying to make sense of it all. These are all religious type questions.
JP : What of people who live in the twentieth century and can see no greater meaning in it than the death of the values that they hold dear or a mindless, decadent anarchy. Their reaction is to just clamp down and reject the society around them as too worldly and too wild to engage with.
RC : You do find people who do that, and they are often people who take refuge in one religion or another and in the extreme security that such things offer. But I would like to argue that that is a denial of the religious imagination, the religious thrust. That is really an escape from rather than entering into the religious imagination.
JP : The range of questions being explored by artists indicates that twentieth century art has not turned its back on its era.
RC : I can't think of anyone who is very significant in the twentieth century, who, since Joseph Beuys, isn't involved in and engaged with spiritual issues, or whose work hasn't opened people's eyes in such a way as to permit them to become involved or engaged.
In the latter half of the twentieth century formalism exhausted itself in the pursuit of the perfect abstract picture surface. As for the Impressionists before them, the goal - limited as it was - was achievable. In those circumstances it is a case of change or wither.
JP : As an art historian when considering the relationship between "religion" and "contemporary art", it is frequently forgotten that the Christian Church was once one of the key patrons of modern art and the radical art of the past.
RC : Probably Baroque art began the breakdown of the relationship between the Church and the artist. A number of artists and church people around the world had been working especially during the 1930s and 1940s and during the first part of the 1950s. I also have to say, even though it was not used formally in the Church, that the sculpture exhibition, World Without End, that I did earlier in 1997 at Saint Patrick's Cathedral brought some very contemporary artists into a sacred space in an Australian context.
That came about at the invitation of the Cathedral Centenary Committee. The final exhibition was the result of a strong collaboration between the coordinator, myself, the original curator jock Clutterbuck and five sculptors: Christopher Langton, Louise Paramour, Asher Bilu, Chris White and Lauren Berkowitz. The coordinator acted as a sort of mediator between the official church and the artists. It is critical to get your key people together because it is the quality of the art and the artist which is so important and the questions spin out from that.
JP : There are also a lot of sub-themes and regional traditions when looking at this issue of spirituality and art. We spoke on an earlier occasion about the strong presence of religious and philosophical issues in German contemporary art, which has taken a different turn through the twentieth century to the Franco-American-Anglo tradition of developing formalism that played a dominant role in Australian visions of modern art history.
RC : I think that German culture has always been very interested in questions of religion. You will find that some of the most vital contemporary spiritual work is coming out of living German artists, like Anselm Kiefer and earlier on with people like Beckmann. You could go right through and look at that ruthless philosophical questioning.
JP : These artists have a tradition of readily confronting difficult philosophical questions.
RC : You have the Harald Duwe "Last Supper", which originated when he was walking with his friends - eleven as it turned out, very convenient! - in the forest and they were arguing about whether it is possible in this secular day and age for an artist to do a religious painting and so he goes home and creates his Last Supper, which includes his friends and on the table Christ's head and hands. I doubt whether such a question would even be asked in Australia but in Germany these questions are still argued about. This does not mean that the German people are more religious but they come out of a different culture and different mindset.
JP : It is an ease with abstract ideas; it's not about kneeling down and praying or seeing visions of saints.
RC : In Marburg there is a religious university with two to three thousand students, most of whom would do art history of some kind at some stage during their course. That then has a very big spin off.
JP : We have been talking about art professionals and their relation to spirituality, but that raises the issue of how much visual arts or art history content would there be in standard Australian theological curricula.
RC : Almost none, even though people have fought for it, because the Australian Churches are distinctive in that they were frequently positioned, like the early settlers, in "fighting" for "survival" and that art was regarded as an extra on the side. So you have a whole system of setting up education that does not really value culture , people don't have time or energy to value culture, it takes some kind of leisure. I think that things are changing but it will take a while to seep through.
JP : I think this relates back to what we have discussed - that art is often regarded by Australian religious communities and groups in a strictly functional sense, as an aid to faith, rather than as a point where questions can be asked.
RC : And of course everybody, now that the millennium is coming to an end, is starting to ask these questions.
JP : So that brings us back to history and thoughts of the Medieval millennium of 1000, when everybody was convinced that the world was going to end.
RC : We are almost back in a circle. I think for a lot of people today there is a loss of faith. It does not mean that they are not interested in these questions nor that they do not ask the questions. It is just that they are not prepared to interest themselves or commit themselves into a particular way because it does not offer them any sort of security.
JP : This issue also demarcates the art of today from the art of the past, as once there was an art theoretical belief in a parallel certainty.
RC : There was within the art itself a belief in a thing called "art" that had certain internal laws that everyone would agree to. Once you come into post modernism, to use that language, you do not have that security anymore.
However I don't think that art and the church have ever fully come back together again. I think that we are in an age that is extremely individualistic and secular, and we have a Church that has lost touch with the artists as society has by and large lost touch with the artists.
JP : In many ways, however, artists are now freer, less inhibited, in picking up on issues that are of moment to people, whereas organised religions often lag behind in keeping in touch with lived experience and desires.
RC : So the post modernist questions are the same questions that the artists are asking, the writers are asking, the media is asking. The breakdown of the Asian economy is certainly posing the same questions. You know now that there is nothing any more that is secure or immovable.
JP : It is not only about canons of taste or how to do "art" the right way. Pluralism and dysphorias in art production reflect those bigger uncertainties.
RC : Globalisation means that we are living in a single world, but it is a world where things people once respected have got forgotten: security, tradition, taboos, by and large taboos have gone, and certainly by the time we come to religion and church you get the breakdown of the institution. You get smaller numbers of people holding harder and harder to an institution on the one hand, but that does not mean that other people are not asking the same major questions.