Church Actually: Perceiving colour and life

Updated 11:00AM, Monday March 19th, 2012 by The Editor, Be the first to comment! seperator

Gerard Kelly explains the themes of this year's Spring Harvest, starting with lessons drawn from some great artists to see the world as God sees it.

Chemin de Fauvisme

The picturesque fishing village of Collioure lies in the extreme south-western corner of France, close to the city of Perpignan and a little over 20 km from the border with Spain. Well known to the sailors of the Greek and Roman worlds, it later served as the summer home of the kings of Morocco and was a significant lay-over for the knights of the Crusades. But ancient as the town may be, its greatest claim to fame came later – through pilgrims of a very different sort. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries artists from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Picasso found inspiration in the area's temperate climate and intense southern light. For many years Collioure was a thriving centre of the French art scene.

Two painters in particular, Henri Matisse and André Derain, are associated with the town. In the summer of 1905 the pair produced some 242 canvases here between them: paintings of such vibrant colour and wild brush-strokes that they gave birth to the first significant art movement of the twentieth century. When they exhibited their work in Paris an unimpressed critic compared the experience to being "trapped in a cage full of wild animals". From his comment the name fauves (literally, "wild animals") was given to the artists, and "Fauvism" was born. If you visit Collioure today you will find this association celebrated in a unique permanent exhibition, "Le Chemin du Fauvisme" (The Fauvism Path).

To add to this unique experience, Catalan artist Marc André De Figueres has constructed twelve empty picture frames, each one mounted on a pole and placed close to one of the Fauvist works. Carefully angled to catch the views the artists sought to reproduce, the empty frames challenge the visitor to see what the artist saw while at the same time considering what the artist made of what he saw.

Contemporary visitors to Collioure, viewing this ancient building through Figueres' golden frame, cannot help but compare their own impoverished vision with the colour and life that Derain saw. The very contrast challenges them to consider the "truths" that the artist has seen and they have not. When the Mediterranean sun hits an old stone wall, all those colours are there. The sea can seem impossibly blue on such a day. The eye of the artist has not seen things that are not there, but has seen more completely what is there already. Artists, like prophets, are not looking at a world no one else can see; they are looking upon what everyone else sees but seeing it differently. Where we see shades of grey, a great artist might see explosions of colour.

When I visited Collioure late in 2008 I was deeply struck by the "Chemin du Fauvism" exhibition. Like thousands of tourists before, I stood looking at a grey church through an empty golden frame and was convicted of my own lack of vision and imagination. What would it take, I wondered, for me to see the colours a great artist might see?

A student more of mission than of art, more familiar with churches than galleries, I accepted this rebuke at the very heart of my faith. I understood that here was a metaphor that made sense of many of the unnamed feelings I had lived with, and recognized in others, for many years. Standing in the stark light of this contrast – the experience of looking simultaneously at a dull, grey building and at the carnival of colour an artist has seen in it – I was forced to consider my own misgivings about the way I have lived out my faith, and the way I see it widely being lived.

This has become a vital metaphor to me in recent years as I have wrestled with the loss of colour that so many people describe in their experience of the Christian faith. How has a movement that began as an explosion of colour and life become so bland – so grey – in our experience?

It would be gratifying to be able to dismiss this as a trivial question, but history does not allow us to do so. In the century since Derain and Matisse first painted in Collioure, tens of millions of people have walked away from commitment to the Christian churches of the West. A continent that once had church and the experience of church at the very heart of its life and culture now does not. Whatever hold the Christian story once had on the European imagination, it is losing or has lost. And those walking away from faith often experience their journey as a kind of liberation. Looking back over their shoulder to see what they have left behind, they see grey. Old buildings; empty creeds; bland faith. What they do not see is colour and life.

And yet the church is, in its origins, God's brilliant idea. It is his plan; the Creator's way of reaching and redeeming his creation. It is a sparkling idea, a concept radiant with light and joy. Words like "brilliant", "bright" and "beautiful" can legitimately be used to describe it. But such words sound hollow, all too often, when applied to our experience of church. What happened to the fountain of colour God switched on at Pentecost? Where did the explosion of joy go? How did a movement of life and exuberance become, for so many, a source of greyness in our world?

Gerard Kelly

When we came to these questions in the planning of Spring Harvest 2012, we identified four specific "brilliant ideas" that create the framework of the New Testament church: four essential elements of the church's identity and purpose. If the church were a kitchen table, these would be the four legs. They hold the vision together, calling us to a life lived in full colour.

Taken from Church Actually by Gerard Kelly, publshed by Monarch Books. Available from Eden.



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