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Contemporary Irish art: a view from Cologne

Contemporary Irish art: a view from CologneAttention was drawn to the Hugh Lane Gallery’s Francis Bacon collection recently when a record price was set for post-war art in Sotheby’s. Bacon was the subject of a Jesuit’s interest when Friedhelm Mennekes SJ gave a lecture on the artist at the Dublin Gallery in April.


A painting by Francis Bacon was sold for $52.7m at a recent Sotheby’s auction. An anonymous telephone bidder paid the record-breaking price for ’Study From Innocent X’ by the Baggot Street-born artist. Having been estimated at $30m, the new high price caused some to reconsider the value of the Dublin City Gallery collection, where the artist’s studio has been preserved. The worth of the collection has been appreciated by Irish art-lovers who had, in the week prior to the auction, gathered to hear a German Jesuit, Friedhelm Mennekes, lecture on the work of Francis Bacon.

Friedhelm Mennekes is the author of numerous articles and has published interviews with such artists as Joseph Beuys and Francis Bacon. Since 1987, Mennekes has overseen the development of Kunst-Station Sankt Peter (the Saint Peter Art Station). The parish church has become a centre for contemporary art and music where exhibitions of modern art and concerts of contemporary music regularly take place. Among the artists to have been featured in the Kunst-Station are Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Eduardo Chillida, Anish Kapoor, David Salle, Antonio Saura, Cindy Sherman and Rosemarie Trockel.

The once-thriving parish of Saint Peter’s in Cologne was largely destroyed during the Second World War. By the 1980’s, the small resident population and the diminishing attendance prompted the Jesuit pastor of the parish, Friedhelm Mennekes, to consider the future of the church. He began to develop the church as a centre for the arts in Cologne, as the city grew in importance in German contemporary art.

“We have a very small parish, but we call people together from all over Cologne and the Rhineland area to come to mass and to see what we are doing in our three centers. We have a religious centre, an artistic centre and a contemporary music centre.” Mennekes proudly describes the music centre, which has one of the most radical modern organs in the world, as featuring only contemporary music. The art centre which is part of Kunst Station Sankt Peter shows exhibitions of artists from all over the world, changing every six or eight weeks or so.

Mennekes acknowledges that western history has seen a close connection between these the spheres of religion and art, as artists drew on Christian vocabulary and myths. He is keen, however to maintain that there should be a distinction between art and religion nowadays. “I think it’s very basic to say that art and religion are separate – and it’s very good that they are.” He sees that a separation helps establish what art and religion need from each other. “I think religion is an internal aspect of an artistic production,” he says. He sees the church as needing more reflective thinking. It might have a greater consciousness of the place of art, he concludes, saying, “The church needs more than all these illustrations and stuff”.

Art, for Mennekes, can benefit by being free and autonomous. It is not a vehicle for religious truth which is at the direction of the church. “It’s questioning, and trying to give expression and form to something which is questioned.” Because art is about enquiry and reflection, Mennekes believes that it has an essentially spiritual character even though the concerns of the artist and of the church are distinct. Mennekes says that this distinction is comparable to the way that the questions of any two people are different from each other. He suggests that two people engaged in any conversation will inspire each other, give tips to each other and draw attention to different priorities: “They can open each other’s eyes,” Mennekes says. “The principle of the artist always doubts and questions, and the principle of the believer is, let’s say, to confess, to hold something sure.” The artist and the theologian may find allies in each other, as each approaches reality with questions and doubt.

Mennekes sees that art is not about promoting a particular theological insight nor is it to be employed solely for ecclesiastical decoration. He insists that the artist should be free to explore. “Art is not about religion on the first level; art is art,” Mennekes says, as he concludes that it is up to the viewer to bring their own insight and interpretation to any work of art. He sees that his role, like that of any contemporary religious viewer, is to make the connections between his search for meaning and that of the artist. “As a person who is bound into contemporary art and into the church, I always see bridges. But the bridge has to be constructed by the viewer not by the painter or not by someone else. Art is always full of interesting aspects and I would say always has the basics to construct that bridge.”

A frequent visitor to Ireland, Mennekes notices the pride that Irish people take in the economy. “The Irish economy is taking a different direction. Like Irish politics, it is going different ways at the moment. I think this is a country that has really woken up. At the moment, it’s one of the most interesting nations in all Europe because of the great changes.” Mennekes suggests that Irish art, too, has its own direction and insight, as conversation with him reveals his familiarity with Irish art. “For many years,” he says, “I have had a special interest in what is going on in contemporary art in Ireland.”

He acknowledges that many Germans have a romantic idea of Ireland, recognising it as spiritually distinct and as having a complex history and culture. He sees that something of what is true in this perception is what has contributed to contemporary art in Ireland. “I think the scene is smaller, but it’s going along very openly. Some of the artists, photographers, painters or others are really beginning to get attention on the continent: Seán Scully or Gerard Byrne, for example – I’m exhibiting Seán Shanahan at the moment. I think there are many important artists.”

Asked what he would say to Irish people who are not sure what to make of contemporary art works, Mennekes displays a slight exasperation, as he answers a question with which he is familiar. “What I would say is: look at them, just look at them and don’t say ‘I don’t understand this’ or ‘It’s not what I think art is’.” Returning to his theme of enquiry he states, “Art is always questioning and art is always provoking”. He encourages Irish people to appreciate the art that is around them. “Have a look at art,” he says. “There are many galleries here that I am going to visit, like the very interesting Museums of Modern Art or the Hugh Lane or even the National Gallery. Just go and see. I think it’s good enough that you go – just go to see and not to try to understand. Art is not for understanding.”

Mennekes is interested in how some current Irish artists use religious ideas and references. Asked about Abigail O’Brien, whose ‘Sacraments’ exhibition showed an evident religious reference, he answers enthusiastically, “Abigail is an Irish artist and she is a photographer, a great photographer, really well known on the continent”. He is keen to point out that she has command of her craft as well as being comfortable in her exploration of religious ideas.

“She knows her business, how to make really fantastic and top-quality photos. But on the other side, she has an Irish and Catholic identity with which she has to struggle. And she is someone who tries to deal with these, with her own experiences – the role of women, the role of the family, the role of the pressure of some sacramental traditions. She’s struggling and questioning and, in her own way, she makes her reflections by doing art. Not by writing, not by teaching, not by thinking, but by producing art. And what’s coming out is really shocking, touching, but always cleansing and, in a way, a step forward. It’s a step forward not only for her personally, but also I think for people living in this country.”

Mennekes was one of few people to interview Francis Bacon. He asked the artist to allow him to exhibit a painting in Sankt Peter, suggesting that the Gothic church called for the hanging of a triptych. The painting, Triptych ‘71, in which Bacon reacted to the death of George Dyer, was eventually shown in the church and remains as one of its most successful exhibitions.

It is in Bacon’s engagement with his world and with its questions that Mennekes sees an essentially religious character in Bacon’s work. “To me he is one of the most important religious artists in the world because if he has a problem he questions, and if he wants to understand something he really creates it.” Bacon’s reaction to bereavement led him to reflect deeply on his own pain and was expressed in his art. “I think this is what religion is especially about: to reflect on your own problems, or your own broken heart, or your own doubts. It’s what makes living in these times so difficult. I think everyone has to react in a positive and a creative way and Bacon is one such person.”

Mennekes discerns a core strand which contemporary art has in common with the religious quest: he sees that religion is not about offering answers, but is a means of engaging people with their existential realities.
The first reaction to a Bacon painting may be to its technical expertise, Mennekes suggests. The viewer for whom religion is important may find that their own questions are echoed in what is expressed in the painting. Mennekes makes a comparison with literature: the viewer may call to mind ideas from such poets as T.S. Eliot, whose ‘Ash Wednesday’ is itself close to Dante and draws, in turn, on liturgical motifs and on biblical images. “A person like Bacon is related to structures like these. I think he touches these things.”

Mennekes believes that something of Bacon’s significance lies in his ability to engage with the world of art and with what are fundamental human questions. The artist offers insight and meaning to those who, on their part, are prepared to allow the bridge to be built.

Any study of Irish tells of the ebb and flow of religion and of art. While Friedhelm Mennekes points to the importance of keeping these two aspects of life distinct, it may be timely for those concerned with each sphere to look again at the state of the other, to query assumptions and to see where bridges might helpfully be built.

Saint Peter’s Jesuit Church

Francis Bacon Studio

Abigail O’Brien

Seán Shanahan

Seán Scully

Gerard Byrne

(via AMDG Newsletter: Contemporary Irish art: a view from Cologne)