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THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION in Washington, DC, recently concluded an exhibition titled Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet. (1) Although the association is perhaps idiosyncratic, the title brings to mind for me the statement in the opening pages of Aristotle's Politics, in which he reflects famously that the person who does not need to be part of a state is either a god or a beast. The paintings in the exhibition from the early post-World War II period seem to annul the familiar social context of the human person and are largely in the stylistic neighborhood of abstract expressionism. Perhaps a deep weariness with the position of the human person enmeshed in society and the state was to be expected after an extended period of state-directed violence, and in rebellion against oppressive social and political contexts a search would be undertaken at the far reaches of the human spirit for a renewed understanding of the mystery of our nature. Jackson Pollock explored a path even more free of figural representation than had been attempted in the disruptions of artistic tradition preceding him, and Jean Dubuffet explicitly called for a new style of art he called "Art Brut" that aspired to as complete a renunciation of culturally conditioned sensibilities as could be accomplished. In their midst, the Catholic artist Alfonso Ossorio extended the use of Christian iconography while understanding much sooner than most the spiritual dimension to be found in the work of his two friends and artistic colleagues.

Art historian and critic B. H. Friedman offers a concise identification of artist Alfonso Ossorio (1916-90): "The Manila-born son of a Spanish sugar processor and a Filipino-Spanish-Chinese mother, the Eurasian product of Benedictine training and Oriental refinement." (2) Friedman elsewhere speculates that Ossorio was probably a lapsed Catholic who was closer to what Friedman calls "existential pantheism" in his religious vision and understanding. (3) But Ossorio's younger brother Frederic, speaking at the interment of Ossorio on June 5, 1991, called Alfonso a "prophetic paradox--in that he was both, even from a Roman Catholic perspective, canonically correct, yet wholly-holy ecumenical." (4)

Ossorio tells us that his earliest memories of art included the decoration of the Spanish colonial churches in Manila when he was a young boy, together with the art reproductions in popular magazines. (5) He was educated at St. Richard's, a Roman Catholic school in England, and then at a Benedictine school, Portsmouth Priory (now Portsmouth Abbey School) near Newport, Rhode Island, before completing his undergraduate education at Harvard, where he graduated in 1938 after completing a thesis titled "On Spiritual Influences on the Visual Representation of Christ." Although the term "theological aesthetics" probably would not have been used at that time, Ossorio's account of his thesis as an exploration of the relationship between religious attitudes and artistic images would place his thought in that territory.

Ossorio's best known work is probably the mural he painted in 1950 in the chapel of St. Joseph the Worker in Victorias on the island of Negros Occidental in the Philippines. He enjoyed the freedom of having the family wealth derived from his father's sugar mill providing patronage for the work, and he painted a large and imposing mural depicting Christ seated with his arms open wide, each arm supported by a hand of God the Father, Christ's face stern in judgment. He described the work in these terms: "It's a continual last judgment with the sacrifice of the mass that is the continual reincarnation of God coming into this world. And it worked out beautifully because the services take place usually very early because of the heat and the church had been oriented so that the sun would come in and strike the celebrant as he stood at the altar with this enormous figure behind him." (6) Belgian-born liturgical artist Ade Bethune provided mosaics for the church, and in an article in Liturgical Arts she describes Ossorio's work in terms that emphasize its theological force: "[Christ] sits in triumph over sin and death. ... He came to bring fire on the earth; His Sacred Heart is aflame and His arms extend with love. ... Alfonso was covering the sanctuary with an ever more refined work of brilliant flame." (7) Bethune and Ossorio remained friends for the remainder of his life, exchanging letters and meeting from time to time.

Other religious works in this period include pieces described by Daniel Cornell as "abstract figures" and "religious icons." (8) Two pieces from 1946 in this mode are "Veronica's Veil" and "Sacred Heart." The image of Christ imposed upon the veil breaks the face into multiple planes while leaving it recognizable with the crown of thorns and a few drops of blood beneath it and a prominent nail in the lower left corner rendering the pathos of the crucifixion to come. "Sacred Heart" is similar in color and form with the depiction simultaneously of the heart and the face of Christ, eyes closed, and a few drops of blood on the forehead and beneath the eyes, and those drops beneath the eyes suggesting tears by shape and location.

The paintings included as part of the Angels, Demons, and Savages exhibition further break apart the use of figures in Ossorio's work without completely abandoning at least suggested figuration. I observe the frequent use of circle-like shapes in many of the paintings, connoting perhaps a kind of personalism embedded in his work, with the shape suggesting the form of the eye, the face, or the heart, and thus a kind of personal core, although in a comment about the use of circles in his work Ossorio indicates that he may have in mind an association with the core of living things. "Well, the eyes are shaped--over and over again in paintings I've used concentric circles. Who is it--Emerson? Who said that the eye is the first circle. But certainly it has emotional overtones too. As you notice, they're not all human eyes by any means." (9) The painting titled Martyrs and Spectators includes many such circles (not only eyes in this case), with the figures abstracted but generally available as outlines to the viewer, with the central abstracted figure--presumably a martyr--with arms upraised and depicted to suggest wings as well and with a dark core beneath the shape of a face that brings to mind for me the burning heart of Christ in Ossorio's "Last Judgment," admittedly without the intense color featured in that work.

The Helpful Angels and Holy Mother (Mother Church No. 2) extend further into the territory of abstract expressionism with figures suggested but not easily discernible and in each case with multiple curvilinear shapes and circles in bright uplifting colors with what I can only call a positive energy powerfully at work throughout the abundance of the paper on which the painting is applied. French painter Jean Dubuffet, with whom Ossorio formed a friendship based on the admiration each had for the other's work, tells us in an essay that he finds in such works by Ossorio that "Ossorio impresses a new and enthralling orientation upon Christian spirituality." (10) He explains that Ossorio "tends toward the identification of all things: he is infected with unity, with oneness," and then indicates "that there appears in Ossorio's paintings ... in fitful gleams, and as though superimposed, the radiance of the second divine regard that affords man a new destiny. And this second face of God is no less fantastic than the other, for it is the fierce countenance of the Christ of Spain."

This observation offered by Dubuffet about Ossorio stands in partial concord with what Ossorio reports seeing in the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Ossorio was one of the earliest supporters of Pollock, and purchased Pollock's first drip painting, Number 5, 1948 (10). Ossorio has observed that Pollock did not have a developed theological language, but in an introduction he wrote for the catalog for an exhibition of Pollock's work at the Betty Parsons Gallery in NewYork in 1951, he said of Pollock's work, "His painting confronts us with a visual concept organically evolved from a belief in the unity that underlies the phenomena among which we live. Void and solid, human action and inertia, are metamorphosed and refined into the energy that sustains them and is their common denominator. ... We are presented with a visualization of the remorseless consolation--in the end is the beginning." (11) This cosmic vision infused in the work of Pollock is raised to a Christocentric religious vision in many of the works of Alfonso Ossorio.

No doubt in looking at this exhibition from the perspective of Catholic thought and culture I am predisposed to stress the Christian theological dimension that comes to appearance in the paintings of Ossorio working in the midst of the important and difficult artistic development of abstract expressionism and related styles in the middle of the twentieth century. But I find the exhibit to be illuminating by giving us an opportunity to look at the work of Pollock (and Dubuffet) in a context that includes the work of Alfonso Ossorio, and I find myself able to make progress in an engagement with Ossorio's paintings, especially by looking at them together with some of the works of Pollock. And I came away from the exhibition with a sense of wonder that the Catholic-inspired vision of Ossorio participates and belongs in the important and impressive artistic context of a style such as abstract expressionism--a style viewers seeking the familiar consolations of religiously important art might have at one time considered as the triumph of secularism in the development of artistic tradition.

I mentioned the motivation the abstract expressionists might have felt to turn away from the war-charged political and social atmosphere after two world wars, and if we extend observation into the global political tensions in the age of nuclear armament in the second half of the twentieth century such motivation becomes even more understandable. This is exactly the territory examined by the first article in this issue of Logos by Frank L. Jones titled "'The High Priest of Deterrence': Sir Michael Quinlan, Nuclear Weapons, and the Just War Tradition." In a public and military policy field dominated, Jones says, by "physicists, military officers, economists and political scientists," the Jesuit-educated Michael Quinlan, as a senior British defense official, brought the Catholic tradition to bear upon the issues of nuclear strategy and international security through an emphasis on just war theory. Quinlan served as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and continued in that position until his death in 2009. The article shows that Quinlan refused to set aside his Catholic identity when dealing with issues of state, while also recognizing the religious diversity (including the absence of religious commitment) of the political community he served: "His strong moral views, which make him distinct among Cold War strategists, demanded that he reconcile his religious beliefs with his official responsibilities."

Molly Morrison in "St. Catherine of Siena and the Spectacle of Public Execution" draws upon a detailed understanding of criminal procedures in fourteenth-century Italy to demonstrate how St. Catherine in a letter described her participation in an execution in a manner that viewed the event theatrically and thereby rendered it religiously effective as a public event. Morrison shows how Catherine fulfilled the role of comforter for the condemned man and how through her participation she was able "to transform the gruesome event of public execution into a type of re-enactment of the death of Christ or one of the martyrs." Catherine's account of this execution in her letter also enables her to teach through the event. The letter is addressed to her confessor, Raymond of Padua, and just as Catherine was herself spattered with the blood of the executed man, "she declares her impassioned wish to see Raymond 'drowned' and 'drenched' in the blood of Christ." Catherine's account demonstrates how she was able to use the brutal spectacle of a public execution to establish a public display of God's saving grace.

In "Catholic Substance in The Golden Bowl," Roger Duncan suggests that Catholicism plays a surprisingly important role in the novels of Henry James, even though James was himself a Protestant. In his earlier works, James expresses a distant respect for the moral authority of the Catholic Church, but Duncan suggests that in his later works "the Church becomes subtly central." He demonstrates this point by an examination of The Golden Bowl, drawing upon the categories of the aesthetic, ethical, and religious ways of life established by Kierkegaard. The chief protagonists in this novel are Catholic, and numerous references to Catholicism portray the complex moral situation of the novel. "The novel cannot be reduced to a humanistic reduction of Christian values but is rather, as James intends it, a robust application of that Catholic power that is at the heart of Europe. And I want to say that reading it this way allows it to shed light for modern Catholics on the specific challenges of the development of contemporary lay spirituality."

Daniel P. Toma, in "A Dionysian/Thomistic Framework for the Integration of Science and Catholic Tradition," points to the limitations of the materialist world view that dominates modern thought and proposes instead a cosmology in which science takes its proper place in relation to other domains of knowledge. Toma proposes that within a cosmology that remains open to theology, "the data of science, removed from the secular paradigms under which it is presented, positively contribute to the Catholic faith and our understanding of the material world in which we live." Such a cosmology can be found, he suggests, in the concept of the hierarchy of being, "synthesized by St. Dionysius the Areopagite and commented on by Aquinas." The universe leads progressively and by stages up through such a hierarchy, leading the human person to the fulfillment of communion with God. "At its core, the universe is a liturgical structure of greater and lesser creatures--angels, men, animals, plants, and minerals, constituted as a hierarchy that participates in and reflects the goodness of God, and represents and mediates the life of grace."

Peter M. Collins, in "Philosophy in Blessed John Paul II's Catholic University: An Antidote to Relativistic Secularism," provides an account of the rise of relativism over the last one hundred years, leading to "the diminution of independent reflection, a deficiency of social and political leadership, an increasing indifference to history, reductionistic orientations, a narrowing scope of reason, a certain malaise of the spirit, and the failure to capitalize on the values of Christianity." He then turns to several of the writings of Blessed John Paul II in which the role of philosophy in the university together with a robust portrayal of the nature of philosophy provides a way of overcoming the impoverishment of contemporary intellectual life and reopening pathways to philosophy's association with theology. This account of philosophy can be found in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), Veritatis Splendor (1993), and Fides et Ratio (1998). "In a Catholic university inspired by John Paul ... natural faith must be united with supernatural faith, and those with reason, as well as philosophy with theology in an ongoing search for God the Creator and Redeemer."

"Becoming an Exemplar for God: Three Early Interpretations of Forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer" by John Gavin, SJ, examines commentaries by Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor to gain insight into the petition asking for the forgiveness of sins or debts. Gavin first considers the differences between the version of the prayer presented by Luke and the version in Matthew's Gospel and arrives at a focus on the relationship between the petition for God's forgiveness and the statement concerning our forgiveness of others. Gavin works toward the observation that all of the commentaries examined see our forgiveness of others as a necessary disposition when we approach God asking for God's mercy, but finds in the ancient commentaries in particular a more far-reaching understanding: "The Our Father represents a bold summation of the Christian message that proclaims the restoration and elevation of the human person to the image and likeness of God. Each petition must be interpreted within this dynamic movement inspired by God's condescension and adoption of man."

This issue concludes with our Reconsiderations feature. Michael Hollerich in "'Existence in Christ': Erik Peterson and the Postwar Crisis of Humanism," introduces the work of Catholic convert Erik Peterson (1890-1960) and then provides a translation from the German of Peterson's essay, "What Is Man?"


(1.) Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet, exhibition co-organized by The Phillips Collection and the Parrish Art Museum, and shown at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, February 9--May 12, 2013 and at Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, July 21--October 27, 2013. This preface also draws from the published catalog for the exhibition, Klaus Ottmann and Dorothy Kosinski, Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association withThe Phillips Collection and the Parrish Art Museum, 2013).

(2.) B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible (NewYork: McGraw Hill, 1972), 130.

(3.) "Alfonso Ossorio--Computer.m4v," YouTube video, 11:17, posted by "mtrench6," October 5, 2011, Accessed May 28, 2013.

(4.) Handwritten manuscript in The Ade Bethune Collection in the archives of Saint Catherine University, St. Paul, MN.

(5.) Biographical information throughout this paragraph is from "Oral history interview with Alfonso Ossorio, 1968 Nov. 19," in the Archives of American Art (, accessed May 28, 2013.

(6.) "Interview with Alfonso Ossorio," Archives of American Art.

(7.) I lifted this quotation from the article by Klaus Ottman in Angels, Demons, and Savages, 11. Ottman cites Bethune's article, "Philippine Adventure," Liturgical Arts 19 (August 1951): 112-13.

(8.) Daniel Cornell and Mark Dean Johnson, ed. Asian American Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970 (San Francisco: University of California Press, 2008), 35.

(9.) "Interview with Alfonso Ossorio," Archives of American Art.

(10.) Jean Dubuffet, "The Initiatory Paintings of Alfonso Ossorio," trans. Richard Howard and included in Angels, Demons, and Savages, 124.

(11.) Cited by B.H. Friedman in Jackson Pollock: Energy MadeVisible, 186.

Michael C. Jordan

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Author:Jordan, Michael C.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jun 22, 2013
Previous Article:Aeterni patris, encyclical of Pope Leo XIII: on the restoration of Christian philosophy.
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