The Influence of the Avant Garde on Modern Liturgical Art

The question of how liturgical rites organically develop has been, for many years now, a point of frequent discussion and consideration. But what about that which vests the liturgical rites, namely, the liturgical arts? How might those be understood as properly or improperly developing? Certainly a critique which frequently finds voice is with regard to 'modern' sacred art and architecture. Often the comment is made that they are uninspiring and lacking in the qualities of nobility or beauty. This critique is not without merit in my estimation, though it must be said that, as it stands, it is rather generalized. Lumping all things 'contemporary' or 'modern' into one generalized bucket is no more satisfying than suggesting that all things "traditional" (a vague definition in its own right) are exemplars of noble beauty -- and yet I can think of many a piece of Victorian devotional art that I would characterize as neither noble nor beautiful. As regards 'modernity,'  this is where we must begin to sift the wheat from the chaff as we become more conscious of this category loosely called the Other Modern -- which is itself made up of quite a variety of different styles and approaches. That caveat aside, I thought it would be interesting to dig into this critique a bit more and consider some of the roots of the forms of modernity that are most often criticized -- and not unjustly.

Primitivism as 'Modernity' in the Liturgical Arts

To seek out the origins of this particular manifestation of modernity in liturgical art, we need to give consideration to the general artistic currents that had been developing toward the end of the 19th century and which accelerated greatly within the first half of the 20th century.

One of the strong currents found within the avant-garde was the influence of "primitivism." This looked to early African sources for inspiration. Pablo Picasso was particularly influential in this regard and it is well known that his signature portrait style -- which, in a cubist fashion, showed the face in both portrait and profile at once -- came about after his viewing of an exhibition of African masks. He introduced this influence to a shocked art world in his 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907.
Picasso was not alone in this interest and influence and it seems quite unlikely that this notable current in the art world did not directly or indirectly influence certain schools associated with the Liturgical Movement, particularly as the concept of speaking to the homo modernus -- modern man -- grew.  A critical presupposition here was that modern man was becoming (or had become) somehow ontologically different from his forbears in other ages and therefore new approaches and visions were necessary. The second presupposition, which is connected to and flows from the first, was that classical forms were somehow less capable of speaking to modern man. Linked to all of this was a growing 'cult of the new' tied to an increasing anti-traditionalism in the West -- at least amongst the cultural leaders and elites -- which only accelerated after the two world wars. Outside of art you could likewise see this trend and it came out even in the language: a 'new theology' (nouvelle theologie) a "new Pentecost" and so on.

How much of this was philosophical and how much purely stylistic (at least for the artist) will vary on a case by case basis. But to see the parallel here, artistically speaking, a stylistic comparison may well suffice:

Left: "Head of a Woman" by Pablo Picasso. Right: An example from a ca. 1940, Station of the Cross
To the left is Picasso's "Head of a Woman" from 1907 and to the right, a 1940's Station of the Cross. The similarities here are striking. Both examples are characterized by strong lines and a mask-like appearance.

These same sort of influences, though in a much softer form, can be found in Paul Gauguin's, The Yellow Christ, painted in 1889. A stylistic comparison of Gauguin's portrait of Christ to those of a not atypical piece of modern liturgical art likewise show obvious similarities.


Just as primitivism had come to influence the world of secular art, so too would it come to influence the world of liturgical art.  That this should be purely coincidental seems a stretch to say the least, particularly as some members of the Church began to look to the world in its quest for cultural relevance.

Minimalism in Sacred Architecture

The examples so far shown relate to sculpture and/or painting but there were other influences also at work during this period. In the realm of architecture, for example, a shift had occurred in which traditional ornamental design was being shunned, replaced by expressions of a more minimalist nature. This movement was particularly exemplified in the architectural work of the likes of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. These works were often characterized by very basic geometry, devoid of ornament and strictly functionalist in design. Many may recognize this stylistic description as being rather similar to what they've come to associate with modern architecture, including modern church architecture. A comparison:

Left: An interior living space by Le Corbusier. Right: A Catholic Church built in the early 1950's
To the left wet have a domestic design by the famed architect, Le Corbusier. To the right we have a Catholic church that was built in the early 1950's. In both examples we see a very functionalist approach, devoid of ornament. Here again, to suggest this was purely coincidental seems a far greater stretch than to suggest that church architecture took its queue from the architecture and design fads of the time.

Concluding Thoughts

A consideration of the liturgical arts of the 20th century is replete with examples such as these. In fact, it is fair to say that these are more representative of the modern ecclesiastical norm where modern liturgical art is concerned than 'Other Modern' is -- which is all too rare by comparison.

Our purpose in this present article is not to provide a specific critique of these manifestations, nor a remedy; rather, it is merely to identify some of the roots of these particular styles of liturgical art. If one thing might be concluded from it, it is that, contrary to popular opinion, these expressions were not the specific fruit of the Second Vatican Council; they were rather expressions that pre-dated it and were under the influence of the avant-garde.
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