Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Impressed into service

alexander johnston the press gang 1858 copy

card for alexander johnston the press gang 1858 detail copy

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” 

(Luke 13:31-32)

“Art galleries contain forms and experiences that inspire, question and extend human experience. Art is the way that life tests and expresses itself. 

It is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive.”

(Antony Gormley, 2010)

On a recent visit to the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull I spent some time with this painting, Alexander Johnston’s ‘The Press Gang’. It depicts a scene which would have been familiar in the time of the Napoleonic wars.  A young man, possibly just married, is being wrenched away from his beloved by the Press Gang. This brutal use of power contravenes the man’s human rights, but that would not have been a concept which had any meaning whatsoever in that most unegalitarian Britain. The absolute authority of state and monarchy was a fixed point of reference. The painting portrays the consequences.

The details are fascinating. At the very left of frame a man in a blue coat is seen running away, presumably trying to avoid being impressed himself.  Has he caught the attention of the sailor immediately standing behind the young couple, or has his gaze fallen upon the pair of lovers in the middle distance who are hurrying away up the street ? If it has, will they escape? And what of the woman dressed in dark clothes, to the left of the central couple. Her face is enigmatic. Is it sorrow we read there? Simmering resentment perhaps? Might she be a widow, her husband killed at sea following just such an unexpected encounter with the Press Gang? Is she pondering the fate that will befall the young woman as her partner is taken away too?

alexander johnston the press gang 1858 detail copy

The painting is suggestive of a whole range of emotion and narrative possibility. For all its Victorian sentimentality it portrays the cruel uncertainties of life as they are.

And in the main image you can make out the reflection of golden picture frame, that of a painting on the opposite wall of the gallery. This appears to float within the scene, suggesting another frame of reference is at work too. The gospel reading set for this Sunday is also about the brutal misuse of power and force by the state. Herod Antipas, having murdered John the Baptist, is now determined to eliminate Jesus. Jesus’ defiant response is startling and typical. Set in the oppressive political context of his time his healing work is a highly symbolic revolutionary act . The poor and needy are put first in his divine economy. This is a massive threat to a ruling elite whose power is based on force and coercion. The contrast between their ways and values and his could not be starker.

As one perceptive commentator puts it: “followers of Jesus are to be engaged in the issue of dealing with powers, of all kinds, and what they do to people.” Quite so. Johnston’s painting shows exactly what power does to people. So too do the gospels. Most of all, they show what divine power is capable of doing when ordinary people catch the vision and follow Jesus.

He invites us to follow him freely, willingly and wholeheartedly into the depths of the world’s suffering. The power of his non-violent love is truly impressive.

Photographs taken with the kind permission of the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

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