The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R, 0RN

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Review by Rebecca Lewin

Blood Faith Tears Doubt was an ambitious investigation into art’s continuing engagement with Christianity and its iconography. Curated by students from this year’s MA Curating the Art Museum program at the Courtauld Institute of Art, objects have been selected from the Courtauld’s own collection and the Arts Council Collection and were displayed in three rooms at the top of the Courtauld Gallery.

The exhibition has been divided into three kinds of emotion habitually associated with Christian doctrine - ‘Faith and Incredulity’, ‘Devotion’ and ‘Suffering and Compassion’. The room colours are dark and the lighting is theatrical, highlighting the human drama used as subject matter by each artist. Inserting contemporary pieces in amongst religious art from the 14th - 18th centuries works far better than a chronological hang would have done, and pairings of objects that pick up on details have an impressive effect on the way that both pieces are perceived. A particularly compelling example of this decision can be found in the smallest of the three rooms; a painting of Christ Crowned with Thorns (c.1415-1475) by a follower of Dieric Bouts the Elder confronts the viewer with the weeping Christ, while the tears falling down his face and the droplets of blood on his forehead are echoed in Adam Chodzko’s Secretors (1993). It is as though painted fluid has become three dimensional through a sort of artistic transubstantiation, although the source of Chodzko’s seepages remains a mystery.

Although the religious link between, for example, a fourteenth-century panel depicting the Virgin Mary and Grayson Perry’s Spirit Jar (1994), also using a mother and child group as part of its subject matter might be a tenuous one, the curators have nevertheless drawn attention to the way in which the ubiquity of certain traditionally Christian pictorial compositions continues to resonate in contemporary artworks. I did wonder, however, whether the emphasis placed on the spiritual or religious subject matter as the recognisable link between works (especially when the contemporary artist’s intention was not to evoke or even support sentiments of faith and devotion) could have been shifted more towards the role that the art object has played in both religious and secular societies.

These considerations are however extremely subtle ones; the curators should be applauded for attempting something even the National Gallery’s extraordinary ‘Sacred made Real’ show did not - bringing together historic religious objects with their (less ostensibly religious) modern equivalents. The combination of artworks from a wide range of time periods has been carefully constructed to support the curators’ thesis and the 11 students that put this exhibition together have produced a polished display of museum standards.

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