The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art

Contemporary art reflects on a theme that is too often the subject of superficial interpretations: beauty in relationship to Christ, from Christus glorious to Christus patiens

Crucifixion is one of the most frequently represented subjects in western art, and has become more symbolic than the religious event itself. Modernized by artists such as Paul Gauguin, Lucio Fontana and Francis Bacon, this theme reveals human suffering on a universal scale, also answering to individual pain. Let’s see what the nine most significant contemporary artworks regarding this theme are.

The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Paul Gauguin Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin, 1889
During the summer of 1886, Paul Gauguin visited the small village of Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he was fascinated by the local customs and rituals. He painted various scenes of farming and country side life, including the yellow Christ. The figure of Christ is on a crucifix in a church near Pont-Aven, while the choice of yellow was to spread the emotions that the artist felt in that isolated community of farmers in Brittany. Yellow connects Christ with the landscape, which refers to tradition and spirituality of life in Brittany through the centuries. The seasons are represented by the weather and harvesting; Gauguin makes a parallelism between the agricultural and christian religious cycles: birth, death and rebirth in the heavens. The technique used by Gauguin is innovative. The lines that define the figures are audacious and the same goes for the flat surfaces as well as the uniform colors, characteristics that show the synthetic style of Gauguin’s first works. The artist broke away from traditional views of Christ’s crucifixion to create this symbolic artwork.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Kazimir Malevich Mystic Suprematism (Black Cross and Red Oval), Kazimir Malevich, 1920–22
Malevich’s great revolution enclosed in this stubborn conviction: for him form isn’t a problem nor an analysis, and it’s not the result of a synthesis. Instead it’s a mystery come true of creation. For the artist the only form and time possible are the form and time of “life”, which through painting become true in the form and time of the “world”. In his endeavor of annulling reality and of radical simplification, Malevich uses a black square, the original element that gives life to all the other forms. From the square, by extension, you can get the cross, obtained by multiplying the square itself and moving it towards the four cardinal points: by rotating around the center, you can transform the square into a circle, a dynamic and vital form. Therefore the artwork expresses his concept of the image of God in relationship with the Universe and Man. The two figures appear to simultaneously float against a light background. In this way, the white background evokes the concept of infinite and universal space, in contrast with the concrete geometric forms presented inside them. Malevich thus tried to find a non-objective and non-representative method for producing an imaginary communicative language.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Francis Bacon Crucifiction, Francis Bacon, 1933
Crucifiction is Bacon’s first official painting, exhibited in 1933 at the Mayor Gallery in London. It’s a small haunted artwork, without any sense of devotion to anything, except for painting; an alien form, ectoplasmic, with fluorescent wings and outstretched arms, standing up on a dark ground. Even though Bacon was overtly atheist, he sees crucifixion as a “magnificent armor” from which all types of sentiments and sensations hang. The artist used a predetermined format on which to write his intentions, eluding those narrative contents of painting that he disdained, like illustration, to concentrate on the emotional and perceptive evocation. In this work it’s particularly evident that Bacon saw a connection between the brutality of slaughterhouses and crucifixion. Slates of meat on the left panel confirm this reading. Bacon believed that animals in slaughterhouses suspected something of their final destinies. Seeing a similarity with human experience, because Crucifixion represents the inevitability of death, he explained, “we are made of meat, we are potential carcasses”.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Marc Chagall The white crucifixion, Marc Chagall, 1938
In The white crucifixion, the first and biggest work by Marc Chagall on this theme, is underlined by the jewish identity of Jesus in various ways: he substituted the traditional loin cloth with a prayer shawl, his crown of thorns with a handkerchief, and the mourning angels that usually surround him with three biblical patriarchs and a matriarch, dressed in traditional jewish clothing. Chagall himself said that it wasn’t a christian painting. The scenes that surround the Cross — a village in pieces, a burning and pillaged synagogue — tell its true meaning. Connecting martyred Jesus with contemporary events, Chagall identifies the nazis with the butchers of Christ and warns against the moral implications of their actions. In fact Chagall painted the White Crucifixion after the nazi breakout against the jews, in November 1938, just before World War II.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Lucio Fontana Crocifisso, Lucio Fontana, 1948
Lucio Fontana’s Crocifisso from 1948, modeled in clay and painted in a luxurious polychrome varnish, interprets the master’s sacred production very well. In this artwork Fontana deals with a non-rhetorical and non-noble concept of a work of art. This work visualizes a sense of violence, uncertainty and aggressiveness, but also presents a chromatic choice that is not entirely dramatic. Evoking a tension between abstraction and figuration, the figure is present as much as it isn’t. Even if technically speaking every one of Fontana’s ceramics is a literal representation of something in particular (a battle scene, crucifixion, flowers, animals, etc.), this particular ceramic sculpture, in its dynamic immediacy, generates a form that is an image as much as it is an abstract trace of the artist’s process.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Salvador Dalí Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), Salvador Dalí, 1954
Crucifixion is without a doubt one of Dalí’s most important masterpieces, which puts emphasis on the figure of the crucified Christ on the net of a hyper cube, favoring the themes of holy art and at the same time taking advantage of the enigmatic charm of geometric structures. It’s a crucifixion lived artistically during the time of modern science. The cross is intended as the possible reflection of a world in four dimensions and underlines the unintelligible distance between the natural and supernatural. Dalí used his theory of “nuclear mysticism”, a fusion of catholicism, math and science, to create this unusual interpretation of the crucifixion of Christ. Dalí shows a healthy, athletic Christ, who doesn’t show signs of torture, without a crown of thorns and nails, thus testifying the spiritual triumph of Christ on bodily harm. There are various dreamlike elements in this artwork: a levitating figure, a vast dry landscape, and a checkered floor.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Chris Burden Trans-Fixed, Chris Burden, 1974
During his exhibitions, Chris Burden has often put himself in direct danger; the point of his art, besides that of making political and social statements, is that of creating illicit discomfort in the audience. In 1974 the artist had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen. The title of the performance is surely very suggestive since it calls on the concept of transubstantiation, the process through which the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ. Burden chooses to use the Volkswagen bug because it’s apparently considered as the people’s car, so the crucifixion frees everyone, not only himself. By experimenting with this type of pain and vulnerability in first person, Burden is capable of making the horror of such acts more familiar, and he also de-mystifies them, making them recognizable, for himself and the public. As a result, the collective fears of the society are exposed and the idea that the human body is regulated by law is made important.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Martin Kippenberger Feet First, Martin Kippenberger, 1990
Feet First, a four foot high sculpture of a green frog with a loincloth on a crucifix, with a beer glass and an egg in his hands, was involved in a big dispute in May 2008, at the Museion in Bolzano. The controversy certainly did not take into account the artistic value of the artwork, of the expressed symbolism and the obvious manifestation of discomfort and suffering. The museum functionaries insisted on their institutional autonomy and the freedom of expression, while several ministers, government officials, Vatican spokespeople, and Pope Benedict XVI himself, denounced the work as provocative and blasphemous, asking for its removal. Several actions supported this, including a hunger strike of a local politician, a petitions signed by 10,000 citizens, and a protest march. As an answer, the frog was moved from the third floor hall and at a certain point partially obscured by newspaper articles relating to the protest.
The 9 best crucifixions of contemporary art - Hermann Nitsch 130 Aktion, Hermann Nitsch, 2010
In May 2010, at Hermann Nitsch museum in Naples, Karlyn De Jongh and Sarah Gold were crucified in Aktion 130. The two protagonists were blindfolded, naked, and tied to their crosses. Regarding the performance, the artist declared: “(…) in this way I put the world into discussion. I’ve always fought for truth. You can’t obtain truth, but you can go in the direction of truth. (…) It’s possible to extract only the great moments of the world, in terms of great deep experiences that penetrate into the being”. Aktion 130 is an example of how the performer’s body is dramatically transformed into a sense of sanctity: it’s in this moment — the moment of ritual — that the performer’s body is a hybrid in the process of resistance to become something other than itself.
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