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Nobel Prize poetry returns to speak of faith

Classic art outlives its creator, its era and its original audience – in that sense it is immortal.

When T.S. Eliot was the darling of Anglo-American literary set, his readers shared the common sorrows of the Great Depression and two devastating World Wars. Possibly they had even heard of the scandalous treatment of his “mad” wife Vivienne – left to rot in an asylum while he sought inspiration elsewhere.

In spite of his personal failings, Eliot’s later poetic struggles with faith and God won him a Nobel prize and millions of loyal fans since his 1965 death. The “Four Quartets,” one of his most admired and openly spiritual writings, was attacked by critics like George Orwell for its “Christian orthodoxy.”

In 2010 a group artists and writers kibitzing at a New York dinner discovered they shared a common muse and passion. They admired Eliot’s “Four Quartets” to the point of memorizing portions of the great work – no small feat, because the piece is famous for its complexity, considered almost impenetrable in places.

Two of the visual artists, Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman were so enthused they birthed an ambitious vision: to loosely transcribe and respond to Eliot’s work with a series of new art works.

Both created four large paintings as a response to the “imagery, emotion and allusion evoked by ‘Four Quartets.'” Joining their spiritual enterprise is composer Christopher Theofanidis from Yale and theologian Jeremy Begbie from Duke University.

The newly commissioned works populate “QU4RTETS,” a touring international exhibition that celebrates the latent possibility and power of art and Chrsitianity – also the inaugural project of the Fujimura Institute.

Fujimura uses the term “generative” to explain how great works of art bear a type of creative offspring. For instance, both artists ultimately used dimensions of the Golden Mean in their work, totally unknown to the other. This proves an objective substance and meaning they uncovered in Eliot’s poem, while working independently and in vastly different styles.

Eliot considered “Four Quartets” (1943) his masterpiece, a sentiment apparently shared by the Noble Prize Committee. The Quartets describe a journey for meaning and hope of salvation from the destruction in the world, while referencing religious literature such as Dante and Julian of Norwich. In “East Coker” (one of the Quartets) Eliot clearly announces the Apocalypse.

Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

Makoto Fujimura with his work

Both Fijimura and Herman experienced personal disasters and related to Eliot’s cry for salvation in their own lives. Fujimura and his family lived 9/11 close-up, with a studio in the TriBeCa district of New York City. Fleeing chaos and living as temporary exiles was a physical and psychological dislocation. Fujimura describes needing a “landing place for my imagination,” a temporary home and found solace in the “Four Quartets.”

His paintings are wonderfully abstract, which seem the perfect vehicle to “illustrate” poetry, the most abstract of all literature. Fujimura freely uses gold leaf, implicit of deity and glory and attempts to convey content from each Quartet. Eliot used the term “objective correlative,” a device used even in abstraction to signify emotion in art.

“QU4RTET III” is partially covered by a grid, no movement, as an echo of the poem’s phrase “The Still Point” repeated in several dimensions and works. Some of these pieces are quite emptied in the foreground, one almost entirely black, forcing viewers to look for depth, layers and details in the background.

“They are phenomenological, they require our senses to be quiet and still,” Fujimura explains.

He describes his work here as dependent on pulverized pigment working through the darkness and “foreboding colors beyond the veil,” a theme of Eliot’s: “Being generative means to ‘practice resurrection’ in all areas of our lives, to become a refractive artwork of God.”

During the exhibit Theofanidis’ composition and Eliot’s poem may be performed, creating a multi-media contextual space.

Fujimura is admired as a thinker and writer on issues of art, creating and faith, and he speaks in depth at some of the exhibits on the broader vision of Eliot and “QU4RTETS.”

"Quartets No. 1 (Spring)," by Bruce Herman

Bruce Herman’s preparation for the project stretches over the four decades he has pondered and appreciated the work of T.S. Eliot. Eliot believed it was necessary to first understand tradition before you could create anything authentically new, something that guided Herman through the “massive cultural upheaval” of the 1960s.

His pieces are a parallel form to the “Four Quartets,” not a direct illustration. Herman steeped in the “beautiful language and imagery” before attempting a visual equivalent and response to the same realities that moved the poet.

Using a synthesis of traditional figure painting and modern abstraction, Herman’s pieces are based on fours: stages of life, seasons of the year and four elements; earth, air, fire and water. The theme of time and God’s work of redemption through time is repeated in Eliot’s work.

Herman refers to “Burnt Norton” in his painting “QU4RTET No. 2” with a child squatting in a tree: “For the leaves were full of children/Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.”

Herman employs gold and silver also as a “temporal narrative both inside and outside” by giving the viewer a chance to complete the work with his reflection. Light shifts, bends and changes invoking the “liquid, spiritual light in which we live and move and have our being” or the presence of God.

Christopher Theofanidis, one of the most prolific and admired American composers, produced a brilliant score that reflects Eliot’s poem and supports the work of Herman and Fujimura.

“At the Still Point,” a string and piano quintet, connotes the place of accepting and waiting for God, a place outside of time. Theofanidis is currently working on two operas for the San Francisco and Houston opera companies and is on the faculty of the Yale music school. “At the Still Point ” was performed at Duke, Yale, Carnegie Hall, Baylor and other locations.

The artists in “QU4RTET” are collaborating with each other and with Eliot’s creation in a dialogue about the value of literature and Christian tradition, although the work is quite modern. Their success affirms that excellence in art has value beyond mere entertainment; it holds power to inspire and recreate itself, a type of “life.” This is especially important in an age that disregards or is even hostile to the Christian message and is a direct rebuttal to it. Will sitcoms or Lady Gaga’s performances move viewers a century from now? Possibly, but I highly doubt it.

Makoto Fujimura is an internationally know artist, writer and speaker and founder of the International Arts Movement.

Bruce Herman is Lothlorien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts of Gordon College

“QU4RTET” scheduled performances:

April 13-May 1, 2013: Barrington Center for the Arts, Gordon College, Wenham, Mass.

May 8-Sept. 21: Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill.

Oct. 5, 6: IAM New York City conference – venue to be announced

Oct. 24–November 2013: Westmont Art Museum, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Projected for 2014-15: Tokyo, Hong Kong University and Cambridge University