Feature: Britain's National Gallery holds new exhibition to bring ancient saints to life
Xinhua | 2013-5-23 9:39:41
By Agencies
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When St Apollonia held a pair of pliers to pull her teeth out, and St Jerome beat himself with a rock, the National Gallery in Britain revived these Christian characters from classic paintings with its new exhibition Saints Alive.

Starting on Thursday and running till Nov. 24, the exhibition brought together seven kinetic sculptures from British contemporary artist Michael Landy inspired by Renaissance masterpieces, together with nearly 30 collages and drawings.

"The National Gallery has a historical collection of paintings which finishes at 1900," said Colin Wiggins to Xinhua. "We don't have contemporary art here, but every year we invite a living artist to come and make new works that respond to the classic paintings."

The large sculptures juxtaposed painting cast fragments with metal cogs, wheels, defunct fan belts and motors that Landy accumulated from junkyards, car boot sales and flea markets.

At the entrance of the hall there was a sculpture of standing St Apollonia, in her red gown which anyone familiar with the Saints Genevieve and Apollonia from Lucas Cranach the Elder would be able to recognize.

But when visitors step on a controller, the quiet lady would suddenly slam a pair of pliers into her mouth. As legend goes, St Apollonia was tortured by having her teeth pulled out.

Another sculpture was St Jerome, a great scholar who translated the Bible from its original Greek and Hebrew into Latin. He was believed to have used a rock to beat himself to avoid sexual temptation in the desert. Visitors could see a recurrence of that violent scene at a push of a red button.

At the exhibition, visitors could also find the broken wheel which the tormentors tried to use for St Catherine of Alexandria, a scene depicted by Italian painter Pintoricchio. They could also win a T-shirt with St Francis's principles Poverty, Chastity and Obedience on it, by operating a clamp to search his headless body.

Even the donation box was inspired by Botticelli's painting, Saint Francis of Assis with Angels. When one put a coin into the box, the saint would knock his head with a wooden cross.

But the favorite work of both Wiggins and Landy was the doubting St Thomas.

"When Christ was resurrected, he didn't believe in it. He said 'I would only believe if I can put my finger into your wound'," Wiggins explained.

Calling these works "subversive and good-humored", he said "the jerky sudden movements that look like strange breaking-down machines would surprise and startle people, and make them laugh."

He noted that contemporary art exhibitions like this one were aimed at attracting younger visitors, who might find old paintings "dull, boring and unapproachable".

"We hope they will be guided into the rest of the collection to see the paintings with these saints," he said.

Michael Landy is a relatively young artist compared with those invited to the National Gallery in the past. He earned his fame especially with performance piece installation Break Down, in which he destroyed everything he had within two weeks, a total of 7,227 items.

"It was about the way he values things, about consumerism," Wiggins said. "His interest in saints is connected with that, because saints give up everything, sacrificing even their lives."

As for Landy, the reason why he came up with the idea was simply that he liked saint stories. "They are very stubborn," he said. A Taurus, Landy liked single-mindedness.

"The idea was taken from National Gallery paintings," he told Xinhua. "I wanted the works (in the National Gallery) to come alive. Paintings don't come alive, you can't revive painting. But I like the idea that sculpture come alive and make noises. So I combined Renaissance paintings with kinetic art in the 1960s or 1970s."

Each part of his work was inspired by a different painting. But Landy said his favorite painter was Carlo Crivelli, so he looked at three of his works, and put the feet of St Michael on a devel he slayed, the eyes of St Lucy after they were plucked out and the head of St Peter Martyr cleaved by an axe in one single work.

When introducing his works, Landy added that he might need to replace the chests of Christ and St Jerome, as well as the face of St Apollonia, as the violence of movements, also he liked, would destroy the works before end of the exhibition.

For Chinese people not able to see Landy's work in London, there is a piece of good news: the creative artist might have his works visit China this September during a British Council exhibition.

"Last year I went to Shanghai," he said. "I liked it."

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