Joseph Stella: Madonnas & Related Work

by Irma B. Jaffe



Religious imagery, dominating visual art since the dawn of history, began to share its hegemony with secular subjects such as landscape, still life, and genre in seventeenth-century western Europe, and all but disappeared in the last hundred years. As science in the nineteenth century increasingly took over from religion the role of Prime Knower and Interpreter of the Universe, painting and sculpture lost interest in maintaining its previous alliance with the divine, and its handmaiden, poetry. God, the God of tradition, was dead, according to Nietzsche; and so was the art of tradition, which ranked Biblical subjects at the top of the academic art ladder. So much for outmoded hierarchies.

But it was not only subject matter that came under attack as artists carried forward the battle for modern art. Issues of color and pictorial space, of materials and plastic form, were probed by this avant-garde, and out of this struggle modernism -- meaning an ideological commitment and intellectual link to the cutting edge of culture, as distinct from modern -- was conceived.

Joseph Stella (1877-1946) joined the ranks of Modernist art in 1913, with his Italian Futurist-related work, beginning with his grand statement of kinship, Battle of Lights, Coney Island. Toward the end of the decade, Cubism steadied and stabilized his Futurist dynamism, leading him into monumental Cubo-Futurist industrial works such as his famous paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. At the same time, however, a very different style and subject appeared in Stella's paintings. I have elsewhere called them "Nature Lyrics," [1] works in pastel that exhibit stylized bird and landscape features with sharply delineated silhouettes and slow cadenced, long curvilinear rhythms. This is the style out of which he developed his Madonna paintings in the following decade.

Works of art have many sources, some in art of the past, others in contemporary work. The artist's psychology and his life experience flow irresistibly into the hand that holds the brush or the instruments of sculpture and graphics, as the case may be. Surely of prime importance in Stella's choice of the Madonna as subject were his Italian origins and Catholic upbringing. Like a cantus firmus, religion hums a steady note through Stella's scribbled autobiographical notes as he calls up memories of Muro Lucano, the southern town where he was born in 1877 and spent his youth. "1 thank God," he begins, "for the good fortune to have been born in a mountainous place. Light and space are the two essential elements of painting." He grew up under the protecting walls of a medieval castle, with "the Mother church at its side. At Easter, the pealing of bells from its tower filled the air with its joyous echoing sounds." Nostalgically, from far away, he saw the mountain tops, "like a familiar face that one meets on the balcony of one's soul." And all around him he can see "the reassuring smile of a DIVINE FRIENDSHIP." Abandoning himself to this earth, he seemed to feel himself "bathed in the holy water of baptism." [2]

In New York Stella confronted the steel and bright electric lights of the city with the veneration with which he gazed at those mountains. The polyptych form of New York Interpreted -- five canvas panels with the center one taller than the others, and a predella as a lower border -- recalls the altarpieces that were part of the scenery of his early years. The centerpiece, Skyscrapers, images the city under a radiant halo, and as cloud-borne, like the sacred imagery of the upper section of a Renaissance painting.

New York was the "Alma Mater of the derelict." When he stood on the Brooklyn Bridge, he was suffused with a mystical fervor as he looked up into the towers "with their Gothic majesty sealed in the purity of their arches" and at the cables "like divine messages from above;" the bridge was "a shrine" and he felt "deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new DIVINITY." It is by no means an accident that viewers think of stained glass when they see the jewel-like surface of these painting. It was Stella's quite conscious intention to create the effect of a Gothic cathedral. [3]

Looking at Purissima with The Bridge in mind, we can see in their symmetrically bilateral compositions a striking analogy underlying the vastly different subjects. The bright border of the Virgin's robe sweeps downward and outward, a shape that is echoed by the white herons, just as the sweeping cables of the bridge echo each other. The decorative zig-zag pattern on the Virgin's cape recalls the similar pattern made by the shadows of the cables; it is as if Stella also "dressed" the bridge in a decorative mantle.


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