16 February 2017
Belief in the future
The Beaney House, Canterbury
“All great art is essentially an act of faith, Christian or otherwise,” wrote a schoolboy critic in a review for Kingswood School magazine of a touring exhibition of sacred art in 1964. That critic is now the respected art historian Richard Cork, his career perhaps partly thanks to his formative early encounter with the Methodist Modern Art Collection.
Non-conformism is not usually associated with a love of decoration, but in the early 1960s a Methodist philanthropist, Dr John Morel Gibbs, disappointed with the dismal quality of art in churches, decided to do something about it. He commissioned an art-loving Methodist minister from his hometown of Penarth, Revd Douglas Wollen, to put together a collection of modern works that would bring Bible stories to contemporary life.
In the space of a few years, Wollen amassed works by the leading artists of the day and from 1963-65 toured it to galleries, schools and churches across the country in the exhibition “The Church and the Artist”. He grasped the nettle of “outreach” before the word was invented – unfamiliar audiences were warned in the exhibition catalogue: “These paintings may not be like some of your favourite pictures of Jesus”– and showed an internationalism in his acquisitions policy that our public galleries are only now adopting. The Methodist Modern Art Collection owned a Crucifixion by Indian artist F.N. Souza, thirty years before the Tate acquired its version in 1993.
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