“Dreyfus” oil on canvas from the Behemoth show
Modern martyrdoms and betrayals
A crypt is a good place for an exhibition of paintings that reach back into the sorrow and pity of the middle ages for their subject matter. Guy Denning’s new works meditate on the suffering of Joan of Arc, as depicted in a 1928 film. Indeed, while paintings of this medieval woman warrior have been rare since historical art faded from fashion in the early 1900s, the decline of history painting left the way open to filmmakers. In the last century there have been many films about Jeanne, the Maid of Orleans. One of the most self-consciously accurate is also one of the most recent, Jaques Rivette’s two-part Jeanne la Pucelle, whose low-key, almost amateurish scenes exploit a deep feel for the French landscape, Rivette’s film makes an interesting comparison with Denning’s pictures for it explores the historical reality of the story, insisting on verisimilitude and context, while in Denning’s pictures the death of Joan of Arc is isolated and intensified to reveal in her scarred ageless visage a universally telling face of martyrdom. Paintings for our time then, rooted in one of the great folkloric tales of European history. Joan of Arc, to stick with the usual English spelling of her name, lived during the Hundred Years War at a time of crisis for France. Voices told her she was destined to save the besieged city of Orleans and crown the Dauphin. She somehow persuaded the male military and political establishment to let her do both. In battle at Orleans she triumphed; but once she saw the Dauphin properly crowned her miraculous prestige began to crumble. Treachery put her in English hands, a prejudiced trial led to death by fire. Does the interest of Joan’s story lie in her life, or her death? It seems that for most filmmakers and artists, it lies in her death, whose cruelty has blazed down the ages. Guy Denning’s paintings find in her martyrdom a gory drama for our time. We may not be able to imagine a world in which Christ commands a maid to take up arms and knights kneel before her. But we can imagine a world of treachery and rigged trials and torture and murder. Medieval art and literature, medieval life, offers many icons of suffering, of which Joan is perhaps the most universal. No one has ever made a tv series called “What did the middle ages do for us?”, but one thing they gave us was an imagery of pain. The most frightening book in the world, Dante’s Inferno, was written in the same age that made and broke the Maid of Orleans. From Beckett slain at the altar to the burned religious martyrs of Smithfield, the age from 1100 to 1650 bequeathed grisly, grotesque icons of charred and bleeding, unjustly tormented flesh to the modern imagination. The colours of that legacy – fiery reds, bloody browns, charred blacks – are matted into Denning’s dark portraits. Yet the titles of his paintings allude to modern martyrdoms and betrayals: Somme, September dossier, Dreyfus, Verdun, Hutton. History as a mad landscape of lies, the face of dignified suffering the last human heroism in a dishonest age – appropriate thoughts for the crypt of a London church beneath a world rapidly returning to the middle ages.
© 2010 Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones is an arts writer for the Guardian and was a jury member for the 2009 Turner prize