On Christmas, I’ll offer a word of encouragement on one article I recently found. On December 18, New York Times art reviewer Ken Johnson wrote a largely favorable review of a current exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of 124 paintings on "The Life of Christ" by French painter James Tissot. He said a presentation of watercolor paintings of the New Testament caused a sensation in Paris in 1894. Two years later, the illustrated Tissot Bible became an international best seller.
Other paintings range from prosaic to visionary. The close-up of Salome gloating over the weirdly illuminated head of John the Baptist is wonderfully grotesque; the image of Jesus being carried aloft by a shadowy Satan is hair-raising. The scene in which Jesus stands alone before Pilate in an expansive stone room has a terrible pathos. That of Joseph at his workbench, mooning over his pregnant fiancée, is touching. You don’t have to be a devout Christian to get caught up in the story and its sad inevitability.
The death of Christ is sad, but to a devout Christian it is also joyous, and its inevitability is the fulfillment of a promise of salvation offered to all believers. Johnson also attempted a generous "whatever works for you" approach in considering if Tissot’s work is true to the text he is illustrating:
Whatever the immediate impact, the series remains interesting to consider from more distanced perspectives. Faithful Christians and theologians might consider how true Tissot’s version, in all its detail, is to the comparatively minimalist Gospels. Philosophical speaking, there really is no answer to that question. The New Testament will always be refracted through the sensibilities of different cultures. Whatever works for you is the best you can hope for.
Viewing it as art is similar. To some, it will seem a musty artifact of sentimental piety and facile technique, exactly the kind of thing to which Modernists from Cézanne to Donald Judd would say good riddance. But narrative visual art has made a comeback since the late 1960s. Recently Robert Crumb, the onetime underground comic-book artist, illustrated the Book of Genesis. So today’s visual storytellers might well profit from studying Tissot’s approach.
Many art-loving Americans would love to tell the art-critic elite that "sentimental piety" can be a more satisfying, even enriching experience than a Modernist exercise in unsentimental impiety, which might bounce off the eye as the artistic equivalent of sound and fury signifying nothing.