Interview: Debbie Lewer on Art, Faith and Failure

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At the beginning of April Gladstone’s Library welcomes Debbie Lewer from the University of Glasgow to deliver a course exploring art, faith and failure within visual art from the Middle Ages to the present day. 

Debbie is an art historian who lectures on topics across the field, including on wider media such as photography and architecture. As we edge closer to April, we spoke to the her to find out a little more about her ideas, her work and what we can expect from 'Utterly Human: Art, Faith and Failure'... 

GL: You are Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow. What was it that drew you to this discipline? 

DL: Art has fascinated me since I was a teenager. I have been looking at it and thinking about it ever since. The discipline of Art History is so rich because it is about nothing less than how we see. It makes us question habitual ways of seeing and it tells us about what mattered to people in the past. Some people think that learning to reflect critically on images somehow diminishes the enjoyment of art. But for me the opposite is the case: images come to life when I find a new insight into how an artist saw his or her world, and why works of art looked as they did in particular times and places in history. 

More recently your research focus has shifted from modern German art to the complex relationship between Theology and Art History. What sparked this interest for you? 

That’s a long story. I still work on German art and am very intrigued by that country. A connection between the two is my long-standing interest in the German Dadaist Hugo Ball. I encountered him as a PhD student in the 1990s and he has not left me alone since. He founded the most radical challenge to art in modernity – the Dada movement, during the First World War – and then he renounced it and became a deeply devout and eremitical Catholic. His intellectual wrestling with that fed into my own questioning about modern art and about faith, before I even really knew it as such. My own belief has changed, quite radically, during the time I have been an art historian. That has both enriched and complicated my perspective on my work. For me, the two fields of enquiry – of Art History and Theology – are both about how we see, and about a kind of expanded vision. I am often surprised by the extent to which they illuminate each other.

What made you decide to focus on art from the Middle Ages through to contemporary pieces for this course? 

The theme of this year’s workshop is ‘Utterly Human’, which comes from a line from a poem by Mary Oliver. I am interested in the ways artists have represented the universal, enduring, if less immediately edifying aspects of our shared humanity in art. Doubt, folly, failure, hubris, betrayal: all these things are part of any creative life and they are there, abundantly, in the Gospel narratives and images too. Looking at these themes in works of art from many centuries shows both the differences and the consistency over time in how they have been visualised. The fact that you find them in a medieval altarpiece or in a cartoon by Gary Larson is an opportunity to think about the past and the present, to learn and probably, unavoidably, to laugh too.   

Is there any piece of work in particular that you are excited to discuss on the course? 

So many! I have recently returned from a short trip to Florence and while I was there I saw some extraordinary things that we will look at. I am looking forward to exploring and questioning representations of the disciple Thomas, ‘doubting Thomas’ as the cliché calls him. He is a fascinating and apt subject for our theme because of his need to see, to touch, to believe. I am also very interested in how we understand ‘success’ in relation to art and life. I think that artists today, and in the past, have a deeply ambivalent relationship with ‘success’. It is putting it very mildly to say that Christianity does too. 

Why have you chosen to screen [2010 Emilio Estevez film] The Way? 

I think the film complements the theme of the course beautifully, by which I mean less the obvious faith component (which is definitely there – the film is set on the ancient pilgrimage way to Santiago di Compostela) but much more the bungling, the stumbling, the messing up, of the protagonist’s wobbly pilgrimage and that of his unlikely companions on ‘the way’. Their frailties, egos, compulsions, delusions, grief and utter humanity remind me of all the incompetent but ultimately graced figures of art and of the Gospels that are so much more real than any of the stony, polished saints of our monuments or imaginations. And apart from all that, after looking at hundreds of works of art, I think it will be good for our eyes to rest on a film set largely outdoors against the wide natural horizon of Northern Spain. 

‘Meeting Judas in Art’ is the intriguing title of your final session. Is there a reason that the contentious figure of Judas is the last topic to be explored? 

I have found that looking at Judas in art is a profoundly rewarding experience. He is one of the most enigmatic and compelling figures in both the Gospels and in culture – art and poetry especially. Great works of art do not caricature or categorise the people or situations they represent. Artists, poets, and some (not all) theologians have been deeply attuned to the awkwardness, nuances and contradictions of Judas, his humanity, his tragedy, his failure. The final session is completed by a Eucharist after coffee on Sunday, which people are invited to attend if they wish to do so. I think that there is something very profound about considering Judas as the culmination to a weekend of looking at the ‘Utterly Human’ – failure, doubt, betrayal, folly and more – and marking that end with the possibility for sharing Communion and remembering by that, the supper that he was part of, and left.  

Who is the greatest traitor in art history? 

That’s a great question. In terms of subject matter, of course Judas comes to mind, though the works of art we will see take us beyond the idea of Judas only as traitor plain and simple. In terms of art history, I think about artists and all creative people who have ‘betrayed’ something, like the integrity of their art or that of others. Tragically, this has sometimes occurred under conditions of oppression, totalitarianism and terror. I would hesitate to throw the first stone. We must also hope that the arts in general are not betrayed by a culture that values harder and more dubious currencies. 

What are you hoping to find at Gladstone’s Library? 

I have been to Gladstone’s Library many times, and I love it very much, it is like nowhere else. I am hoping to find what I have always found before: good, thoughtful and very interesting company, great food and drink, wonderful surroundings, peace, unlimited books and the unexpected. I will also say hello to Sophia, who is wisdom, and who stands outside the library while everyone else is busy seeking knowledge within.

How much prior knowledge of art or theology would you say is needed for your course? 

Absolutely no prior knowledge of either is needed! Openness and curiosity are all that are required. 

What are you hoping that people will bring to your course and what will they take away? 

I hope that people will bring their own unique perspectives, life experiences, disparate tastes and curiosity. I would neither predict nor prescribe what people will take away, and I know from experience that it is very different for each person, but if they leave having seen something new and with a greater appetite for encountering works of art in the flesh I will be very happy. 

Debbie’s course Utterly Human takes place at Gladstone’s Library Friday 6th -  Sunday 8th April.

Residential places start from £230 and non-residential from £160. To book your place please call 01244 532350 or email