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Corpus Christi - The representation of the Christ through photography, between 1850 and 2001

An exhibition that goes from the sacred to the secular - given the blessing of the church.

Thérèse Frare
Pietà, 1990
© Benetton, for a 1992 campaign
What you see as you first enter Hamburg's Internationales Haus der Photographie - Deichtorhallen to visit the actual exhibition Corpus Christi, is a Benetton advertisement (from a 1992 campaign). A crying father is trying to take in his arm his dying son, lying on his bed. Also the mother and the daughter are there, crying, lamenting. The look of the son is empty, his face emaciated. This photograph was taken in 1990. In a time when AIDS became a real issue, when more and more people were getting infected, Benetton used the notorious image to increase its own notoriety, and made people talk about the firm through provocation. One can ask what connects the Benetton advertising campaign to the exhibition which concerns us here. The title of the photograph : "Pietà". The topic of the exhibition : the representation of the Christ and of other religious images.
If we tried to write a History of art, putting aside all the religious representations, paintings as well as sculptures, there would be only a few sheets of paper left. Sculptors and painters have tried for hundred years to represent the Christ. Then, it isn't surprising that, since the very beginning of photography, photographs have dealt this topic as well. With Corpus Christi, an exhibition created originally by the Israel Museum of Jerusalem, the curator Nissan N. Perez, handles for the first time this topic in such an extensive way : it shows almost 150 works by 81 artists, from the beginning of photography until today, with a lot of different topics, handled in many different ways.

Fred Holland Day
The Seven Last Words of Jesus, 1898
Coll. Bruce Silverstein, NY (USA)
Lots of photographs which are shown are full of a intense religiosity. One can see crucified Christs ("The seven last words of Jesus" by Fred Holland Day, 1898), stages of the life of Christ by the German photograph H. Korff, 1890 (at a moment when photography was still very influenced by the historic academic paintings of the times), or also Mother and Child representations, like the work by Julia Margaret Cameron, dated 1865, "Light and Love".
But while going further in times, the way religious topics are handled also changes. It is then not so much a question of following the Bible literally, but rather allusions to the Sacred and to Divinity. Amongst a large number of contemporary artists, a shifting of the meaning takes place, the image of Christ serving a far from religious purpose. Christ in terms of what he symbolises (the martyr) and the values he stands for (charity, piety,…) is used for political or socially criticial ends.

Duane Michals
Christ in New York, 1981 (Sequence of six prints)
Number 4/6. Christ is beaten defending a homosexual
Courtesy of the artitst and Pace/MacGill Gallery
This is the case with Duane Michals, and his "Christ in New York", from 1981, or likewise with Larry Burrows, and his work "Reaching out, the Demilitarized zone, South Vietnam" from 1966. In the latter, the religious representation is far from explicit, and yet - and this is what makes it so interesting - the biblical reference is clear. The figure of Christ, or rather religious images in general are so ingrained into the unconscious of society, that it only takes the sight of a man stretched out, arms on the cross, or even saddened figures standing around a body, for the religious allusion to be clear to all.
Here, we can return to "Pietà", the Benetton advertisement: even without this meaningful title (Pietà, from the Latin "pietas" for piety, the term used to describe a depiction of the Virgin Mary, mourning the death of Christ), we see in this young man lying in his death bed, an image of Christ, which he symbolises. This exhibition balances therefore two extremes: the very religious and the very secular. But one should underline what connects one to the other; the quality of the photographs exhibited.

Pierre et Gilles
St-Lazare - Alexis Lemoine, 1988
© Pierre et Gilles and Gallery Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris

In a world where one needs to take care when discussing religion, it is very interesting to see the solutions the exhibition's curator has devised to achieve his vision. You notice at first that there is very little mention of sexuality (apart from two photographs by Pierre et Gilles - those being "Saint Lazare - Alexis Lemoine" from 1988 - but not particularly provocative, and a few allusions to it as in "Pietà" by Frare). Further, a sign near the entrance advises that the goal of the exhibition is not to shock everyone's religious sensibilities but rather to create an overview of photographic creativity concerning the image of Christ. One of the most perhaps astonishing facts is that once a month a guided tour is conducted by a pastor. He emphasizes the place of religion in contemporary creative work and talks about the interpretation of biblical themes throughout the centuries.
The exhibition therefore enjoys the blessing of the religious community, despite the secular character of a large number of the photographs presented, and a certain number of provocative parties. The mix is in any case a great success. This presentation of works deals with a number of issues, leaving an extremely beautiful exhibition of photographs.

Parallel to the exhibition, a collection of films (from 1897 to present day) about Christ, conferences and discussions with the artists on various themes.

Text : Yaelle Biro
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