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Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art

by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This is Chapter 7 of Christianity and the Existentialists, edited by Carl Michalson and published by Scribners Sons, 1956, pp. 128 - 146.. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


To do justice to my subject I should really write three books -- one on existentialism, one on art, and one on religion. Then I should relate these three to each other. Here, however, all this has to be done in the narrow space of a single chapter.

Meaning and History of Existentialism

Let me start with the first "book." First, I want to devote a few words to what I believe existentialism is, just as the other contributors to this volume have given some description or definition of what they understand by existentialism. I distinguish three meanings of this term: existentialism as an element in all important human thinking, existentialism as a revolt against some features of the industrial society of the nineteenth century, and existentialism as a mirror of the situation of sensitive human beings in our twentieth century. Of course the main emphasis will be on the last meaning of this term. I believe that most creative art, literature and philosophy in the twentieth century is in its very essence existentialist. And this is the reason why I have proposed to address myself to existentialist elements in recent visual art. I believe that the people for whom visual impressions are important will perhaps understand what existentialism means better by looking at modem art than by reading recent philosophers.

Existentialism as a universal element in all thinking is the attempt of man to describe his existence and its conflicts, the origin of these conflicts, and the anticipations of overcoming them. In this sense, the first classical philosopher who had many existentialist elements in his thinking was Plato. I refer here especially to those instances where he employs mythology, for existence, in distinction from essence (from what man essentially is), cannot be derived in terms of necessity from his essential nature. Existence is that which stands against essence although it is dependent on essence. Plato uses existentialist terms when he speaks of the transition from existence to essence or from essence to existence; when he speaks of the fall of the souls; when he speaks of the seeming but not true character of the world of appearances and opinions; or when he speaks of the bondage of the soul in the cave of shadows. In many other cases he brings into his philosophy existentialist elements, and he is wise enough to know that this cannot be done in terms of essentialist analysis.

There are existentialist elements in early Christian theology -- very outspoken elements for instance in Augustine and his doctrine of man's estrangements from his true essence, from his union with God as his creative ground. There are existentialist elements in classical theology, in the Middle Ages, and in Protestantism. Wherever man's predicament is described either theologically or philosophically, either poetically or artistically, there we have existentialist elements. This is the first meaning of this word.

The second meaning is existentialism as a revolt. It is a revolt which started almost as the moment when modern industrial society found its fundamental concepts, in the seventeenth century. The man who first expressed these elements as a revolt was Pascal, although at the same time he made great contributions to the development of modern thinking by his mathematical discoveries. From Pascal on, we have had an uninterrupted series of men who repeated this protest against the attitude of industrial society. Man was considered to be only a part, an element in the great machine of the Newtonian World, and, later on, an element in the great social process of production and consumption in which we all are now living. The protest against this view was a protest of the existing man, of man in his estrangement, his finitude, in his feeling of built and meaninglessness. It was a protest against the world view in which man is nothing but a piece of an all-embracing mechanical reality, be it in physical terms, be it in economic or sociological terms, or even be it in psychological terms. This protest was continued in the nineteenth century by the founders of existentialism (in the special sense of the word). Schelling, in his old age, realized that he had to protest not only against his former pupil and friend, Hegel, but also against the Schelling of his earlier years, and introduced most of the categories in which present day existentialism is thinking. From him, people like Kierkegaard, Engels, and Feuerbach took concepts of anti-essentialist philosophy. These protesting men -- Kierkegaard, Marx, Feuerbach, Trendelenburg, later Nietzsche, and at the end of the century people like Bergson and Whitehead -- these are people who wanted to save human existence from being swallowed by the essential structure of industrial society in which man was in danger of becoming a thing.

With the beginning of the twentieth century this feeling became much more universal. The people whom I have just cited were lonely prophets, often in despair, often at the boundary line of insanity in their desperate and futile fight against the over-powering forms of modern industrial society. In the twentieth century the outcry of existentialism became universal. It became the subject matter of some great philosophers, such as Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Marcel, and many others; it became a topic of the drama; it became effective in poetry. After some predecessors like Beaudelaire and Rimbaud in the nineteenth century it has become widespread, and men like Eliot and Auden are widely known. It was expressed especially powerfully in the novel. In Kafka’s main novels, The Castle and The Trial, we have descriptions of the two fundamental anxieties. The anxiety of meaninglessness is described in The Castle. He himself, Mr. K., tries in vain to reach the sources of meaning which direct all life in the village in which he lives, and he never reaches them. The anxiety of guilt is described in The Trial, where guilt is an objective factor. The protagonist does not know why he is accused, or who accuses him, he only knows he is accused. He is on trial, he cannot do anything against it, and finally the guilt overcomes him and brings him to judgment and death.

I believe that developments similar to these have taken place in the realm of art. And out of the different visual arts I want to take, not on principle, but for reasons of expediency, painting alone. Painting will reveal some of the innermost motives of existentialism if we are able to analyze the creations since the turn of the century in the right way. In order to do this I want to go immediately to the second "book" and say a few words about religion and about the relationship of religion and art.

Levels of Relation Between Religion and Art

Religion means being ultimately concerned, asking the question of "to be or not to be" with respect to the meaning of one’s existence, and having symbols in which this question is answered. This is the largest and most basic concept of religion. And the whole development, not only of modern art but also of existentialism in all its realms -- and that means of the culture of the twentieth century -- is only possible if we understand that this is fundamentally what religion means: being ultimately concerned about one’s own being, about one’s self and one’s world, about its meaning and its estrangement and its finitude. If this is religion, we must distinguish from it religion in a narrower sense, namely, religion as having a set of symbols, normally of divine beings or a divine being, having symbolic statements about activities of these gods or this god, having ritual activities and doctrinal formulations about their relationship to us. This is religion in the narrower sense, where religion is identified first of all as a belief in the existence of a God, and then with intellectual and practical activities following out of this belief. When we speak about religion and art, we must speak in terms of both concepts.

When we hear the words, "religious art," we usually believe that one refers to particular religious symbols like pictures of Christ, pictures of the Holy Virgin and Child, pictures of Saints and their stories, and many other religious symbols. Now this is one meaning of religious art; but there is another following from the larger concept of religion, namely, art as an expression of an ultimate concern. Naturally, it will be an esthetic expression, an artistic expression, but it will be an expression of ultimate concern. And if we distinguish these two ways in which art can express religion, and religion can appear in art, then it is perhaps expedient to distinguish four levels of the relation of religion and art.

The first level is a style in which ultimate concern is not directly but only indirectly expressed. It is what we usually call secular art, and it has no religious content. It does not deal with the religious symbols and rites of any special religion. This first level deals with landscapes, with human scenes, with portraits, with events, with all kinds of things on the level of secular human existence.

Neither on the second level do we have religious contents --pictures of saints, or of Christ, or of the Holy Virgin. There are no sacred scenes, but there is a style, and the style is the form which expresses the meaning of the period. If you want to know what is the ultimate self-interpretation of an historical period, you must ask, "What kind of style is present in the artistic creations of this period." Style is the over-all form which, in the particular forms of every particular artist and of every particular school, is still visible as the over-all form; and this over-all form is the expression of that which unconsciously is present in this period as its self-interpretation, as the answer to the question of the ultimate meaning of its existence. Now the characteristic of this style is that there is something always breaking through out of the depths to the surface. Wherever this happens we have a style that is religious even if there is no religious content whatsoever depicted. I will come back to this again since it will be the center of our consideration. But first let me proceed to the third level.

The third level is the level of secular forms of non-religious style which nevertheless deals with religious content. These are pictures of Christ, pictures of the saints, of the Holy Virgin and the Holy Child. When we think of thus third realm we immediately think of the art of the High Renaissance. It is a non-religious style dealing with religious content.

The fourth level is mainly the level on which religious style and religious content are united. That is an art which, in the most concrete sense, can be called religious art. It can be used for liturgical purposes or for private devotion. In it style and content agree. However, I must conclude this description of the fourth level with the question, "Is such a religious art possible today?" And with this question I return to the four levels and call to your attention a few examples.

1. Non-religious Style, Non-religious Content. For the first level I could cite two examples. The first is a picture by Jan Steen, "The World Upside Down." I recall another picture, very similar to this one. It also is an interior, with play, dance, drunkenness, love, and everything together -- very dynamic, very vital, as was the old Dutch way at that time. I saw that picture in the National Gallery, two or three years ago, when I first started to think about a study on religion and art. I had wanted to look at religious pictures or at least the pictures where religious style is visible. But it so happened that I could not look away from that picture very similar to this one by Steen. I asked myself, "What does thus picture express in terms of an ultimate interpretation of human existence?" And my answer was, "It too expresses power of being in terms of an unrestricted vitality in which the self-affirmation of life becomes almost ecstatic." Now one may say that this has nothing to do with religion. I cannot accept this. I may accept that it is only indirectly religious. It has neither a religious style, nor a completely secular style, nor has it any religious content. Nevertheless -- and this is a Protestant principle -- God is present in secular existence as much as he is present in sacred existence. There is no greater nearness to Him in the one than in the other, and using this as a yardstick for understanding pictures like this, I would say that this is the first level of the relation of religion and art, namely that level in which, in secular style and without religious content, power of being is visible, not directly, but indirectly. There is another example, a picture by Rubens with animals and landscape, "Return of the Prodigal." The landscapes of Rubens, for some mystical reasons, have always interested me philosophically. (Fig. 4). What is the matter with them? You are in them somehow, they take you in, you live in them, they give you a feeling for the cosmos in a rather dynamic way, though completely on the surface of colors and forms. There is something in this landscape which you never would see without the painter, and that is what art has to do, anyway. Here another entire volume could start: namely, to show in symbols, taken from ordinary experience, a level of reality which cannot be grasped in any other way. If this were not the case, art would be unnecessary from the very beginning and should be abolished. But art is necessary. It is as necessary as knowledge and other forms of human spiritual life. It is necessary for it reveals levels of reality, even in such secular objects which are, neither in style nor in content, religious.

2. Religious Style, Non-religious Content The Existentialist Level. I come now to the second level, and this level is the existentialist level. The movement of modern existentialism in visual art starts with Cézanne in France. Let me relate one experience I had two years ago when I was in Paris. There was an exhibit of still lifes, starting with works from the sixteenth and seventeenth century and continuing through to the present day. Progressing in chronological order I noticed a strong trend towards the still life. In some way it became apparent that most modern art has transformed all of reality into forms of still life. What does this mean? It means that organic forms have disappeared, and with them has disappeared idealism which always is connected with the description of the organic forms. The forms of our existence are no more organic. They are atomistic, disrupted. These disrupted forms of our existence are taken by themselves by modem artists as the real elements of reality, and now these artists do a tremendous job with them. They reduce the colorful world of the impressionists and of the beautifying idealists of the past to more and more cubic forms. This treatment begins with Cézanne. Cubic forms are the unorganic forms out of which the world is constituted. But the artists do not accept the statement that these forms are only unorganic. Embodied in this very unorganic form is the power of being itself. In this way the disruptedness of expressionism, surrealism, and all the other recent forms of styles, such as cubism and futurism, is nothing else than an attempt to look into the depths of reality, below any surface and any beautification of the surface and any organic unity. It is the attempt to see the elements of reality as fundamental powers of being out of which reality is constructed.

Or, consider another artist, Van Gogh, and, for instance, his "Starry Night" (Fig. 3). Here again we have the character of going below the surface. It is a description of the creative powers of nature. It goes into the depths of reality where the forms are dynamically created. He does not accept the surface alone. Therefore he goes into those depths in which the tension of the forces creates nature. The same is expressed from the point of view of human society in Van. Gogh’s "Night Cafe." Here you see something I call late emptiness -- only one figure. The waiter has left, and just one man is sitting there, and that is all. He represents, in all the beautiful colors you see, the horror of emptiness.

The Norwegian Munch could be added here. He has painted pictures not so much of emptiness -- although this factor is also in them, but of horror, crime, shock, that which is uncanny, that which you cannot grasp. In this way, this Nordic man also became one of the existentialists, at the same time in which Strindberg wrote his great existentialist dramas with all the terrible tensions, sufferings, and anxieties.

Then there is Picasso. One of Picasso’s most important pictures bears the title, "Guernica" (Fig. 2). Guernica was a place in Northern Spain where the Fascist countries, Germany and Italy, helped the Fascist Spaniards to overthrow the Loyalist government, the official government, because it was leftist. This place, Guernica, a small town in the country of the Basques, was completely destroyed by a combined air attack by the Italians and Germans. It was the first exercise of what is called, "saturation bombing," a terrible word. That means bombing in such a way that nothing is left. Now Picasso has painted this immense horror -- the pieces of reality, men and animals and unorganic pieces of houses all together -- in a way in which the "piece" character of our reality is perhaps more horribly visible than in any other of the modern pictures. During one of my lectures I once was asked, "What would you think is the best present-day Protestant religious picture?" I answered almost without hesitating, "Guernica." I named this picture, because it shows the human situation without any cover. It shows what very soon followed in most European countries in terms of the second World War, and it shows what is now in the souls of many Americans as disruptiveness, existential doubt, emptiness and meaninglessness. And if Protestantism means that, first of all, we do not have to cover up anything, but have to look at the human situation in its depths of estrangement and despair, then this is one of the most powerful religious pictures. And, although it has no religious content, it does have religious style in a very deep and profound sense.

Now I come to a man named Braque in France who, in his style, is one of Picasso’s followers. The picture to which I wish to refer has the name, "Table." Here you have the dissolution of the organic realities which we usually think of when we speak of a table with things on top of it. Everything is dissolved into planes, lines and colors, elements of reality, but not reality itself. We call this "cubism"; this term naturally demands an explanation. It means that the essence of reality is contained in these original forms. What modern art tries to do is to move away from the surface which had nothing to say any more to men of the twentieth century, and to move to the Urelemente, the original elements of reality which in the physical realm are cubes, planes, colors, lines and shadows. From this point of view, such a picture can have a tremendous religious power, and I want to say a few words about this later.

In Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century, and in America with the building of Riverside Church in New York, many pictures were produced by two men, Oude and Hoffman. These pictures all portray Jesus either in terms of a sentimental, religious man, as does the Hoffman work in Riverside Church, or in terms of a rheumatic or otherwise sick, dull school teacher walking through little villages. Now, this kind of picture was supposed to be very religious at that time. I would say that for me, however, religious art must show something of God and the basic structures out of which He has made His reality, and not these sentimentalisms. This, of course, does not exclude occasional romantic expressions within these genuine forms.

As another illustration of the second level I refer to Chagall’s picture, "River without Edges." Here again we have nothing which can be understood from the naturalistic point of view. It is strongly symbolistic, and perhaps this is the limit of the picture. However, everybody feels here the metaphysics of time in the wild moving clock and the animal above it and the whole constellation of colors and forms. Here the artist tries to use some elements of the encountered world in order to go beyond the surface into the depths of the phenomenon of time. Time is a river without edges.

Or, take another picture by Chagall, named "Lovers." Notice how the fantastic element comes in, how the forms are taken out of the possibility of natural relationships. The lover comes from the clouds because he is probably in her imagination much more than in her reality.

Then there is a surrealist, Chirico. One of his pictures is called "Toys of a Prince" (Fig. 7). It is characteristic for existentialist art. I would even say it is surrealistic. What does surrealistic mean? It means the elements of reality are brought into a context which has nothing to do with reality. Surrealism points to special dimensions and qualities of the reality as we encounter it. In some of Chirico’s pictures it is infinite space into which we look or it is the loneliness, or the blinding power of the sun; or it is the occasional coming together of elements of reality which have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

Let me deal now a little bit more systematically with this whole second realm which is the center of our interest. I would call this, in the sense of my basic definition, religious style, although I have alluded to no picture whatsoever which had a religious content. And why is it a religious style? Because it puts the religious question radically, and has the power, the courage, to face the situation out of which this question comes, namely the human predicament. In earlier centuries we have painters who did very similar things. We have it in the mannerist period, after Michelangelo. We have it in some of the Baroque pictures. We find it in people like Goya. We have it in those great demonic pictures by Brueghel and Bosch where elements of the psychological as well as the natural reality are brought into the picture without a naturalistic connection with each other, without a system of categories into which they are put. Thus is the all-important element in existentialism. The essential categories, time, space, causality, substance, have lost their ultimate power. They give meaning to our world. With their help we can understand things. We can understand that one thing follows the other, one causes the other, one is distinguished from the other, each has its space and its time and so on. But all this no longer applies. Mankind does not feel at home in this world any more. The categories have lost their embracing and overwhelming and asserting power. There is no safety in the world.

We have Psalms in this spirit in the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Job, where it is said of man, "and his place does not know him anymore," and this is repeated in the 90th Psalm. Those are very profound words. The things in these pictures are displaced. Displaced persons are a symbol of our time, and displaced souls can be found in all countries. This large scale displacement of our existence is expressed in these pictures. All this is no positive answer to the question of our existence, and therefore I would agree that there us no Christian existentialism. There are many Christian existentialists; but insofar as they are existentialists they ask the question, show the estrangement, show the finitude, show the meaninglessness. Insofar as they are Christian, they answer these questions as Christians, but not as existentialists. For this reason, I do not believe that the ordinary distinction between atheistic and theistic existentialism makes any sense. As long as an existentialist is theistic he is either not existentialist or he is not really theistic. As far as people like Jaspers, like Kierkegaard, like Heidegger in his last mystical period, like Marcel, are Christians, or at least religious, or at least mystics, they are not existentialists but they answer their own existentialism, and that must be clearly distinguished. Existentialism describes the human situation, and as such it is a decisive element in present day religious thinking and Christian theology.

3. Non-religious Style, Religious Content. Now, before coming back to this, I wish to indicate a few examples of the two other levels for a complete picture of the whole situation. A picture which is extremely beautiful, which has a religious subject, is a Raphael Madonna and Child (Fig. 1). It is religious neither in substance nor in style. This is one difference between the Raphael and the Chirico picture. In the Chirico, the disruptiveness of reality is visible; in the Raphael, we have a harmonious humanity which of course is indirectly religious, but is not religious in style. Or take another picture, a Madonna by the French painter Fouquet. The Madonna is a court lady of not too good a reputation. You know who she was, yet she is depicted as a Madonna. That shows that here the religious symbol in the Madonna and Child is not combined with the religious style but is reduced to the mother-child relationship of a great lady of the court of France. Or consider another, a Rubens "Madonna and Child." Here is another type of beautiful lady and another type of child. It is wonderful to look at, but nobody would think that this is the mother of God in the Catholic symbolism of this relationship. This is enough to show that religious content in itself does not give a religious picture, and many of those pictures which you find in the magazines of the churches, in the little Sunday papers in the churches themselves or, even worse, in the assembly rooms of the churches or the offices of the ministers are of this same character. They have religious content but no religious style. In this sense they are dangerously irreligious, and they are something against which everybody who understands the situation of our time has to fight.

4. Religious Style, Religious Content. Now I come to the fourth level, namely, pictures in which the religious form is combined with the religious content. This form is generally called expressionistic, because it is a form in which the surface is disrupted in order to express something. I have already stated that there have been such pictures long before modern times. Take, for instance, Greco’s "Crucifixion." Here you have an absolutely unnatural form of the body. It is an expression of the esthetic form of the counter-reformation in which a small tenuous line goes up in ecstatic self-elevation towards the Divine with asceticism and often self-destruction. Or, an even earlier picture of the late gothic period, Mathias Grünewald’s famous "Crucifixion" (Fig. 6) on the Isenheim Altar. I believe it is the greatest German picture ever painted, and it shows you that expressionism is by no means a modern invention.

Then there is a modern "Crucifixion" by Sutherland. There you have very similar expression but in modern forms. This is a recent expressionism using forms similar to Grilnewald’s, but with all the elements of disrupted style which modern art has created. In this context I put a question which I cannot answer: Is it possible to have this fourth level today? Is it possible to use these elements of expressionist visual art in dealing with the traditional symbols of Christianity? Sometimes, as for instance in the work by Sutherland, I am willing to say that it is possible. Sometimes I am not willing to say so.

Nolde, an expressionist of the German school which started in 1905, like other German expressionists tried to renew, by means of the expressionistic forms which they had created, the religious symbols of the past. Sometimes I am impressed by them -- but in most cases I feel that they did not succeed. To illustrate this I refer you to Rouault’s works, "Christ mocked by the soldiers," and plate 46 from the series called "Miserere" (Fig. 5): attempts to use his expressionist forms in order to make Christ’s story present and contemporaneous to us. The last illustration I will cite is a "Crucifixion" by Rouault. I must repeat, sometimes I have the feeling that these are solutions, at least better ones than anything we have in the traditional "junk" of religious art today. But on the other hand, I ask myself, "Is the present day man really able to answer the question put before us by existentialism?"

Existentialism and Idealized Naturalism

Idealized naturalism still is the favorite form of art for many people. What does this favorite form mean from an existentialist point of view? It means the unwillingness to see and to face our real situation; therefore the relationship to modern art and its existentialist elements is a very serious affair. Let me tell you of an experience from my past after I had come out of the first World War, and the German Republic had been established. I was teaching at the University of Berlin, opposite the Museum of Modern Art just established by the newly formed republic. I myself used pictures in my lectures in order to show in other realms of life, especially philosophy, the relationship of form and substance, the possibility of breaking the surface form of reality in order to dig into its depths; and I must confess that I have not learned from any theological book as much as I learned from these pictures of the great modern artists who broke through into the realm out of which symbols are born. And you cannot understand theology without understanding symbols. In this museum something happened every day.

The petty bourgeoisie of Germany also went to these exhibitions and I will never forget the smiling and laughing, or hostile and malignant faces in front of these pictures. What they expected in a museum was idealized naturalism. These pictures, however, had neither nature in the surface sense of the word in them, nor idealizing beauty. Instead of this they had shocking disruptions, distortions, elements of reality brought out of the depths to the surface by the painter. These petty people fought against this. This was, in the realm of art, the fight between the coming Nazism, produced by the same petty bourgeoisie, against the progressive intelligentsia which realized the dangerous situation in the industrial society. The petty bourgeoisie did not want to see that its situation had fundamentally changed, and Fascism was the attempt to maintain the old situation by means of suppression and terror. Now this shows that in artistic problems, and especially in the problems of existentialism in art, all realms are somehow present. However, let me go back to the religious realm.

What has this situation to tell us about the religious realm and about our human situation? It has to tell us, first of all, that there are moments in individual life and in the life of society when something cannot be hidden, cannot be covered any more. If the surface is maintained, then this can be done only at the price of honesty, of realism, of looking into the depths of our situation, and this price always includes fanaticism, repressing elements of truth, and self-destruction. We must be able -- and that was the great work of these artists -- to face our present reality as what it is. These artists were accused by many of having only negative characteristics. Hitler piled up their works in a museum of decadent art, a museum which contained some of the greatest treasures which later were brought to this country as great works of art. But as for Hitler, as a representative of the desperate petty bourgeoisie which wanted to keep itself in existence, he called this distorted, degenerated art.

As long as we remove from our sight what we cannot help facing, we become dishonest; then that kind of art which he favored, that kind of beautifying realism, is what covers reality. These artists, therefore, who took away the cover from our situation, had a prophetic function in our time. I do not like all of them, either. But I know they created revealing works of art to look at which is the joy of participating in a level of reality which we otherwise can never reach.

And now finally about the relationship of the churches to all of this. The churches followed in most cases the petty bourgeoisie resistance against modern art and against existentialism generally. The churches believed they had all the answers. But in believing that they had all the answers they deprived the answers of their meaning. These answers were no longer understood because the questions were no longer understood, and this was the churches’ fault. They did not do what the existentialist artist did. They did not ask the questions over again as they should have out of the experience of despair in industrial society.

The churches did not ask the question, and therefore their answers, all the religious answers Christianity has in its creeds, became empty. Nobody knew what to do with them because the questions were not vivid any more as they were in the periods in which, these answers were given. This, then, is my last statement about the whole thing. I believe that existentialist art has a tremendous religious function, in visual art as well as in all other realms of art, namely, to rediscover the basic questions to which the Christian symbols are the answers in a way which is understandable to our time. These symbols can then become again understandable to our time.


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