Faith in the figure


Where is art going? It seems to have been in the doldrums for decades. Works of art that come to prominence seem to be heaped with plaudits for one thing: their "shockability". This neo-iconoclasm palls quickly and can send art into a spiral of nihilism, and even depravity, as artists bid to outdo each other in pushing the boundaries.  Is the Irish art world prejudiced against both figurative work and religious themes? The internationally commissioned Dublin sculptor, Dony MacManus, believes so. He tells Sarah MacDonaldwhy.

A case in point is Gunther von Hagens, with his trademark black fedora and his morbid obsession with dissecting real human bodies. Maybe the emotionally disturbed find such macabre work resonates with them, but for the average person these exhibits confuse. Is this flayed cadaver art? Is it science? Is this hybrid something creative and you just can't recognise it, or is it, as your gut instinct tells you, a clever if twisted stunt? Are the critics allowing themselves to be duped?

The 2007 Turner Prize, though less provocative than von Hagens's work, was another event which made the general public wonder if the art establishment was having them on. The prize was awarded to Mark Wallinger for Sleeper (2004-05), a video which recorded the British artist over 10 nights, dressed as a bear, walking around Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie. Surely this is raising home-videos to a new height; but what is it doing to the art form which produced the likes of Rembrandt, Giotto, Van Gogh and Rodin?

Maybe for those with a jaded palate, being outré or different is a desirable end in itself. But for most of us, the most original thing an artist can do (because it is so rare) is to depict a subject putting beauty, truth and creativity at its heart and in a way which doesn't suggest that the artist is having a joke at the viewer's expense.

Figurative art is having a tough time. It is no secret that it has in recent decades been sidelined. The art establishment chooses to ignore it because it is seen as reactionary. That might explain why, in the age of dubious celebrity, Irish artist Dony MacManus remains an unknown.

But the Dubliner has been a sign of contradiction ever since he was a student at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). Being truthful about his faith and his interest in figurative art has come at a cost. Though his CV from NCAD shows that in his final year he won the "student craft designer of the year" prize and that one of his works was the first contemporary piece to be put in the silver collection of the National Museum, behind these accolades lies a sad tale of being "forced down the wrong lane" by the college.

"When I got into NCAD I was very disappointed because basically they wanted to destroy many of my ambitions towards Western art and ideals," MacManus says. "There was an active deconstruction of the values of Michelangelo and Bernini, the people I really admire. I stubbornly insisted on producing figurative work and on top of that it had a Christian influence - shock horror! It was way too much for the system to take and so, coming towards the end of the year, my tutor advised me: 'It doesn't look like you are going to get through to the next year.'

"I had done 10 times as much work as anyone else in the class. The only reason I could see they would do this is that there was obviously a prejudice against what I was doing, because it was the polar opposite to where they wanted me to go.

"As far as I was concerned, an art school should be encouraging freedom, creativity and originality and not forcing you to say what you do not want to say."

And so MacManus ended up in the craft department. He then spent three years doing silversmithing, but felt it was limited in its expressive potential.

"My experience in NCAD was quite negative in regard to the environment," he says. "The student parties had themes which were quite aggressively anti- Christian, which made it very difficult to engage in student life."

He cites an example. "One party used a crucifix as its publicity poster with NCAD instead of INRI at the top. I thought it was a very distasteful adolescent backlash against the Church. I was only three months in the college and I had to take this up with the student president, which took a whole lot of courage, but it was something I had to do."

AFTER NCAD, MACMANUS taught for a couple of years at St David's Boys National School in Artane, Dublin. While there, he won a commission to do a four-foot bronze of the Virgin and Child (Our Lady of Hope, 1998) for Jobstown drug addiction centre in Tallaght.

"It got a lot of positive media attention because it was a very original way of dealing with the issue of drugs," he says. "The Virgin is standing with a syringe and a bottle, the symbols of drug and alcohol addiction, and there is a chain at the bottom which is broken - 'breaking the chain of addiction'."

This statue for the drugs rehabilitation centre gave MacManus an inkling that he could possibly make a career as a sculptor. He then heard about the New York Academy of Art and "realised that I had found exactly the place I needed to go to study. It was the first time I ever encountered a real academy".

He differentiates between an academy and an art school such as NCAD. "An academy is an art establishment which is rooted in the academic tradition, teaching anatomy, drawing, painting and sculpture from observation. It would be very figuratively based."

There are, in fact, very few such academies left in the world: three in Florence, one in New York and some others in Beijing and St Petersburg, though some smaller academies have emerged in Europe and the US recently.

The environment at the New York Academy was radically different from that experienced by MacManus at art school. It was during his time there that he began to gain a deeper understanding of the human body, while combining his artistic aspirations with his faith.

"I wanted to contemplate corpus christi (the body of Christ), to contemplate God through bones and flesh," he says. "A priest, when viewing this work, said to me that this was exactly what Pope John Paul II was doing in A Theology of the Body: coming to an understanding of God through the human body."

Later, in Florence, MacManus started doing workshops on A Theology of the Body with art students. Two of those students later converted to Catholicism and were baptised by the Archbishop of Florence in the Duomo. "The apostolic potential of understanding western cultural identity is phenomenal," MacManus says. "I believe this is one of the reasons it is under such fierce attack - because it is so powerful."

He defines beauty as "the projection of the truth and fullness of the dignity of the human condition. I don't believe art has to project idealised beauty all the time. There is chiaroscuro - darkness and light - in life. If you look at a Caravaggio painting it is very clear that it is the combination of the darkness and the light that makes the painting beautiful. If it was all just light it would be very uninteresting because you wouldn't have the tension; the composition would be less stimulating. Suffering is part of life. My sufferings and the sufferings of my friends bring out the best in us by inviting us to be more generous - and so there is, in a way, beauty in suffering.

"Art is a language and it expresses a thought process. My art is about the human condition and what I want to do is express the human condition in its most effective or articulate way. To me it's a no-brainer - the body is the most effective way to do that, and the more you know about anatomy, the more command you have over the body. Once you know the anatomy then you can start to decode the great masters, then you see how they used the vocabulary of musculature and bone structure to create powerful statements.

"I believe that to be really effective as an artist, you need these basics. From that you start to abstract and to make poetry out of it. It's like the Oxford Dictionary, not very interesting but useful - it is all technical structure. What makes a great work of art like the collective works of Shakespeare is the transformation of this technical structure by an enlightened human soul with a great talent for expression."

BUT IS THERE a kind of stagnation in the arts, a hangover from the late 20th century?

"I think there is a particular crisis in western identity at the moment, because it is undergoing an active deconstruction," says MacManus. "Roger Scruton talks about it in his latest book, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. He is very clear on this idea of western culture being under attack by fundamental liberal extremists who want to destroy any concept of western identity and, in so doing, destroy our memory and identity as Europeans. When we destroy that, we are left with nothing, and I think that this is a very dangerous situation to be in. There's almost been a freefall in thought.

"Complete relativism affects artistic production also. Take Duchamp's Urinal, which he exhibited as a work of art. It was the ultimate statement in relativism in the visual arts, everything is art. I think it was a clever statement in 1917, but unfortunately artists have been repeating the same statement since and it gets a bit tedious after a while. I believe that because of this poverty of ideas, this deconstruction of thought has been reflected in the deconstruction of art, architecture and society.

"However, society looks to artists and philosophers for guidance and to project a way forward. I believe that we have failed miserably in this task. I think it's really important to reconstruct the true identity of who we are as human beings and project the positive image of the person, and in that way help to lead society towards a more hopeful future as mentioned in Pope Benedict's latest encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope)."

Or, in the words of his predecessor, John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists (1999), "beauty has the power to save".

At the moment MacManus is working on numerous large international commissions. He has returned to his beloved Florence to complete some works and in order to get away from the gnawing negativity which he feels prevails in the art world in Ireland. His most recent US commission came about after the client saw his work, St Joseph with the Child Jesus, which was one of four life-size bronzes he did for the Catholic Information Centre in Washington DC. It is a reinvention of the figure of St Joseph, challenging the traditional depiction of him as an old man and portraying him instead as someone vibrant and young.

"In the past, St Joseph was made to look old in order to make Our Lady look eternally young," MacManus says. "The likelihood is that Joseph would have been about 20 years old at the birth of Jesus. I took traditional sculptural language from the western, Christian iconographic tradition and brought it forward into the third millennium."

He relates that the director of the Catholic Information Centre, Fr McCluskey, said at the statue's unveiling: "I asked Dony to give me a St Joseph the Worker and he gave me St Joseph the Biker!"

"It's a kind of a rock'n'roll St Joseph," MacManus adds. "Even the stance is very macho, but at the same time he is holding the child very compassionately and tenderly. What I was really addressing in the piece was the crisis of fatherhood in contemporary society. So many people are having children out of wedlock and some men in particular are not connecting with their children who need them. It is an icon of fatherhood, and that's necessary today. This to me, is what makes art contemporary."

This interview appears in the February issue of The Word magazine:;;