FEIBUSCH MURAL– ALL SAINTS, HERBERT ROAD, SE18
Being, Body, Truth, Essence, distilled by Feibusch in one large church mural.
The exterior of All Saints is no preparation for what is there inside at the high altar.
It is Friday morning. In the Christian way, it is the day to eat fish. The red-bricked church of All Saints in Herbert Road, SE18 is open. The vicar Herbert (and yes, he is of the same name as the road) had invited me to see the mural. I am told the church used to be in another location along the road. See the proof in the the memorial stone outside which commemorates the re-dedication of the church by the Bishop of Woolwich on 18 February, 1956. Ladies in the church this Friday morning were busy: sweeping, cleaning, re-arranging, preparing chairs with service sheets. A Friday service was about to take place and would I like to join them?
I demurred. I could, I thought, but I was here to see the mural. And only the mural.It is large and overwhelmingly impressive in another 1950s church that is light-filled, airy, spacious, if a little stark. This is a mural of large-scale proportions and drama: the bodies all flesh, all gestures, all arms and emotion. How does an artist create spectacular vision with watery, limpid colours, as if they have been mixed with rain-water freshly mixed with a puddle as a palette? This is the power of Feibusch – look close and you wonder how with seemingly so few brush-strokes he creates awe and wonder. Sparing with paint and form, he creates atmosphere and intensity. So here was Feibusch working hard mixing paints, standing on scaffolding, using large paint brushes and watery colours to cover large surfaces in the lean post-war years in south-east London. I wonder how many knew what he was painting, where or when or how.
The subject is the Ascension of Christ. At the centre is Christ with angels below him – both figure and figures are in pink/ochre, redolent of Sienese Renaissance art, like their terracotta pink towers and turrets. Except this is Woolwich on a dreary day in February, not a heat-filled land blessed with vines and grapes, olives and oil. What was Feibusch imagining as he painted in pink? Radiating outwards both left and right the colours become stronger and sharper. Instead of focussing our eye on the centre with the strongest colours, Feibusch does the opposite. Just like a modernist painter, he inverts all pictorial traditions.
The strong force of the Ascension precludes the angels beside Christ looking. Instead they look the other way. They should be supporting Christ, even with just a look. But somehow they cannot.
And the angels are not the graceful, air-borne, dreamy feminine angels we might be used to. These, like the apostles that surround are fleshy, muscly, tall, facing towards us. One has his hand stretching out, the other back towards Christ, as if to push away. The other, also with his back to Christ has one bent leg revealing thigh, a raised right hand – pointing to the action, slightly lowering the head. While Christ too, is like the angels – graceful, balletic in flight with both hands gesturing down and excitable drapery. There is no radiant sunlight – but one figure looks as though he is covering his head to protect from something strong, something strange and furious. Even something angry. All is inversion with Feibush – the colours are arranged in unexpected ways, while body positions and gestures are the wrong way round. He cannot contain the energy of his figures.
I wonder if he was a mystic at heart – I wonder if he was ever drawn to the eastern religions.
He gives us body and bodily weight and substance, but his figures are also ethereal, lofty and spiritual. The light colours, an audacious way to depict an Ascension contrasting with the glistening heavy oils of an earlier Master – see Titian’s Assumption of the Virginhere in the Frari in Venice for example.
Feibusch is incapable of being doctrinal, dogmatic or dour. He is the Modernist painter of sublime religious art and form and I liken him to Stanley Spencer.
All is unity between the space, the rising Christ, the apostles and the angels. This artist defies hierarchy. The figures are all really in the space together. Christ, the angels, they are with the apostles. And the apostles are with them. Feibush plays with our perception of earth and the far distance of heaven. As this is the quintessence of equality – Heaven is just an extension of earth.
The trees are quivering and agile, framing a thick clump of green behind, as well as the apostles.The figures curve round the trees. The trees act like an arc round the figures. Nature and people inhabit the same space, remote together among the trees. Apostles’ faces are like ancient rock formations, creased or lined, jutting jaws, and high foreheads, seared and skeletal torsos. Their hands, – smooth, but pushing upwards, added to which are straining, arms and elbows tense and taut. A multitude of responses with limb, muscle, sinew and form to their Master up above.
In the crook of a tree crouches one apostle with a flock of red hair, hands as if about to pray, head bent, in a manner of disbelief or despair, it is hard to know. Feibusch gives us few clues – the apostles seem bewildered, but seem to resist at the same time. And then there is one figure sheltered by a green and yellow overhang, who also expresses dismay. But he does not shelter his skin. Standing apart, he wears merely a pair of white shorts, his flesh taut, strong, smooth, while looking up as if to ask the question.
To the left, a figure, who is maybe not an Apostle, but a bystander. Holding a staff in his right arm, by contrast his left arm is placed parallel to his torso. Look closely and a slightly open mouth suggests he might be gritting his teeth.
And in a detail, you can see the marks of bold, flat, forms conjuring up elements from a Biblical garden. Apart from the ochre, earthy colours of the central scene of the Ascension, vivid greens make up a sort of Elysian wood: vibrant, green brushes making rushes against pink earth, pink, peach blossoms and ivy growing up a tree.
We are deep in a sort of folk-lore laid bare forest, redolent perhaps of the German woods of ancient myth and lore that Feibusch left behind. And gloom is not so far away. The pink he seems to love has shadows cloaking it – around the bottom of the trees and then below the apostles’ feet. Bodies react with feet as well as hands. The flesh feels ancient too. He shows us the crumpled skin of the soles of feet from one who is kneeling – just how the skin looks when it comes out of a long, hot bath.
This must be a majestic mural to cherish and yet, as as far as I can tell so little seen.
Feibusch embodies our love of beauty in religious art without us having to be at all religious.