At the Tate Modern in 2003 one complete room of that exhibition was given over to one body of Newman’s work, a series of fourteen paintings, ‘The Stations of the Cross’, that he worked on over a period of eight years – from 1958 to 1966, and is widely considered his greatest masterpiece. These are large scale monochromatic works. At the Tate show I thought they were the best thing. Sitting in the room in low lighting surrounded by those works was an incredibly calming experience; they were my favourite thing in the show.
According to the artist, the paintings are not intended to express the succession of events found in traditional depictions of the Stations of the Cross. Instead they reveal the single moment when Christ cried out ‘God, why have you forsaken me?’ – ‘Lema sabachthani’, the subtitle Newman gave to the series.
1st Station of the Cross
3rd Station of the Cross
‘It was while painting them that it came to me (I was on the fourth one) that I had something particular here,’ Newman said. ‘It was at that moment that the intensity that I felt the paintings had made me think of them as the Stations of the Cross.’
7th Station of the Cross
Newman had always defended the spiritual dimension of his work, and here, Christ’s Passion becomes ‘the cry of man, of every man’, and perhaps a mirror of his own personal crisis. ‘I tried to project something I felt was very real in relation to the Passion,’ he said, ‘and I feel that kind of suffering has gotten almost universal.’ The series has also been interpreted as a memorial to the Holocaust and the tragedy of war.
12th Station of the Cross
Barnett Newman 1905 – 1970 was an American artist. He is seen as one of the major figures in abstract expressionism and one of the foremost of the colour field painters.
He was born in New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russian Poland. He studied philosophy at the City College of New York and worked in his father’s business manufacturing clothing. From the 1930s he made paintings, said to be in an expressionist style, but eventually destroyed all these works.
Throughout the 1940s he worked in a surrealist vein before developing his mature style. This is characterised by areas of colour separated by thin vertical lines, or ‘zips’ as Newman called them. In the first works featuring zips, the colour fields are variegated, but later the colours are pure and flat.
The zip remained a constant feature of Newman’s work throughout his life. In some paintings of the 1950s, such as The Wild, which is eight feet tall by one and a half inches wide, the zip is all there is to the work.
Newman’s late works, such as the Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? series, use vibrant, pure colours, often on very large canvases – Anna’s Light (1968), named in memory of his mother who had died in 1965, is his largest work, twenty-eight feet wide by nine feet tall.
Two paintings from Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? series