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The crucifixion

The crucifixion
William Roberts (1895-1980)


Early 1920s

Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art, No.27

Commentary by Francis Hoyland

Perhaps the easiest way to look at this painting is to start with the sky, the distant trees and city, and the wall.

These forms are not represented by a series of fluent curves but by a series of jerks that interact with each other - it is a bit like taking a ride in a square wheeled tram.

The blue zig-zag of the wall, acting against the line formed by the meeting of the distant fields and hills, gives rise to an astringent, rather savage visual counterpoint which turns out to be mild compared to the violence going on in the foreground.

Why is this? Well, the Crucifixion was perpetrated by savage men, or perhaps it is truer to say that it was perpetrated by men whose ideology had turned them into savages.

Roberts had just finished painting his way through the First World War and his visual memory must have been loaded with savagery. Here he relates it to the crucifixion of Jesus.

The figure of Christ is calmer. Although he too is affected by the jerky rhythms that run through the picture, he is essentially in control.

The pictorial language I have tried to describe derives partly from cubism, more from futurism and even more from the Vorticists. The picture it reminds me of most, is the almost abstract 'Mud Bath' by David Bomberg whose structure reminds one of the reiterated dissonances, ostinatos and hammered accents of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'.

This is a thoroughly modern work. I can hear the crunch of artillery and stammer of machine guns, despite the antique gear of the protagonists. Or, perhaps, their clothes help to emphasise the horrible connection between then and now. God help us - what are we doing?

It is a very fine painting.

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