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Expressionism and Religion

By Fr. Johann Roten, S.M.

Benjamin Miller's woodcuts deal with a variety of themes from Greek mythology to topics of daily life. One of the main sources of his artistic inspiration was religion, the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Miller shared his love for religious subject matter with the majority of early expressionists. Expressionism rejected the facile devotionalism of Saint Sulpice and mobilized the dramatic events and tragic figures of Judeo-Christian history for its art. The story of Isaac's sacrifice, the ordeal of chaste Susanna, Judith's heroic self-sacrifice, and John the Baptist's tragic death as victim of Herod's vanity and Salome's vengeance, are among the classical themes of expressionist art. Miller’s woodcuts on most of these themes are on display in our exhibit.

Religion for expressionism is a vehicle for the artist to express his personal experience and identity, marked most of the time by war, death, poverty, and, precisely, the loss of personal and cultural identity. Expressionism is not blasphemous. On the contrary, the similarity between the biblical story and the life of the artist attributes new value and dignity to the individual destiny. Thus, in the Bible stories God is depicted as seemingly cruel or impotent, the human being a tragic hero, human condition as paradise lost and never retrieved, and virtue, human virtue, is innocence ridiculed and downtrodden. Miller's prints "were more closely aligned with the print oeuvre being produced in Europe. These were provocative, intriguing images based on religious themes" (Allen W. Bernard). Two of the woodcuts included in our exhibit are particularly indicative of expressionist mentality and its perception of religion. One example is My Son (1928); the other is The Prophet (1924). The latter, The Prophet, shows some of the hesitation and heaviness of the beginning, My Son is an accomplished masterpiece of Miller's mature period. God is a projection of human helplessness and despondency. A massive figure, he is left impotent with the broken matchstick figure of his son in his lap. The human figure, represented in The Prophet, is a witness to psychological and spiritual homelessness. The Prophet, knowing and not knowing, torn between what to say and what not to say, is a wanderer between two worlds, belonging to neither and a fool in the eyes of everybody.

woodcut by Benjamin Miller titled "The Prophet" from 1924
The Prophet (1924)

woodcut by Benjamin Miller titled "My Son" from 1928
My Son (1928)


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