Second Station. Part of The Stations of the Cross / Lema Sabachthani (series) by Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman

Second Station. Part of The Stations of the Cross / Lema Sabachthani (series), 1958, Magna on canvas, 198.4 x 153.2 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection, 1986.65.2, © 2021 The Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, DC.

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Taking Up The Cross

Commentary by

One of the leading Abstract Expressionists, Barnett Newman (1905–70), an American of Jewish Polish–Russian descent, painted his Stations of the Cross between 1958 and 1966. It is a series of fourteen very large canvases in his typical minimalist style of expansive colour fields with vertical bands and lines. The canvases here are in white and black, interrupted by bands of different sizes spaced at varying intervals. In Western Art white has frequently connoted innocence, purity, and light, while black has been associated with darkness and death.

Newman wrote: ‘Lema Sabachtani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer’ (O’Neill 1992: 188).

It was not just Jesus’s outcry and suffering that Newman sought to capture in choosing the traditional format of The Stations but the agony of each single human being in this world. Newman regarded the human as ‘tragic’, a tragedy that essentially manifests itself, as he said, in the ‘metaphysical problem’ that each person is single, alone, yet belongs and is part of another (O’Neill 1992: 257–58).

It is remarkable that Newman, a Jew, should choose to paint over eight years—un-commissioned and of his own desire—this central Christian theme. The tradition of representing the Stations of the Cross goes back to the early Christian pilgrims who visited Jerusalem, walking in devotion and prayer along the path of Jesus to Calvary. Working in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and in the context of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Newman’s focus in this set of works may have been not only Jesus but the whole human condition. Yet it is curious that he would engage with this most quintessentially Christian devotional subject—Christ the symbol of human suffering—to such an extent.

True to his own artistic style and true to the Jewish prohibition of religious imagery, Newman presents us with an ‘imageless image’, a non-figurative evocation of Jesus on the way to the crucifixion. The final work in the series, Station 14, traditionally represents Jesus laid in the tomb and in Newman’s conception is represented entirely in shades of white—possibly a concluding hint at the transcendence of Jesus’s and of all human suffering into resurrection and eternal life.

 

References

O’Neill, John P. (ed.). 1992. Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 188, 257–58


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