Descent by Anna Freeman Bentley

Anna Freeman Bentley

Descent, 2011, Oil on 8 panels supported by scaffolding, 1100 x 182 cm (base) tapering to 91.5cm (top), Collection of the artist, Photo credit: Rowan Durrant

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Stairway from Heaven

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

This eleven-metre-high, eight-panel painting of a spiral staircase exemplifies how my artistic practice works with cropped and manipulated images of architectural interiors to explore ideas of longing in society.

Harnessing the enigmatic quality of paint, I confront the viewer with a towering staircase that exudes its own visual rhythm as it curls upon itself. Observed up close, the panels reveal an intuitive process where expressive brush marks of thinly applied paint suggest immediacy and exuberance. The sides of the panels reveal vertical drips, signalling a horizontally-executed process, and the back exposes a scaffold support, shifting the painting towards sculpture.

The scale of the work, and its site-specific engagement with church surroundings, contextualizes it with the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, despite there being no depiction of Jacob asleep at the foot of the stair or any rendering of angels ascending and descending.

The source material for this painting was the studio of French artist Gustav Moreau (1826–98). His symbolist paintings of biblical and mythological figures are hard to decipher in Descent, yet my reproductions of them line the walls around the painted staircase, mirroring Jacob’s dreamlike vision. A doubling is played out in the multiple curls of the stairs, recalling the baroque fascination of ‘tending toward infinity’ (Wolfflin 1986: 71). The painting tapers to a narrow top, where we glimpse an opening above. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) speaks of the world of human experience in terms of interconnected levels, or as Anthony Vidler describes it: ‘two stories, the one material, the other spiritual, joined by a stair of infinite folds’ (2001: 233). From one perspective, the painting reaches up to touch the untouchable; stretching from earth to heaven.

Concurrently, however, Descent questions whether the central image of Genesis 28:10–22 is best conceived as a ‘stairway to heaven’. The ‘ladder’ is let down into Jacob’s physical and moral wilderness. Rather than depending on the shaky foundations of Jacob's past actions and current circumstances, affirmation and encouragement are anchored in ‘the Lord [who] stood above it’ (Genesis 28:13).

This is a stairway from Heaven.



Harbison, Robert. 2000. Reflections on Baroque (London: Reaktion Books)

Koestlé-Cate, Jonathan. 2015. ‘Baroque Folds’, Art and Christianity, 82: 2–5

Vidler, Anthony. 2001. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

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