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Giving Offense

One would say of the Surrealists that they, certainly, were prepared to give offense, and there is a famously transgressive image by Max Ernst entitled The Virgin spanking the Infant Jesus before three witnesses André Breton, Paul Eluard and the artist. The naked Jesus is spreadeagled over the Virgin’s lap, his halo has fallen off, and she gives him a real walloping while the Surrealists observe the scene through a window. No doubt it seemed very shocking to some, in 1928. Interestingly enough, although presumably Max Ernst could not have known this, it would have seemed to the rural folk of Herefordshire like an illustration of a traditional carol, “The Bitter Withy Carol,” not the sort of carol ever heard in churches but one collected by A.L. Lloyd in the 1930s. Because the text is unfamiliar I give it here in full:

As it befell on a bright holiday,
small hail from the sky did fall.
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
if he might go and play at ball.

At ball, at ball, my own dear son,
‘tis time that you were gone.
But don’t let me hear of any doings
at night when you come home.
So up the hill and down the hill
our sweetest Saviour run
until he met three rich young lords
a-walking in the sun.

Good morn, good morn, good morn said they,
Good morning all, said he,
and which of you three rich young lords
will play at ball with me?

We are all lords’ and ladies’ sons
born in our bower and hall,
and you are nothing but aJewess’ child
born in an ox’s stall.

If you’re all lords’ and ladies’ sons
born in your bower and hall,
I’ll make you believe in your latter end,
I’m an angel above you all.

So he made him a bridge of the beams of the sun
and over the river danced he.
The rich young lords chased after him
and drowned they were all three.

Then up the hill and down the hill
three rich young mothers run
Saying: Mary mild, fetch home your child,
For ours he’s drowned each one.

So Mary mild fetched home her child,
and laid him across her knee,
and with a handful of withy twigs
she gave him slashes three.

Ay, bitter withy! Ay, bitter withy!
You’ve causéd me to smart.
And the withy shall be the very first tree
to perish at the heart!

I came across this carol in an old Surrealist magazine, Roger Roughton’s admirable Contemporary Poetry and Prose (Autumn 1937, page 2), and you can see why it would appeal to a Surrealist. Nevertheless, there is no question of its having been handed down in anything other than a traditional Christian rural community. Those who sang it may have known that it would not do in church. But it would seem that their piety could accommodate a piece of invention of this kind. What the Surrealists guessed would be shocking was already part of Christian tradition—the idea that the Christ child might misbehave to the extent of earning himself a thrashing. In fact this idea is very old indeed, as old as the apocryphal books of the New Testament. Here is a more vicious version of the same idea, from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

After this he again went through the village, and a child ran and knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was angered and said to him, “You shall not go further on your way,” and immediately he fell down and died. But some, who saw what took place, said, “From where was this child born, since his every word is an accomplished deed?” And the parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said, “Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is killing our children.”

And Joseph called the child to him privately and admonished him saying, “Why do you do such things? These people suffer and hate us and persecute us.” But Jesus replied, “I know that these words are not yours; nevertheless for your sake I will be silent. But these people shall bear their punishment.” And immediately those who had accused him became blind…. And when they saw that Jesus had done this, Joseph arose and took him by the ear and pulled it violently.4

All this is a part, even if a peripheral part, of the Christian tradition.


Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin, a sweet, sentimental image such as one sometimes finds on charity Christmas cards, was decorated with what, when closely examined, turned out to be cut-out pornographic images—another set of flying vaginas, hips, buttocks, and so forth. In the Brooklyn Museum, a note beside the painting (which is displayed behind thick glass) tells us that the artist, a Catholic, had trouble during adolescence in understanding the idea of Virgin Birth. The pornographic images might be taken to represent the young man’s impure thoughts: purity is contrasted with pornography, sanctity with prostitution.

This is not an iconography one would have suggested to the artist had he been fashioning an altarpiece for the Discalced Carmelite fathers, and yet its juxtaposition of innocence and experience is implied wherever (as in Caravaggio’s painting) the Virgin is associated with Mary Magdalen, who was traditionally believed to have been a penitent whore. It was Mary Magdalen’s ill luck to have this legend grow up around her at the same time that the Catholic Church was developing its ideas about the Virgin’s sinlessness.

Not every Christian shares the belief in the Immaculate Conception. In fact to many it is obnoxious. If the Virgin was fully a human being, she was conceived carnally and therefore conceived in sin. Only Christ was not conceived in sin. Saint Anselm, a devotee of the Virgin, wrote that “the Virgin herself…was conceived in iniquity, and in sin did her mother conceive her, and with original sin was she born, because she too sinned in Adam in whom all sinned.”

Supposing Chris Ofili had entitled his painting Saint Mary Magdalen, it might still have been hard for a Catholic to take, but the meaning of its iconography would not have been difficult to read. The pornographic images would be a reference to the saint’s past life as a prostitute. But it is only too easy to imagine a devotee of one of the Eastern churches, a church which had never heard of this prostitute business (which is never mentioned in the Bible), being utterly scandalized both by the painting and by the Catholic reading of it. After all, Mary Magdalen was a distinguished figure, to whom Christ revealed himself after the Resurrection (which is more than he did for the Virgin Mary). Our Eastern zealot would have every reason to be angry.

In such a case, the same constitutional right, which has been successfully invoked to protect the Brooklyn Museum in displaying Chris Ofili’s work, protects the Catholic in his desire to call Mary Magdalen a whore (albeit a penitent one).


In a recent obituary in these pages, John Updike quoted Saul Steinberg as saying that “drawing is a way of reasoning on paper.” It is always interesting to see what the work of cartoonists or caricaturists, best known through reproductions, look like in the original, what the original reasoning looks like on the original paper. Some artists are so aware of what will disappear in the process of reproduction that they leave prominent pentimenti in Whiteout. Others rely on the reduction of the image for the tightening up of the effect. Often there are office instructions in the margin, and other accidentals.

Steinberg—or what was shown in his October exhibition at PaceWildenstein in New York—was immaculate, and there was no sign at all of the hurly-burly of the office. Rather, the show paid obeisance to the artist’s work table as a place of perfect order. The table, which appears in the foreground of his famous pair of world views, Looking East and Looking West, became a subject of fascination to him, and he made three-dimensional, life-size representations of it in wood and mixed media. Carved wooden sketchbooks lie open beside wooden paintbrushes, matchboxes, and other tools of the trade, including, I was interested to see, slices of bread, lemon, and cucumber. The bread is a traditional eraser. Presumably the lemon and cucumber had their uses too.

Innumerable artists have done caricatures on the side, as a form of small talk. Some interesting figures have worked professionally as cartoonists until their art took off—Juan Gris and Lyonel Feininger among them. And then there are rare artists such as George Grosz whose work as painters and draftsmen is simply inextricable from their work in caricature: Grosz’s work as an artist went into decline when the idiom he invented for himself as a caricaturist somehow became no longer available to him.

The foundation of Steinberg’s art is a line that is unmistakably his, like handwriting. Unlike those satirical artists who delight in defining a certain narrow range of types and situations, on which they then improvise variations, Steinberg, though he had his own shorthand for a representative man who recurs over the years, liked to switch not only between idioms but also between modes of representation. Two drawings from the 1950s called Comics show him having fun not only with the inventions of the comic-book vocabulary but also with the art of cubism (a fundamental “way of reasoning on paper” for him), art deco, and, I should say, Miró.

For an extremely fetching landscape at sunset—one of several pleasing oil-on-paper landscapes in the recent exhibition—Steinberg had made a rubber stamp of the figures in Millet’s Angelus, together with another rubber stamp of an artist at his easel. The upshot is a landscape in which six identical couples are pausing to pray at the Angelus, while a whole crowd of artists with easels and brushes and mahlsticks busily paint the scene. One could hardly call this comic invention a comment on Millet, but it does indicate a somewhat wistful relationship with great art of the past.

Steinberg had or developed a gift for writing line after line of theoretically legible yet utterly indecipherable script. Two Dialogues in Bed gives an effect of noncommunication by means of two different versions of this nonsense handwriting, in adjoining bubbles, sharing an ancient iron bedstead. Clearly these dialogues have been at it for years. He invented a cartoon art which said nothing tangible, but which gave an effect of an experience communicated—the vastness of cities, the smallness of man, the immense distance from A to B and the difficulty of making the journey. It was the most systematic rethinking of the genre. It was the calligraphy of the Absurd.

  1. 4

    J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 76.

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