EDWARD KNIPPERS

ESSAYS

From: Violence and Grace in the Art of Edward Knippers, a catalogue essay by Timothy Verdon, now Canon of the Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy, Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Catechesis through Art, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Cathedral Museum.  The exhibition, Edward Knippers: Violence and Grace was mounted by, and shown at The University of Oklahoma Museum of Art.

“The staggering size, furious execution and searing color of Edward Knippers’ painted panels overwhelm, and their physicality shocks.  Indeed, given his chosen field, Biblical illustration, the raw violence of Knippers’ art deeply disturbs.  For viewers whose knowledge of the Old Testament may stop at the “fresh, green pastures” and  “restful waters” of the 23rd Psalm, moreover – or who conventionally visualize Jesus as blond and sweet – these hot, muscled forms constitute premeditated assault:  a kind of esthetic and emotional rape.  Nor can victims escape up the alley of art history, for, despite dependence on the classic traditions of 16th-century Italy and 17th-century Flanders, Knippers’ art has neither marmoreal detachment nor heroic transcendence.  Knippers denies us distance:  this is Michelangelo with body hair, Rubens acrid with sweat.

“Yet these are not irreligious paintings.  The 23rd Psalm, after all, goes on to thank God for preparing “a banquet for me in the sight of my foes,” and even Jesus tongue-lashed the pharisees as “serpents” culpable for “the blood of every holy man that has been shed on earth” (Mt. 23: 33-35).  With genuine religious insight, Knippers has grasped the basic fact that, in a variety of archaic literary modes, Scripture describes real people:  people with (often shatteringly) powerful feelings – men and women with “foes” in whose defeat they keenly rejoiced; who hated hypocrisy and thirsted for justice.  A committed Christian, Knippers also accepts literally that Christ came not “to abolish the Law and the Prophets…but to complete them” (Mt. 5:17), and paints New Testament scenes that pulse with the fury of an Old Testament God:  the God in whose presence the New Testament itself says “war broke out in heaven, when Michael and his angels attacked the dragon: (Rev. 12:7).  The cosmic struggle is in fact the larger context of this exhibition, and Knippers’ “message” is the message of the Psalmist:  “men’s anger” also serves to praise God; its survivors surround Him with joy (Ps. 76[75]:11),

“This is prophetic art, although not in the banal sense of the term usually invoked by critics, since it is hard to image Knippers’ style either pointing to the future or having followers.  Knippers’ art is “prophetic” because he himself is a “prophet”: has made himself available to the timeless and unpredictable, unpopular and painful power of truth vibrating through life.  Like the Old Testament Jeremiah, Knippers seems to have let himself “be seduced, … overpowered” by Someone stronger than he (Jer. 20:7).  The unfashionable themes this artist treats, his undissimulated passion, and the (unsurprisingly) mixed reception his work has had, in fact call to mind Jeremiah’s anguished admission that,

“The word of Yahweh has meant for me insult,
derision, all day long.
I used to say, ‘I will not think about him,
I will not speak his name any more’.
Then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones.
The effort to restrain it wearied me,
I could not bear it … (Jer.20:8-9)