The idea of heaven on earth haunts the human imagination. The day will come, say believers and non-believers alike, when the pain and confusion of mortal life will give way to a transfigured community. Or perhaps, even in advance of paradise, a beachhead will be established on earth by a chosen few. Such a vision of the world seems indelible. It has survived the worst that reality can do to it. Even politics, some reckon, has not escaped from the realm of the sacred: its dreams of the future still borrow their imagery from the prophets.
The art historian T. J. Clark sets out to investigate, in Heaven on Earth, the very different ways painting has given form to the dream of God’s kingdom come. He goes back to the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, when such issues were life and death – to Giotto in Padua, Bruegel face to face with the horrors of religious war in the Netherlands, Poussin painting the Sacraments, Veronese exulting in the contradictions of Love. Was it to painting’s advantage, is Clark’s question, that in an age of enforced orthodoxy (threats of hellfire, real-life burnings at the stake) artists could reflect on the powers and limitations of religion without putting their thoughts into words?
T. J. Clark is Professor Emeritus of Modern Art at University of California, Berkeley. He was born in Bristol, England in 1943, took a B.A. in Modern History at Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in Art History at the Courtauld Institute, University of London. He has taught at various places in Britain and the USA, and from 1988 to the present at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is now George C. and Helen N. Pardee Chair Emeritus. Clark is the author of a series of books on the social character and formal dynamics of modern art: The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 (1973); Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1973); The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1984); and Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999); as well as Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (written with ‘Retort’, 2005); The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006); and Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (2013). In 2013 he co-authored (with Anne M. Wagner) Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, a book accompanying an exhibition at Tate Britain. For the past several years he has written art criticism regularly for the London Review of Books. In 2017 Clark co-curated (with Anne Wagner) an exhibition at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Guernica: Pity and Terror: Picasso on the Path to Guernica.
Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of six books of nonfiction as well as a recent novel, The Pagoda in the Garden.