I think that I am primarily a storyteller. My function as a visual artist is to create a two-dimensional formal structure that will best contain the story being told. I am always trying to create a sense of space that has somehow been altered or transformed by an event.
THE LACONIC, SPARTAN PROSE above does little to prepare the reader for James Munce’s work—quirky, monumental drawings, etchings, and lithographs of intricately staged narratives inspired by Judeo-Christian and classical sources, as well as art history. When his words and images are taken together, however, we see how his work fulfills his creed. Munce’s “two-dimensional formal structure” puts a new twist on a venerable mode of pictorial storytelling that originated in the Renaissance.
Born in South Dakota and active as a teaching artist in Manhattan, Kansas, for more than thirty years, Munce is the quintessential pithy and plainspoken Midwesterner. When I first met him, on a cloudless and cool autumn day in downtown Manhattan (known in Kansas as the “Little Apple”), I found it hard to believe that this unassuming man in heavy black-framed glasses with his cap pulled over his forehead was the creator of such exuberant and cacophonic images as his Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy: Duet. No tear-glazed, sentimental piety here: in Munce’s version of the saint’s transformation, Cecilia is partying her way to the heavenly shore: her ecstatic dancing and toodling on her flute threaten to capsize the rowboat, while her companion—a tuba-playing angel minding his notes—remains sensibly seated.
A draughtsman and printmaker since he graduated from Indiana University in the early 1970s, Munce has produced, in addition to the Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy series (four etchings), a number of works that re-envision traditional iconographical narratives. These include his Conservatory Suite (nine etchings on the life of Christ), The Wedding at Cana (six lithographs), and the Pandora series (six pen-and-ink drawings from Greek mythology). Since 2006 he has been developing a classical cycle, Variations on the Parthenon Frieze, in homage to the fifth-century BCE sculpted narrative of a religious procession devoted to the goddess Athena.
His most ambitious series to date, however, is his twenty-year project on the life and legend of Saint Francis of Assisi. Munce’s fascination with the thirteenth-century Italian friar began in the early 1980s after he read God’s Pauper, a fictionalized biography by Nikos Kazantzakis. In addition to numerous preparatory sketches, he completed ten pen-and-ink drawings and two prints of the saint famously addressing animals. His most sustained effort, however, is Saint Francis Restores the Neglected Church, a suite of twelve etchings, some in color, others in monochrome, begun in 1991 and completed in 2003. I first encountered his Saint Francis works in 1999 as juror of the National Biennial of the Los Angeles Printmaking Society.
In the western world, art that told stories first appeared in Greece and Rome. Sculptures, mosaic floors, and murals adorned public buildings and private homes, telling of the exploits of the gods and of various human endeavors. With the demise of the classical world after the Christianization of Europe, the barbarian invasions, and Muslim conquests, much of this art was lost. Fragments of sculpture, however, began to be unearthed and studied in Italy in the Middle Ages. Consequently medieval art took on a classical cast, acquiring the traits we associate with the Renaissance. After a fashion, Munce’s recent Parthenon series continues that tradition of rediscovery—but instead of digging in ruins, he encounters classical art in books and museums. In 1966, Munce had an epiphany when he first saw the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. (These sculptures were removed from Athens to Great Britain in the early nineteenth century and have since become the subject of acrimonious debate over cultural patrimony.)
Art that told the stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition came into its own as the Roman Empire disintegrated. As Byzantium waxed, its iconographers illustrated the interiors of churches throughout the realm. Vast mural programs, projections of the heavenly court, were arrayed upon every available surface. They represented the Orthodox understanding of the Bible and the saints, as well as the emperors who reigned as Christ’s representatives on earth. Art in the Catholic West paralleled that of Byzantium until the turn of the fourteenth century in Italy. The rediscovery of classical sculpture was one impetus for change. The life and work of Francis of Assisi was another.
Born in 1180, young Francis was something of a romantic—a party animal, a crooner of love songs, and an aspirant to knighthood. He enlisted in an army that attacked Perugia, where he nearly got himself killed but was instead taken captive. A prisoner exchange allowed him to return to Assisi, where in 1206 he underwent a famous conversion to a mystical and ascetic form of Christianity. He was also a bit of a performance artist, dramatizing his radical piety in public. Before a judge in court, Francis famously removed all his clothes and handed them to his exasperated father, then departed naked into the streets of Assisi. Originally scorned by much of the town for countercultural behavior it saw as mad, annoying, or drastically naïve, he gradually began to attract respect and followers. Most importantly for art, he and his fellow Franciscans also began to attract papal support for the construction of new churches and monasteries.
Francis was canonized shortly after his death in 1228, and construction of a two-storey memorial church in Assisi began in the 1250s. The first murals of his life were painted soon after. Departing from the formulaic two-dimensional iconography then prevalent, these new murals were notable for their illusion of spatial depth and dramatic expression of emotion. They tugged at the empathy of viewers, drawing them into the saint’s exploits. Also novel were their use of perspective to create a sense of depth and the narrative self-sufficiency of each panel within the series. These innovative elements would lie at the foundation of western easel painting for centuries to come—and would be dubbed the “Assisi effect” by art historians.
What made Francis such an influential figure? As British art historian Charles Harrison puts it, “If art is made of forms and colors and figures and spaces, it is also made with ideas and beliefs. When the latter change, so must the character of the former.” Empathy and dramatic expression of emotion were at the heart of Francis’s life’s work. According to the nineteenth-century historian Henry Thode: “His religion was feeling; the preaching in which he revealed it worked through feeling; his relation to men and nature was conditioned by feeling. His life was a great dithyrambus [passionate poem] on feeling. Therein lay the explanation of his powerful influence.”
Feeling, or compassion, had not been a hallmark of medieval society before Francis. In the burgeoning industrial towns of Italy, impoverished agricultural workers sought minimum-wage jobs in the new textile factories, crowding into the desperate shanties clustered outside city walls. It was in these extra-mural neighborhoods, and for their vulnerable underclass, that the Franciscans erected their new churches and painted their murals of Christ’s Passion and Francis’s life in the dramatic and emotional new style of “Franciscan feeling.” Many art historians mark the beginning of the Renaissance with the advent of this new kind of painting.
The Miracle of the Crib at Greccio in the church of San Francesco, Assisi, offers one poignant example. The hagiographies of Francis speak of a Christmas Eve at Greccio when he invited a curious crowd of townspeople and friars to come from the church nave past the rood screen to gather around the high altar (normally off limits to the laity). Here Francis knelt to create the first crèche. According to Bonaventure’s official biography, “He had a crib prepared, with hay and an ox and an ass. The saint stood before the crib and his heart overflowed with tender compassion.” In this and other tableaux vivants, Francis performed events from Christ’s life, encouraging his followers to bring the Gospels into their imaginations, experiencing their stories in visual, tangible terms. While Francis sang the gospel account of Jesus’s birth, Bonaventure writes, a knight, his spiritual imagination apparently sparked, “claimed he saw a beautiful child asleep in the crib, and that Saint Francis took it in his arms and seemed to wake it up.” The painter of the Crib at Greccio (who many believe to have been from the circle of the great Giotto, if not the master himself) has rendered this incident at near life size. The bodies of the participants seem to occupy space continuous with the viewer, and the staging of the scene is a compelling evocation of the incident.
It was monumental, life-like, dramatic, storytelling paintings like the Crib at Greccio that marked the origins of Renaissance art. Later in the fifteenth century, Italian artists refined the concept by rationalizing the picture plane as a window into a narrative world that—significantly—included the space where the viewer stood. But it was earlier works like the Crib at Greccio that raised the bar: dating from that period, in order to compel its viewers, a painting had to be naturalistic and had to tell its story in a way that empathetically drew in the beholder. Anything less looked retrogressive.
Nearly seven hundred years later, these same elements can be found in James Munce’s etching Sweeping, from his series Saint Francis Restores the Neglected Church. Although it measures just 15 by 18 inches, the print is monumentally conceived: it is a stage set in which human drama unfolds. As with the Crib at Greccio, we can imaginatively enter the picture plane; its space extends into ours. Anachronistic beer cans and fast-food wrappers litter the pavement stones, details that bring the scene nearer for a contemporary audience. Since the world of the painting is recognizably our own, we can envision ourselves joining the saint in sweeping out the run-down church (one of the frequently cited labors of Francis). The modern push-broom propped against the statue invites us to pitch in.
In the late nineteenth century, the pictorial concepts that had sustained painting since the early Renaissance became misused and lost their vitality, while church commissions decreased drastically. Bishops weren’t apt to patronize artists as revolutionary as Giotto anymore, preferring re-treaded religious imagery, and much narrative painting became debased into sentimental instruction. When image-making became subservient to moral edification, a distance grew between the image and the beholder. The late-nineteenth-century image was for looking at, not entering into. Moreover, these retrograde forms were out of sync with the flux of modern life, and when art went abstract in the twentieth century, narrative painting was already passé in modernist circles. Around 1950, doctrinaire modernists tightly shut the doors of history on representation, figuration, narrative, and religious content, exiling them to a bygone era. You want storytelling art? Go to a museum, or subscribe to the Saturday Evening Post where you can gaze upon Norman Rockwell and other middlebrow illustrators.
Leave it to artists to kick open the doors—especially when the stakes involve limits on their creative curiosity. In the U.S., the 1970s ushered in a wide-open epoch. Unruly and multifaceted, it included a new receptivity to the art of the past. With postmodernism, representation, figuration, narrative, and even religious content came back in new guises. Jerome Witkin emerged on the scene with his darting, incandescent brushwork and cinematic-style narratives [see Image issue 11]. And storytelling within monumentally conceived space appeared notably in the work of two ambitious printmakers. The first was Peter Milton, whose works encompass surreal imagery, erotic fantasy, mystery, time, space, literature, and history—sometimes, amazingly, in a single print. In a story-starved art world, Milton’s prints sold like hotcakes and still do. The second was James Munce.
Munce published his ambitious Conservatory Suite in 1978, a cycle of etchings freely inspired by art historical depictions of the life of Christ. Milton and Munce’s works from the 1970s share a penchant for hallucinatory compositions and special effects—as well as for dynamic, empathic storytelling within two-dimensional space. Although centuries separate them from the Italian muralists who birthed the Renaissance, their historical lineage is plain.
Munce, like Milton and Witkin, continued to explore narrative imagery in the 1980s, taking up an interest in Saint Francis of Assisi. The Kansan was not the only twentieth-century artist attracted to the medieval friar. Kazantzakis, best known for the controversial but orthodox novel The Last Temptation of Christ, struggled to reconcile Christian belief and modernity. He became fascinated with Francis of Assisi as a man for our time, and published a vivid, earnest, fictionalized biography in 1962. Munce read it twice through, finding inspiration for what turned into a twenty-year journey exploring the life and legend of the saint.
Post-World War II artists working in many media were drawn to Francis. In 1950, the Italian neorealist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini produced the episodic Flowers of Saint Francis, using Franciscan brothers as actors and scandalizing Europe’s left-wing culturati with the film’s unalloyed piety. Federico Fellini helped with the script. Two decades later, Franco Zeffirelli infused his film about Francis, Brother Son, Sister Moon, with the countercultural sensibilities of the early seventies. During the 1980s, Liliana Cavani cast professional boxer and Hollywood bad boy Mickey Rourke in the title role of her Francesco (1989); and in music, Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise (1983) has been called one of the great operas of the twentieth century.
In the visual arts, American painter and printmaker John August Swanson, working in a self-conscious folk-art style, has produced at least five paintings of Francis and a number of silk screens and lithographs. Seen as a refreshing departure from conventional images of the saint, Swanson’s works were seized upon by graphic designers who widely reproduced them for mainstream religious publications. Robert Lentz, OFM, a Greek Catholic, has made a number of Franciscan icons. His Francis exudes the global compassion and environmental consciousness of our age. Like Swanson’s, his images are widely popular with both religious and secular audiences.
Indeed, Saint Francis has become a spiritual sponsor for the environmental movement. Back in 1967, UCLA historian Lynn White prophetically proposed him as a patron saint of ecologists, and in 1986 the World Wildlife Fund partnered with the Vatican to convene an environmental conference of the world’s religious leaders…in Assisi.
Unlike Swanson and Lentz, who blend traditional Franciscan imagery from icon painting with a contemporary sensibility, Munce’s Saint Francis is more the modern, existential man. His saint has a ferocious work ethic and multi-skilled expertise, whose labors are cannily similar to those of a passionate artist bound to his creative endeavors. The twelve-piece series Saint Francis Restores the Neglected Church is based upon one of the saint’s first post-conversion acts, his refurbishing of the chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi. By Kazantzakis’s imagined account, there was much work to be done:
The walls were leaning outward, the yellow starwort had already embraced the stones, shifting them; the tiny bell tower had collapsed, and its blocks still lay in the courtyard, the small mute bell next to them. The door was hanging off its hinges. We crossed the grass-covered threshold and entered.
Clearing Rubble, among the earliest prints in the series, seems drawn directly from Kazantzakis’s description. A student of art history, Munce composed his fixer-upper chapel upon a mathematical perspective grid developed by quattrocento artists to locate objects in space more rationally. His San Damiano is also indebted to the scenic ruins from Albrecht Dürer’s sixteenth-century woodcuts. In the shadowed foreground, Francis is absorbed in his labors to the point of disappearing into them—a leitmotif of the series. This scene is not especially marked by the feelings of personal compassion and mercy common to fourteenth-century portrayals of Francis. Rather another kind of feeling dominates: love for work. Munce’s Francis works alone; no other human figures ever appear in the series. There is a certain pathos to this man who loses himself in the labors of renovation, never flagging. Unlike Swanson and Lentz, Munce almost erases the saintly persona of Francis, perhaps to convey his humility.
In Munce’s series, the saint often seems to belong to a different time period from the setting in which he toils. In Clearing Rubble, he brings to mind those struggling laborers of the mid-nineteenth-century French realists like Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. He also recalls the downtrodden proletarian types, enslaved to drudgery, who were a staple of the socially conscious art of the 1930s. Or, with his cap pulled low over his brow, could he be a surrogate for Munce himself?
As the series proceeds through a range of restorations, Munce makes San Damiano more architecturally expansive, transforming it from the modest tabernacle described by Kazantzakis to a variety of churches, even a cathedral or two. Francis’s labors widen to include sculpture cleaning, fresco painting, mending ecclesiastical vestments, bell tuning, stained glass repair, pipe organ service, and custodial maintenance.
In Touching Up the Fresco [see Plate 6], the viewpoint is elevated to the scaffold upon which the saint toils. Francis appears shirtless and in blue jeans, his flaccid torso looking shockingly middle aged (gone is the idealized ascetic body that appears in Brother Lentz’s icons). His back to the viewer, Francis applies paint to a damaged mural of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem while Brother Dog and Sister Cat admire the work in progress. A folding stepladder, another leitmotif, dominates the foreground. The theatrical drop cloth with its ridge-like folds is obsessively rendered, as are the wrinkled jeans that seem to writhe about the saint’s legs. The generous amount of space given to the two frescoes (above and below) reveals Munce’s love of art history. That Francis attentively brushes the cloak of Christ also suggests the ultimate object of his devotion and inspiration—the work of restoration notwithstanding.
In Cleaning the Tympanum, done in the same year as Touching Up the Fresco, the viewer is positioned below Francis, who balances precipitously on a stepladder, attempting to remove the grime from the face of Christ on a Romanesque tympanum sculpture of the last judgment. Our impulse is to catch him as he keels forward. The upward angle here is a departure from the window-like composition of Sweeping, where we were invited to picture ourselves in a space contiguous with Francis’s, on the same level. No Renaissance painter would have dreamed of an angle like this one. (The use of pictorial space for looking up or down betrays the influence of the camera.) Neither Giotto nor the fifteenth-century painter Giovanni Bellini could have conceived of their protagonist turning his back on the viewer. What is this off-kilter image saying? Is Munce using cleaning as a metaphor for Francis’s call to reveal Christ, as found in the hagiographies? Does the saint’s impending fall enact the headlong devotion to Jesus that marked Francis as God’s fool? What about our perspective, the way we look up at Francis, whose pose makes him appear crucified? Munce is not one to tip his hand.
The saint takes up a humbler task, cleaning the marble floor of a cathedral atrium, in Scrubbing Floors: Homage to Stanley Spencer [see Plate 8]. The title refers to the eccentric British artist who between 1927 and 1932 made wall-paintings for Sandham Memorial Chapel illustrating his experiences as a medical orderly at war hospitals in Bristol and Macedonia during World War I, including a panel called Scrubbing the Floor. Spencer’s oeuvre was infused with the unlikely combination of Christian conviction and sexuality, as well as an obsession for loading his compositions with accumulated circumstantial detail [Spencer was featured in Image issue 18]. The latter is evident throughout Munce’s series, especially in Scrubbing Floors. Upon the marble deck appears a scattered assortment of mops, spray cleaner, a rubber duck, buckets, and a serpentine yellow hose. Francis, on his knees in his skivvies, is compositionally off-center and not much distinguishable from the statues behind him. Here he pauses to blow a soap bubble, the act of a jester: his humility comes with a dollop of humor. Numerous white bubbles float throughout the atrium; Francis appears to be creating a whimsical system of celestial spheres. The dispersed nature of the composition evokes Spencer’s aversion to painting human figures that stand out as heroic protagonists. Like Spencer, Munce prefers to show people as defined by their tasks and environments.
This tendency is most pronounced in Hanging Doors, where Munce breaks the narrative into three parts [see Plate 9]. Spencer notably exasperated British art critics with his strangely unstable perspectives, multiple depths, and varying angles, which forced the viewer’s eye to scurry about the surface in search of a primary focal point. The late art historian George Heard Hamilton argues that Spencer’s compositional flux is precisely what makes him modern; and so it is with Munce. As the Saint Francis series progresses, he departs from the fixed viewpoint of the Renaissance window, altering his angles and perspectives. Hanging Doors is a triptych with panels of different sizes, as if the action is being taken in either by a sidelong glance or from above—as if we are seeing Francis from the point of view of the angels, who the saint believed were always with him as guardians.
No less than five ladders appear in Hanging Doors. They function as vertical compositional elements, and possibly as symbols of ascent through godly work. The central panel hints at this kind of transcendence. Half visible and silhouetted in a blaze of light, Francis installs a door on its jamb, his arm raised ecstatically. Sunlight is a unifying motif across the triptych: at the rightmost panel, Brother Sun rises to illumine the day; he shines with full noonday strength in the central panel; and at the left he sets upon the church at vesper hour as Francis carves the sacred story on the door. With the sun to illumine his labors, the saint works straight through. What initially appears to be a series of fractured tasks is actually the fulfillment of a long day’s work.
It all comes down to the work. As the Saint Francis series develops, the scenes move from the routine labors of sweeping and clearing rubble that the historical Francis certainly performed in the ruins of little San Damiano to mural painting, the repairing of stained glass [see Plate 7], and block-and-tackle labors on the sagging buttresses of soaring Gothic churches. Consciously or no, perhaps Munce sees Francis’s call to restore holy places as analogous to the artist’s own solitary vocation. The early work is basic—drudgery even—but as the disciplined labor proceeds, it ascends to creative heights (via ladders and scaffolds) and takes on grandeur, becoming luminous and rich in its results—but not without some humor, so essential for the humility needed to maintain artistic (not to mention saintly) integrity.
For Kazantzakis, writing God’s Pauper meant responding to the ancient legends of Saint Francis with his own literary creation. He sought to translate the essence of Francis for our time. In his quest, Kazantzakis concluded that Francis was “the model of the dutiful man, who by means of ceaseless…struggle succeeds in fulfilling our highest obligation, something higher even than morality or truth or beauty; the obligation to transubstantiate the matter which God entrusted to us, and turn it into spirit.” Dutifully working away with entrusted matter of his own, rendering living stories in two-dimensional space, Munce would undoubtedly agree.