"Engaging Eliot" Events Celebrate Art and Faith

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Monday, February 11, 2013

On Jan. 28, Duke Initiatives in Theology and Arts (DITA) premiered QU4RTETS, a visual and musical celebration of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in Duke Chapel.

A multifaceted engagement of art and faith, the opening night featured a display of 16 original works by painters Bruce Herman and Makoto Fujimura; a performance of “At the Still Point,” a quintet by Christopher Theofanidis commissioned for the event; and lectures by the artists. 

Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel, opened the evening by welcoming the audience and the artists, who introduced listeners to the creative process of prayerfully working alongside Eliot's masterpiece while struggling with social and personal pain. Herman and Fujimura shared their own crossroads of faith and tragedy in the wake of 9/11, the Japanese tsunami, and a house fire, experiences that highlighted the sometimes uncanny vitality of Four Quartets.

The Ciompi Quartet, with Jeremy Begbie on piano, presented “At the Still Point.” The piece, introduced by Theofanidis, comprised four parts, each named after a line from Eliot’s poem. Theofanidis described the piece as organic, irregular, and difficult yet full of breath and pulse.

Short, poignant readings by Ellen Davis and Dean Richard Hays from Four Quartets laced the four movements together, the words and the music mutually illuminating each other to create an effect one listener described as “hints of the cross within the landscape of 20th century England ... a confirmation of life right in the middle of modern pain, that difficult ‘yes.’”

Monday night’s performances were followed by a Tuesday evening academic colloquium, featuring Hays, Fujimura, Herman, Davis, and Art, Art History, and Visual Studies Professor Gennifer Weisenfeld and English Professor Michael Moses.

Moses introduced attendees to the modernist aesthetic from which Eliot emerged, while Weisenfeld cross-referenced the QU4RTETS works with post-traumatic art history to talk about the way visual representation functions in the aftermath of disaster. Dean Hays brought in an exegetical angle, wondering, in the end, if the resurrection needed to be more prominent and whether a “Fifth Quartet” might be needed. Fujimura and Herman gave responses to the presentations, bringing their artistic experience into play with academic and theological analyses.

For Weisenfeld, the Engaging Eliot event “vividly evoked the critical intersection of ... the crisis of modernity, spirituality, and the trauma of disaster. The rich texture and profound depth [of the art works] demonstrates how we all continue to wrestle with these issues."

For more information, watch the opening night lectures and performance, video of the musical piece alone, or a video about the event. Copies of the exhibit’s companion catalogue, with prints of all the paintings and essays by the artists, can be purchased from DITA assistant Amber Noel at anoel@div.duke.edu.

"Engaging Eliot" was generously sponsored by DITA donors, including Duke Council for the Arts, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke Chapel, and John and Bobbi Augustine.