Advent in Art 07: Nativity Scene, Madame Tussauds

Who: 
Vernon Rive
When: 
Sunday, 23 December 2007

Introduction

3 months ago when I chose this scene, it struck me as an interesting topic for a talk during the Advent in Art series, but I didn’t have a strong sense of its spiritual significance.  I was sure that that would come to me if I thought about it for long enough. 

 It’s in a different category to the works of art that have been the subject of this years’ and previous years’ Advent talks. 

I don’t think it’s “art”.  It’s more of a publicity stunt/cultural event that was captured quite well by a studio photographer and produced a lot of heat and light amongst religious and media commentators in the UK and around the world for a couple of weeks in the lead up to Christmas 2004.  It led to a criminal damage trial that probably ended the career of a law lecturer.  Then it disappeared without much of a trace, apart from archive pages on media websites and obscure blogs, half of which are already inactive and the other half may or may not survive their next website’s overhaul.

I’ve had the image pinned up on the wall in my office at home for 2 and a half months.  It’s been the screensaver on my laptop for the last 6 weeks.  Hugh Grant’s gormless grin and Tony Blair’s steely gaze have staring out at me for weeks.  Is that a rabbit or a lamb in Grant’s right hand?  I still can’t tell.  But there has been no blinding revelation.   

If it were Malcolm Muggeridge or James Griffin doing this talk there would be a biting and ironic analysis of the superficiality of corporate marketing, popular culture and religious hypocrisy that led to the putting together of the piece, and the mayhem that then ensued.

I don’t think I can pull that off.  The best I can do is, inspired by Shortland Street’s Ferndale Strangler saga, is offer 2 alternate takes on this piece.  You can choose which one you prefer, or make up your own, if you like.

The first take involves a response to the official Church statements concerning the piece, and some thoughts on ways it has challenged me.

The essence of the second take, pretty much, is that there is no meaning to be drawn from this piece. Perhaps try and figure out what Hugh Grant is holding in his right hand and speculate not too smuttily what Graham Norton is smirking about.  But beyond that go on your way to your Christmas celebrations without giving this another thought.

Background

First some of the background to the piece.

The Nativity scene was displayed at Madame Tussauds at Marylebone Road, London, in December 2004.

Madame Tussauds has an interesting history to it.  Tussaud was born in 1761 in Strasbourg and learnt the art of wax modelling from her mother’s employer, a doctor. 

Historically, wax modelling had a close association with medicine.  Anatomical wax models were used (alongside real corpses) as teaching aids at the best European medical academies from the 1600’s. 

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On the screen is a shot of wax model from the late 1600’s by Gaetano Guilio Zumbo – an early pioneer of anatomical wax models who also ran a business on the side creating freakish horror shows populated with piles of green and yellow wax corpses, anguished men dragging the dead away and dead and decaying animals.

This quote from the exhibit notes for a 2007 exhibition of Zumbo’s works nicely captures the power of wax as a modelling medium

Wax is the perfect medium with which to convey the…scene; flesh-like by nature; organic in its composition, it looks real, and yet, not quite.  The colour a little too vivid, the surface a bit too shiny, the details too perfect.  The hyper-realism of it is aesthetically shocking, the subject matter all the more repulsive.

Tussaud’s later exhibitions which started in France and moved to Britain in the 1800’s drew from this type of public fascination with death, horror and celebrity.   

Back to the Tussauds Nativity scene…the characters were chosen in the best 21st century style, by popular votes of visitors to the attraction 4 months before Christmas 2004.  No credits were given for the curator or artists involved, or the photographer who took the photo on the screen. 

You’ve probably figured out the identities of the characters already but in case not, we have, from left to right:

  • Samuel L Jackson as shepherd #1;
  • Hugh Grant as shepherd #2;
  • Graham Norton, British comedian – best known on these shores for his role as Father Noel on the Irish comedy Father Ted;
  • David Beckham as Joseph;
  • Victoria Beckham as Mary;
  • Tony Blair as Wise Man #1
  • Prince Phillip as Wiseman #2;
  • George Bush as Wise Man # 3; and
  • Kylie Minogue as the angel;

Baby Jesus is a plastic doll with no attempt at likeness with any particular celebrity.

The exhibition opened in early December 2004.  Almost immediately it provoked a frenzy of media commentary, with a range of public statements and responses from Church leaders, editors, and others on TV, Newspapers and blogs all over the world.

Here is a selection of the quotes:

The Vatican: "This is worse than bad taste…It is cheap. You cannot use contemporary personalities as the central figures in the Nativity … And it becomes worse, if that were possible, if the people may be of questionable moral standing"

The Presbyterians: “A new low in the cult of celebrity worship.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury: “There is a tradition of each generation trying to re-interpret the Nativity but, oh deary me,”

The Times Editorial: “There is only one option for Madame Tussauds. It should apologise forthwith and send its wax dummies back whence they came to be melted down.”

The display lasted less than 2 weeks.  On Sunday 12 December a 39 year old law lecturer James Anstice bought a ticket to MT, waited near the exhibition until other visitors left, then charged in kicking and punching the figures, with most of his attention on Mary and Joseph.  He picked up Victoria Beckham’s decapitated head, fled the building, but dropped it on the pavement outside.

He was caught almost immediately.  He’d used his credit card to buy the ticket.  At his criminal damage trial he said he was so provoked by the display that he “could no longer reconcile his intellect with his faith”.  “I have done,” he said, “my bit in the war against crap but I do not think I am going to get involved in any more protests.”

 

Take 1

The Vatican’s comments on the piece are, I think, especially interesting, because religious art in general, and Italian in particular, has a long and rich tradition of depicting biblical scenes with no regard whatsoever to first century Palestinian dress, skin colour, or customs, and to placing contemporary figures including local celebrities, political or business leaders in Nativity and other scenes. 

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One example – this shot is of Da Fabriano’s amazing Adoration of the Magi from 1423.  The close up shows the face of one of the Magi’s entourage - the person who funded the painting, Palla Strozzi “an immensely wealthy local banker and humanist”, together with his son Lorenzo.

Nor were painters of religious art averse to presenting characters in stylised, high-fashion and decidedly un-prudish ways. 

Click for larger image

See, for example, the stunning painting by Jean Fouqet which is half of the Melun Diptych hung over the tomb of the late wife of the French Royal Treasurer in 1452, in the church of Notre Dame in Melun, France. 

Her appearance and dress represent the complete height of French fashion for 1452: hourglass waist, high forehead, perfect milky white skin, – spherical, improbably spaced breasts. She would have been on the cover of every fashion magazine in Europe. 

It is thought that the Mary in this painting is shown in the likeness of Agnes Sorel, a mistress of King Charles VII of France who had the reputation as “the most beautiful woman in France”.

So the Vatican and Archbishop should chill, just a bit.  If Fouquet had been on the payroll for the Madame Tussauds 2004 Nativity Scene the display would not have been general admission.

It’s been said that the best art best art challenges our current beliefs and the way we see the world, leading the observer to be creative as a reaction to it.  Does the Madame Tussauds Creche Scene do that? 

For me, in most respects, no.  Once you get beyond the novelty of modern celebrities taking the characters of the traditional nativity scene it is pretty formulaic.  It consists of 8 rich, famous, some of them immensely powerful, white folk, with 1 token African-American.  The shepherds look like their mums have dressed them for a primary school nativity play.  Kylie looks only marginally comfortable hanging from a sling.  Tony Blair, prophetically, just looks grim. 

It’s a shame, because, as we saw in a grotesque kind of way from Zumbo’s work, wax can be a highly impactful medium, and the set and dress could have been much more compelling.  But perhaps not at Madame Tussauds the week before Christmas.

But, I think, the piece works on a different level.  It challenges us with the complete audacity and improbability of the people chosen for the roles.  George Bush as a middle-eastern mystic wearing a turban is so wrong that it must be right.  Victoria Beckham as the chaste, and utterly faith-filled Mother of the Son of God is on the one hand beyond blasphemous, but on the other, par for the course Biblically: improbable folk were routinely chosen for God’s work - Moses, Gideon, Mary Magdelen, Paul to name just a few.
 

Take 2

James Anstice, the over-zealous lawyer who dealt to the Beckham models explained his actions as his “bit in the war against crap”.

Much of the crap associated with the Tussauds Creche Scene was the ridiculous things that came out of spokesperson’s, journalist and bloggers mouths, pens and laptops in the 2 or 3 weeks in December 2004.

I can’t bring myself to read you some of the stuff..it is so banal and reactive, and there are lots of spelling mistakes too.

Maybe I will read you one from a UK discussion forum because it sums up my Take 2:

“As I see it,” DRJimmy11 said, “Someone made a diorama with celebrities and it got on the news for some reason”.

My hope, in these last 2 days before Christmas, is that we might be able to avoid most of the crap, and have a chance to reflect on the significance of God meeting us in human form through the newborn baby Jesus.