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Teachers

Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art explores the spiritual dimensions of modern art, especially as seen through the lens of Jewish theological concepts. The exhibition features forty-nine internationally known artists whose works—painting, sculpture, photography, video, and installation art—are all drawn from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s outstanding collection. As diverse as the media the artists use are their approaches to spiritual concepts in their art. Some of the artists draw on biblical sources; others seek to create an awe-inspiring visual experience; still others create their own arts-based spiritual systems. Beyond Belief is divided into ten sections, each exploring a particular religious or spiritual idea, from the biblical notion of genesis to the passage of time to concepts of loss and redemption.

About This Resource


This resource is designed to help teachers explore the works in Beyond Belief in the classroom or within the context of a Museum visit. Focusing on three thematic areas (Genesis, Divine Architecture, and Loss and Redemption) drawn from the exhibition’s themes, it functions as a modular guide; educators may opt to explore individual works or thematic sections. This resource contains background information on the roots of the spiritual in modern art as well as explorations of featured artworks. Explorations of selected artworks offer
  • images
  • background information
  • questions for analysis and discussion
  • suggested activities for lessons related to art, the humanities, and religious studies
  • Most lessons also contain links to multimedia resources


Roots of the Spiritual in Modern Art


Much of the abstract and nonobjective art created in the early twentieth century sought to capture the spiritual through nonrepresentational forms. As the Industrial Revolution gathered steam in the nineteenth century, major social and technological changes led to significant artistic innovations. The Kodak box camera and Dunlop pneumatic tire appeared in 1888; Henry Ford introduced the first car in 1893; the Wright brothers made their first powered flight in 1903; and in 1905 Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity. Artists reacted to these changes in a variety of ways. For instance, the advent of photography meant that artists no longer felt the responsibility to literally document reality, freeing them to experiment with abstraction, or focus on an idea or sensation, rather than capturing a naturalistic image. Innovations in photography also liberated painters from the traditional work of creating commissioned portraits or religious scenes, further permitting the use of new techniques, approaches, subjects, and materials.

While the new art often sought to capture the fast pace of modern life, many artists felt a sense of alienation from this increasingly industrial world, and sought an artistic language that expressed emotion, universal truths, and utopian aspirations. This artistic approach grew out of a new emphasis on the inner life, influenced by the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud as well as the spiritual manifestos of artists like Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944), whose 1911 treatise “On the Spiritual in Modern Art” advocated for a nonobjective art capable of conveying universal themes through carefully constructed colors, lines, and shapes.

Tours

To schedule a tour of Beyond Belief, email tours@thecjm.org or call 415.655.7856.

External Resources

For more information on modern art, please visit these excellent resources: The Museum of Modern Art’s Online Teacher Resource, or SFMOMA’s interactive feature Making Sense of Modern Art.

Genesis


Discussion Questions

  • What about the shape and form of this sculpture stands out to you? What associations do you have with this shape?
  • What do you notice about the materials Mendieta chose to use for this work? How might this work differ if it were made of other materials?
  • What does the title, Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother), evoke for you?
  • How might this piece relate to Mendieta’s interest in feminism, religious traditions, or nature?
  • How might this artwork be connected to concepts of beginnings, creation, or birth?



Suggested Activities

  • Social Studies, Religious Studies, and Art: Mendieta and the Spiritual
    Ana Mendieta’s spiritual interests represent a fusion of traditions—Santería, which melds Catholicism with the Yoruba religion, as well as feminist philosophies and connections to nature. Ask your students to find connections to these ideas in Mendieta’s work. (They may need to do a bit of research to learn more about Santería.) Have them research and share their findings with the class. Then, have students create an artwork that reflects something about their own cultural or religious background.
  • Women and History: Mendieta and Feminism
    Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother) can be interpreted as an abstracted human form, with references to ancient fertility figurines. Have students research fertility goddesses, such as the Venus of Willendorf (c. 24,000–22,000 BCE). How are they similar to Mendieta’s sculpture? How are they different?
  • Artistic Comparisons
    Ask students to compare Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother) to Mendieta’s other work, such as her Silueta series, or her earth-based performances on film. How are they similar? How are they different? What elements related to birth, beginnings, the body, and nature do you notice? Now have them compare this work to Kiki Smith’s Lilith, also featured in the “Genesis” section of Beyond Belief. Ask students to create a Venn diagram to highlight the common themes as well as divergent approaches of these two artworks.


Genesis
Overview
Representing multiple generations and working in diverse media, the artists in this section, including Ana Mendieta, Robert Rauchenberg, and Kiki Smith, offer alternative and provocative interpretations of both the creation story and the concept of genesis. These artistic interpretations touch on birth and new beginnings, and feature projects ranging from adaptations of ancient symbols of fertility to the story of the origin of the world as told through a feminist lens.
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Discussion Questions




Suggested Activities

Multimedia Activities

Divine Architecture
Overview
The artists featured in this section, including Franz Marc, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz, have captured a sense of awe, wonder, or the mystical by observing the natural world and creating art inspired by their perceptions.
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Loss and Redemption





Discussion Questions




Classroom Activities

Multimedia Activities

Loss and Redemption
Overview
For the artists in this section, including, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Philip Guston, and Mark Rothko, the reality of living in an imperfect world is tempered by the tentative, symbolic promise of redemption through art.
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