Ruth and Naomi | Art for Proper 26B

Ruth 1:16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.

Ruth and Naomi
Ruth and Naomi, Painting, 2001,
He Qi, China,
Oil on canvas, 119 x 146 cm
Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Ruth and Naomi, 2001, Mixed Media on Paper, He Qi (20th cent.)

The familiar, Moonlight Sonata was not inspired by the moon and Beethoven did not know it by that title. A German critic used that term to describe it a few years after Beethoven’s death. Music is the most abstract of the arts and a title of a piece may be simply something that pops into a person’s thoughts. When Aaron Copland wrote a ballet for Martha Graham, his focus was on composing music; he was not writing a score for a film and did not have a subject in mind. Graham liked the title of Hart Crane’s poem, Appalachian Spring, and decided to make it the title of her ballet. The ballet became widely known and Copland was amused when he would be told his music captured perfectly the image of springtime in the Appalachians. Today, the title of an abstract painting often is intended to provide meaning when none may be found in the work itself.

In the Book of Ruth we read the story of Naomi who left Judah with her husband and two sons and went to Moab. Her two sons married Moabites. Naomi’s husband died while they were there and later her two sons died as well. She told her daughters-in-law of her plan to return to Judah and tried to convince them to remain in Moab and possibly remarry. Ruth, one of the daughters-in-law, clung to Naomi and begged to go to Judah with her. In this touching moment Ruth said to Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave you…for where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God my God;” (Ruth 1:16).

None of the emotional content found in the story of Ruth and Naomi is seen in He Qi’s painting. Even to believe two women are being depicted depends entirely on the acceptance of its title. This subject is treated usually as two women embracing and we may assume this is what He Qi had in mind as well. If the title were not provided the painting could be interpreted easily as two figures dancing; possibly doing a tango or the west coast swing. As with music, an abstraction in art may be called anything.

To a person unfamiliar with art, He Qi’s painting may seem “modern” but it is related in form to the work done by French Cubists and German Expressionists during the early years of the twentieth century. In Ruth and Naomi there is a big dose of mid-twentieth century grade school cliché as well. A popular art assignment in the 1950s was to ask a child to fill a sheet of paper with curvilinear lines; then the shapes formed by the overlapping lines were filled in with different colors; He Qi follows this formula. His “Ruth and Naomi” may delight people enamored with bright colors but it lacks both originality and substance. Perhaps a painting can never depict fully the emotions being experienced in this heartwarming biblical story but treating it as an abstraction and giving it a title avoids the problem entirely.


Modern art is a term applied to work that emerged in the late nineteenth century and continued until the 1960s – 1970s. Although styles that came out of modernism are now somewhat passé, they tend to appeal to artists who are self-consciously trying to be forward thinking and yet seem to be unaware that art of the last century no longer represents the avant-garde.


© 2012 Hovak Najarian

Calling Disciples | Art for A Epiphany 3

Matthew 4:18,21 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother… As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John…

Calling Disciples
He, Qi
Calling Disciples
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Calling Disciples, mixed media, 2001, He Qi (b. 20th Century)

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution with its engineering and technological marvels was becoming part of life and there was a sense the world had entered a modern age. Being “modern” became a self-congratulatory state of mind that continued well beyond the first half of the twentieth century. Around 1970, it was proclaimed the term “modern” no longer applied to how we perceived ourselves. We were in the “Post Modern” age. Today, “Modernism” is a designated time period that started in the mid 1930s and continued to the mid 1960s. The architecture and furniture of the 1950s in particular are celebrated now in exhibits called, “mid-century modern.”

In the early part of the twentieth century, it was recognized that a painting in reality is simply an object. It is created from a canvas stretched over a frame and covered with pigments. Just as a composer of symphonic music may be more interested in a work’s orchestration than in its melody, some painters downplay the importance of creating illusions (painting the subject matter to look “realistic”), instead they give attention to matters of form. All painters, regardless of their style, orchestrate their work by combining and arranging shapes, lines, colors, textures and spaces. These visual elements may be arranged in any way a person pleases. With them, an artist may paint a still-life, a portrait, or a scene and make it look “real.” If they choose they may use the elements also to abstract a subject or to not refer to a subject at all.

He Qi’s “Calling Disciples” announces its modernity with its style. His figures, boats and sails remain recognizable yet they are not described literally. As in a cloisonné, shapes are defined by thin dark lines and the colors within them are mostly flat. Jesus is on shore in the center foreground and is flanked by disciples; three of them are looking skyward inexplicably. The disciple on the far right has turned and is waving to a lone fisherman on a boat (the white beard suggests it is Peter – Andrew is not shown). The exchange of greetings between the fisherman and the disciple interjects a light storybook quality and the entire subject is treated as a formal study.

At a time when illiteracy was commonplace, art was an important means of communication. Unlike the Middle Ages, today we are able to read Matthew’s account of the calling of the disciples and an illustration of it may not contribute anything more than what is learned from the written word. Instead of providing insights into the biblical story, He Qi’s gives us harmonious color patterns and the absence of objectionable content; his painting is likely to be satisfying particularly to people attracted to “modernism.” “Calling Disciples,” is a painting that would fit nicely with “mid-century modern” décor.

Hovak Najarian © 2014

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