That shocked you, didn’t it?” The greeting of Althorp Estate’s tour-guide is not the welcome to a stately home you would expect. Whispers of disbelief are heard echoing across the marble as, in a blink, you are standing face to-face with what you are certain is a Caravaggio, inexplicably hidden in the Northamptonshire countryside. However, radiating from the chiaroscuro of the Crucifixion is the illuminated carnage of champagne and narcotic paraphernalia. Cane and Abel are surgeons in heels, the Cross itself is a modern incarnation of the Grim Reaper administering an injection, and the body of Christ is addiction personified. Sardonically titled ‘Rehab’, this oil on canvas is one of many visceral confrontations of the reality of modern Britain in the collection The Promised Land by contemporary artist Mitch Griffiths.
Distorting the dimensions of vision to question our perception of national identity, Griffiths seeks to shed new light on the issues of the contemporary world in the powerfully subtle details which pervade his work. From drug abuse to the ecclesiastic presence of religion, Griffith’s work employs a dramatic use of Caravaggio’s trademark chiaroscuro. A depiction of the figure of Britannia would hardly seem out of place in Althorp’s gallery, home to portraits of power and nationalism such as those of the Spencer line. Yet, the ‘Britannia’ depicted here, her chariot a push-chair quashing the Union Jack and her shield a surveillance camera, is a defiant show of Realism amidst the posed and affected portraiture of her peers.
Despite this evident contrast, the placement of Griffiths’ work amongst this portraiture creates a critique of contemporary society and the media. A stark antithesis to the neighbouring portraits of Princess Diana and her predecessor Georgiana Cavendish – both historic icons of style, charisma, and tragedy in equal measure – the reimagined ‘Britannia’ radically exposes the reality of modern femininity in an age of celebrity culture and spectatorship. Indeed, Earl Spencer’s attack on the modern media in his infamous eulogy, is reverberated in the mood across the estate and, like the memorial dedicated to Diana, the eerily subtle details of Griffiths’ work are appropriately understated in their protest. The symbolic purity of light emanating from the harrowing Christ-like image in ‘Rehab’ amidst the murky wasteland of obsession and drug culture is darkly humoured in the ice bucket emblazoned with the notorious red band of the tabloid press and is a fitting nod to Princess Diana as “the most hunted person of the modern age”.
Griffiths’ subversion of the current global wave of patriotic nationalism with his cynical perspective of the modern state is an undoubtedly important movement towards meaningful, yet accessible, art in Britain. Drawing on techniques of classical art, Griffiths presents a valuable image of temporal shift, heralding the past with his brutal representation of the present.
Image: Jamie Barras via Flickr