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Sarah Masters:

An interview with Brian Corwood about Mary, Jesus, and the rest on the flight to Egypt

How did the idea for these works first come about?
I was in the Old Masters museum in Dresden, or Düsseldorf, somewhere like that, and I noticed how all these paintings of the holy family seemed to leave Joseph marginalised. I suppose this made me want to try and give him some kind of voice.

What do you think it was about this particular aspect of the paintings that caught your attention?
Well, it was the writing on the wall really. I guess it just struck a chord.

You mean you thought there was something portentous in that representation?
No, it was literally a piece of writing on the wall, about the paintings. It talked about the tradition of Joseph’s representation in these pictures and from there the idea just fell into place for me.

Do you see this series as something of a departure from your previous work and the importance of wordplay within that? In particular, I am thinking of pieces such as The Holy Ghost Shall Come Upon Thee.
I suppose there is a difference here in that wordplay does not come into it; but I hope this series is just as playful while at the same time asking serious questions about the story within the painting. Having said that, I think wordplay will always be around in my work, just as words will always be around…and play. There is a serious point to that work anyway. Who can say what St. Luke really meant when quoting Gabriel, the words are ambiguous.

Surely one can assume that the most obvious meaning is the most likely one.
No. That is subscribing to the idea of a definitive interpretation of something that's thousands of years old. Sometimes it takes an artist to read between the lines, so that's what I've done.

But St. Luke's words have gone through translation from the original Greek, so the ambiguity is solely an English one.

You referred just then to certain questions asked of the nativity by your work. What questions are these exactly?
For the more sceptical among us, even if we can believe all but the unlikeliest of events described in the bible, we cannot accept that there was really a virgin birth, and so the question of Joseph is an interesting one. For what reason might a couple have professed to have not ‘known’ each other before the birth of their child? Did they wish to hide their pre-marital union? Did Mary pull the wool over her husband’s eyes after being unfaithful? Maybe Joseph chose to see truth in a fanciful dream he had rather than admit his cuckoldry? Perhaps Mary was raped even, and so her honour was at stake? We can hardly help ourselves but ask ‘What really happened that night in the Nazarean desert?’

Furthermore there is the strangeness of the veneration of Mary simply because of the act of her giving birth, something which she had no option but to do. She wasn’t even chosen by any merit of her own as she was conceived and born pure in the first place. So, seeing as Joseph played an equal part in Jesus’s upbringing, why is he so commonly forgotten about? It seems to me that Mary being elevated almost to the level of God’s wife was both misogynous and homophobic, because firstly it satisfied the prerequisite that God is male, and secondly it rejected the possibility of a homo-spiritual relationship between God and Joseph.

Whatever the reasons, Joseph is not even allowed to inhabit the same space as his son (of sorts) on the canvas, and I thought he might be quite sad about that. I mean, he’s shaking fruit from the trees for Christ’s sake, it’s like child maintenance!

So how did you go about altering the paintings?
Photoshop. I avoided altering the shape of the clothing as much as possible, changing only the colour, which was actually quite easy as the characters tended to be already wearing capes of some kind. Of course, the clothes depicted in these paintings were anachronistic to begin with, but I wanted to preserve a degree of subtlety rather than make something that looked like blatant collage.

Are these works one-liners?
One-liners is an anagram of Enron lies.

©Brian Corwood 2008. Reproduced with kind permission

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©M Ward 2009