Cross in the Wilderness 2003–4 is a large oil painting by the British artist Ged Quinn depicting a gloomy woodland setting. In the background of the painting stands a substantial cluster of tall fir trees, their tips reaching towards the top of the composition, where a section of yellow-grey, clouded sky is visible. The density of the trees gives the impression that they mark the edge of a deep forest, since only blackness can be discerned between the trees’ spindly trunks. In the foreground and mid-ground is a clearing in which are depicted a miniature building and dwarfed versions of the trees in the background. The building, which is a small-scale representation of Spandau Prison in Berlin, is surrounded by a mass of barbed wire that extends outwards from the prison in all directions across the clearing, linking the foreground to the forest by means of its spiky trail. The work is extremely large and detailed, and is painted in a figurative style. However, despite the detail and realism of the representation, there is a fantastical element to the painting that is evoked by the miniature scale of the prison and the curling, foliage-like appearance of the barbed wire, which seems to grow from the ground.
Quinn painted Cross in the Wilderness while he was artist in residence at Tate St Ives between August 2003 and February 2004. At the time he was working in the Porthmeor Studio, a room that was once used by the well-known British artists Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) and Patrick Heron (1920–1999). The studio was larger than Quinn’s own and this allowed him to experiment with painting on large canvases, as is seen in Cross in the Wilderness. The work was first displayed in Quinn’s exhibition Utopia Dystopia at Tate St Ives from February to May 2004, which featured the paintings produced by the artist during his residency there.
At this point in his career Quinn devoted much time to art historical research and was especially interested in the legacy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German Romanticism. The title Cross in the Wilderness reflects this, as it is similar to that of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774–1840) painting Cross in the Mountains (The Tetschen Altar) 1807–8 (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). Friedrich’s work depicts a man, possibly Jesus, nailed to a cross that is positioned on a large rock face. Fir trees surround the rock and above it is a dramatic sky of orange and blue. Although the trees here are of the same variety as in Quinn’s Cross in the Wilderness, the two works do not resemble one another – furthermore, there is no cross visible in Quinn’s work, with the exception of the tiny x-shapes that run along the barbed wire. In fact, Quinn’s painting is more visually similar to another work by Friedrich, Hunter in the Forest c.1813–14 (private collection), which depicts a snowy clearing in the foreground with a mass of trees behind it and a foreboding sky above, although here the clearing contains a hunter and a felled tree with a blackbird perching on its stump.
In making reference to the style and subject matter of paintings by Friedrich, Quinn’s work explores the effect of the Nazi legacy on contemporary perceptions of German Romantic painting. In 2010 Quinn spoke about this element of his practice:
Since World War Two, romanticism has been discredited by both Marxists and liberals as the ideology of fascists. I wonder whether it is impossible to get on that road and stand still at one point or whether there is an inevitable collapse into themes like sentimentality, nostalgia, nationalism and also the associations with the Ideal, beauty, emotional extremes, symbolism. And I think there is an inherent risk in that elevated, high romanticism – like it’s a pot that needs to be watched in case it boils over.
(Quinn in Tuck 2010, accessed 9 November 2014.)
Spandau Prison, which appears in the foreground of Cross in the Wilderness, was used during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945–6 to hold Nazi war criminals, seven of whom were subsequently imprisoned there, including the architect Albert Speer and the Deputy Führer to Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess. By inserting this iconic building into a recognisably Romantic landscape, Quinn makes explicit the legacy of Nazism in German culture and ‘allows a view of the curdling process of those ideas within our knowledge of the cultural landscape’ (Quinn in Tuck 2010, accessed 9 November 2014).
Ged Quinn: Utopia Dystopia, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, St Ives 2004, pp.6–11, reproduced p.19.
Ged Quinn, exhibition catalogue, Wilkinson Gallery, London 2008.
Mike Tuck, ‘The Slant on Ged Quinn’, ArtSlant, June 2010, http://www.artslant.com/ny/artists/rackroom/39544, accessed 9 November 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.