Francisco Badilla Briones: Dialogue with a Chilean Seventh-day Adventist artist and aesthetic philosopher
He speaks without words. He caresses without hands. He inquires without questions. He is a painter: his paintings are able to trigger in the viewer a combination of ideas, feelings, and emotions. In short, he touches our spirit. He is Francisco Badilla Briones, a Chilean painter whose art concretizes the gospel message in an aesthetically contemporary language.
Born in 1974 in the southern region of Chile, Sanchez began using the brush when he was just a boy. Later as a college student, he completed a two-year basic course in arts in the Catholic University in Temuco, Chile, and then obtained a teaching degree in visual arts. Later he completed a licentiate degree in fine arts with concentration in painting. His thesis was on the symbol of the Cross in art throughout history.
Badilla’s efforts to capture spirituality in his work has given him ample recognition and many awards. He has also been able to paint two murals in educational institutions in Chile and got extensive media coverage of his exhibitions. One of his exhibitions, called Permanence, motivated a long article in the cultural magazine Kimelchen, which depicted Badilla as an artist able to create both figurative and abstract paintings, and whose work, inspired by Jesus Christ, expresses his spiritual musings.
Currently, Badilla teaches painting in the Armando Dufey Blanc Art School in Temuco, works on commissioned paintings, and is involved in illustrating a poetry book. He is also preparing to paint a 40-feet-long mural for the main Seventh-day Adventist church in his hometown and has just established a Web site (http://www.franciscobadilla.com) where anyone can get to know more about his work.
Why did you choose painting when both the Protestant tradition and the Seventh-day Adventist culture generally prefer music and hardly ever promote painting as an aesthetic language through which one can relate to God?
I started drawing when I was a kid – as early as 4. I went through various topics that I liked as a child, from soldiers and armies to animals, musicians, sports, etc. I used to spend most of my day drawing and painting. At that time I was not a Seventh-day Adventist, but when I got to know Adventism as a teenager, I developed an artistic taste for drawing and painting. It is true that the Adventist tradition thinks music is really important in worship, but I think God can use our different talents when we offer them to Him and decide to place them under His guidance. As I see it, painting can be a channel through which I can express my questions and my visions regarding God.
As far as the Adventist bias that looks at music as being close to God and painting as distant from Him, may I say that God Himself is the great painter – just look at the beauty, richness, and variety in creation.
You wrote a thesis for the licentiate degree on the connection between Puritanism and painting. What did you find?
Puritans generally considered images sinful. Puritan art is defined as aniconic purism, since for them images were of an impure nature. Luther’s Reformation also labeled as heresy all those images representing the death of Jesus. So the countries that accepted the Reformation had an art form without any representation of either saints or virgins, or even Jesus. Art focused on landscapes, traditional scenery, objects, still life, etc. The artists had to paint just what their eyes were able to see; they were not to fantasize with images that might corrupt their souls and minds. Later on, in those countries, new modern artistic styles appeared that were linked to the mind and the spirit rather than to feelings and sensuality, as it is the case with abstract, minimalist, or concept art. That is one reason why I suggest in my thesis using a combination of several elements in order to create visual metonymies which may symbolize the death of Christ.
But in your paintings we can also witness open representations of Jesus.
That is correct. Within the Adventist culture, to deal with sensuality is rather complicated. As an “Adventist artist,” I question the Protestant iconography , but I wish to explore its limits and find a contemporary pictorial language. This goal has made me picture the passion of Jesus in paintings where I just make use of paint, and then I add objects such as beams, nails, and thorns, among others, which may somehow relate us to that event. On the other hand, I must say the social state of affairs in South and Central America have been also a source of inspiration for me. I have been able to transform events of simple life in metaphors of biblical ideas as they are reflected in my paintings The Sower and Sorting. These paintings are figurative and show my transition from the abstract to realism.
Who has influenced you as an artist? How would you define yourself?
In contemporary religious art, I like the work of George Rouault; who is a French expressionist, and of William Congdon, who is an American abstract expressionist. Both of them developed a Christian art of strong codes and violent traces and environments. In these artists, the Christian message is pictured clearly, honestly, and beautifully. I love abstraction but I also like figurative art and texture. My work is a combination of abstraction, texture, and shapes. I cannot place myself in a single contemporary artistic trend.
Where would you like to have your paintings exhibited?
In any place where they can convey a message about God, where they may be able to reach an inquiring audience. I would also like to reach the art gallery or museum audiences, of course, and in recognizable places where I may be able to show my paintings in a way that their exhibition enhances the dimension of those places, such as schools, universities, and churches.
Do you think it appropriate for our churches to display works of art?
Why not? But we must be selective. Not every work of art leads to worship of God. Also we must strive to find arts that reflects technical, expressive, and symbolic quality. Art must be a language that communicates Christian content. In ancient times, images were considered “the letters of the illiterate,” but now it has to be symbolic, contemporary, poetic, and able to enhance the senses towards the knowledge of God.
We need to develop art that may be a channel to share Christ’s message. I think our church lacks education in visual arts and, consequently, in aesthetic appreciation. That is why, if churches had contemporary works of art, these would be a means of visual education. What is more important, they could become an aesthetic experience reinforcing the joy of worshipping God.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you feel you are inspired to do a painting?
Inspiration is not something that comes along, but something that must be sought for. I feel inspired by God when I look for it and manage to reflect on ideas about Jesus. Sometimes, I draw some sketches and write some ideas and reflections regarding the Word of God. Thus I give start to a creative process, which often ends in a new painting. Being an artist is being humble; it means to let God use us as an instrument in His work. I like to think of myself as a channel in the aesthetic expression of His message.
Let us talk about some of your works. In your work Space and Time I can see the incarnation (see http://www.franciscobadilla.com/imagenes/espacioytiempo.jpg).
That is correct; it is a symbol of Christ. It represents Christ in His bodily form and in His role of mediator between God and humans. Hegel said that art is an intermediary between matter and idea, and in my willingness to explore that definition, I have created a painting of much “carnality,” but at the same time abstract and symbolic.
How can art help us to transcend space and time limitations so as to have a glimpse of concepts that solely belong to God, such as the eternal, the all-knowing, all-powerful, and omnipresent?
By appreciating art and by meditating and entering into a dialogue with a work of art. In order for this to happen, an aesthetic experience is needed – visual in this case – which may allow us to rejoice in God. In symbolic and polysemic languages, art opens up our perception toward a better knowledge of God. When we listen to a piece of church music we enjoy the perception that its message was composed to praise and worship God. The same thing should happen with visual arts.
Why have you divided the painting in two spheres?
The painting prepared as a diptic represents two different events in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The small format in the right side of the painting is death, with colors symbolizing carnality and blood. The one on the left symbolizes Christ’s resurrection, where the white space is heaven, which opens to receive its victorious king – thanks to Christ’s sacrifice – so that we can have access to God. The use of tactile textures reinforces the syntax toward a meaning of Christ’s bodily nature, something contended by iconoclasts. This time, however, these two theophanies are expressed without images.
In reference to your painting Jesus, what meaning does the crucified Jesus have in our postmodern society? (http://www.franciscobadilla.com/imagenes/jesus.jpg)
For our postmodern society, Jesus is just history: a historical and relevant event that gave origin to Christian thought. I think that our society does not want to see Jesus on the cross, or in any other way. To a certain extent, it is uncomfortable for them, even though society actually needs Him.
Don’t you think that Jesus is too Catholic and too Western? Are you influenced by the fact that you studied in a Catholic school?
The point is we do not have Protestant iconography. Therefore, it is natural that an image of Jesus’ crucifixion refers us to Catholic paintings.
What I see is that your Jesus, unlike others, transmits a lot of peace. In order to paint that peace, is it essential to feel it in the first place?
Well, as a painter, I have to be at peace, but at the same time I need to be restless, feeling the need for God. In order to paint Christ, it is important to feel that peace which allows for making decisions in painting, trusting God to guide my work so that it can reach and touch the hearts of viewers.
In your work Symbol and Reality, where is the symbol and where is the reality? (http://www.franciscobadilla.com/imagenes/simboloyrealidad.jpg)
In this poliptic, symbol and reality are intertwined. The Cross is a symbol that is not represented in a conventional way but as the image of a man carrying a beam; that is to say, the Cross is a symbol, but it is also a reality in the here and now for each one of us. When we think of Calvary, we must see our reality.
The formats at the right symbolize the Trinity: God the Father above, Jesus in the center, and the Holy Spirit below. For the reality to sink in to us, it depends on how we relate to the power and grace of Trinity.
How does symbolism contribute to our perception of reality?
A symbol gives us identity. It refers us to what we are; it points to the Christ who died for our sins, and that should be enough to show us what our reality is. We must come to a place where we can decode the symbol of the Cross in our everyday lives, so as to enlarge our perception of reality as God’s children in need of Him.
Ruben Sanchez-Sabaté has completed two degrees at in Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain (humanities and journalism). At the present he is a freelance journalist and is planning to pursue postgraduate studies. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Francisco Badilla Briones’ e-mail: email@example.com.