A Celebration of Life in Art by Herman Falke, Edited by Michael Walsh

When I was asked to write a review of Herman Falke’s A Celebration of Life in Art, I had just declined a reviews position for a literary journal of newly published Canadian poets. In fact, I was just about to take a break from reviewing books, overwhelmed with family health issues and trying to focus on completing personal writing projects. I could not say no to Michael Walsh however, my friend and kind editor of two of my best poetry collections published by Mosaic Press. A Celebration of Life in Art was gifted to me as a proverbial blessing out of the blue, an unexpected and much-needed grace. I took on the task of reviewing it with all the academic intensity I could muster and I ended up being blessed by its message in more ways than I would have expected. I spent days reading and reflecting on Herman Falke’s words about his lived experience and his art, highlighting the most important aspects of what led him to create so many iconic paintings, carvings and books.

“Herman Falke describes himself as one of the few artists today engaged in religious art.”

Herman Falke describes himself as one of the few artists today engaged in religious art. He wishes to be remembered this way and as John Van DerHangel explains in the preface of the book, in order to be religious art, it has to have an inherent drawing power. It must stop you in your tracks. It must make you pause and invoke reflection. Undeniably, from vignettes of life in Uganda to carvings of modern-day life, to imaginative depictions of parables and bible passages, we are startled into stopping to ponder on the human condition, its sufferings, its joys, its banal moments and most of all its sacredness.

Herman Falke’s life and views of the world are interwoven in the themes of his art as a living, organic, unifying thread stitching together a cohesive timeline. His origins in Holland; his family life as a young person; World War II and the Nazi occupation; his subsequent entrance in the seminary to pursue a religious education; moving to Canada; teaching art; living and teaching in Uganda; having to leave Uganda because of Idi Amin’s dictatorship and genocide; being called back to Canada to minister in various parishes to teaching and creating art; retirement and the present global changes in society and culture all feature in his work. In looking at his creative output from the beginning to now, we enter a unique human journey which, albeit different than our own, unfolds an evolution of universal stages of the spirit.

Indeed, like metaphorical stations of the cross, this artist has created pieces of art that reflect important moments of his life as well as moments of witnessing. He has succeeded in capturing not just an image of the object being painted or carved but has imbued it with his own soul, thus connecting to the soul of humanity and God, or what Carl Jung defined as animus mundi. His work is an allegory of his life and times filtered through a religious lens, religion in the sense of religare: to tie or hold together with the thread of gathering disparate human concepts such as family, place, beauty, sexuality, love, children, survival, vice, war and spirituality. His pieces are not just simple depictions of people or objects. They are complex reflections of the object or the human surviving and living within the context of the world and the duress and joy of such a feat. To Herman Falke, imaginative composition focusing on human involvement in the environment of nature and objects is the peak of an art program. It brings together all the elements of observation under the discipline of balanced composition while at the same time allowing the artist the freedom of personal imagination.

I loved reading Herman Falke’s story and how his aesthetic was born from it, from the emerging visual input from his lived experience, his studies, his religious knowledge and his environment, both physical and societal. It is the millefeuille layering of dimensions he infuses his paintings and sculptures with that ignites his work with an unparalleled living vibrancy, one not usually found in traditional religious art. Falke speaks of the latter as too static, too uninspiring. In the wood carving of Saint Francis, we see Francis holding a dove close to his heart with one hand, while his other arm crosses his body awkwardly to caress the dog that lovingly encircles him from behind. This detail of awkward movement and contortion makes us pause to reflect. How would that feel for us? It is this kinesthetic element that leads us to remark and most of all to feel deeply, the infinitely loving nature of a man who so loved nature and all of God’s creatures he gave his life to them.

Who can forget the visceral emotions triggered by Incarnation, Creator and Creation Destroyed, Indian Earth Mother, Lost in the Crowd, S0up Kitchen Line-up, 9-11 With Pieta and 9-11 with Guernica, Crucifixion, Condemnation and all his other creations. An incremental maturation of perspective is evident in the progression of Falke’s art over time, with an accruing and layering of witnessing, experience, philosophy and synthesis. Each painting, each carving, each bas relief is us, is humankind, is child and primitive tribal human immersed in myriad landscapes and circumstances of disparate continents, societies and governments imposed upon him to bear and out of which to somehow, survive. Each one is Christ, is us. Herman Falke’s art transcends exegesis as it draws us into the world as it is, as we are: our divinity, the miracle of love and hope in the face of the onslaughts of an infinite, random universe.

Herman Falke did not want to paint or sculpt traditional works that had defined art history up to his times. He didn’t want to re-create passive images, instead to catch the unspoken in untamable ones, thus creating a new mode of energetic artistic expression, one literally with muscle and human emotion befitting not an idealized religious representation, but reality itself with all its inherent divinity, imperfections and paradoxes. In this, he has not only succeeded but surpassed his own expectations, for his paintings and sculptures go beyond the religious.

In their reflection of the human plight, his images are iconic and universal in scope.

Herman Falke was born in Holland in 1928. At a very early age he chose the religious life and enrolled at a Junior Seminary outside Amsterdam.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Mosaic Press (March 24 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 157 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771615966
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771615969

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Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews has written seven collections of poetry and two non-fiction books. Her work appears in various journals and anthologies among which: Canadian Literature, The Malahat Review, Descant, The Canada Literary Review, Acta Victoriana, Canadian Poetry Review, The Blue Nib and Lothalorian among others. Her poetry has recently won an international prize in Rome’s Citta Del Galateo Contest. As well, her poem “The First Time I Heard Leonard Cohen” was nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Prize. Her latest book of poems, Meta Stasis, was released in June 2021 by Mosaic Press. Josie is a member of The League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario Poetry Society, the Italian Canadian Writers Association and The Heliconian Club for Women in the Literary Arts. She teaches workshops for Poetry in Voice and is the host & coordinator of The Oakville Literary Cafe series.