Father Robert Keffer poses for a portrait with his oil painting in progress "Resurrection" in his studio in Aurelius Hall at Saint Vincent College in Unity.
Father Robert Keffer points to various symbols of sin in his painting "The Temptation of St. Anthony."
Father Robert Keffer demonstrates how he oil paints his work in progress "Resurrection."
Father Robert Keffer looks toward his oil paintings in his studio in Aurelius Hall at Saint Vincent College in Unity.
By M. Thomas/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Artist Salvador Dali is most popularly known for his showmanship and his fantastical surrealist paintings. But after years of research Father Robert Keffer, OSB, saw the famed artist as a man on a spiritual journey.
Father Keffer. a Benedictine monk at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, has been invited to present his conclusions in a formal talk at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla. He will give a free public preview of that talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Fred Rogers Center on the Saint Vincent campus.
In “Go to the Desert; Go to the Devil: The Christian Desert Experience in the Art of Salvador Dali,” he will discuss the link between the classic desert experience and Dali’s art.
“That’s key in monastic spirituality. It was key from the desert fathers, who actually did it, to the mystics ... through those who experience it contemporaneously in their cloisters,” Father Keffer said. “The idea of purgation and the notion of unity with God has to go through this period when God seems totally absent.
“I call it chiaroscuro of God,” he said, referring to the technique of intense light/dark contrast employed most notably by the artist Caravaggio (1571-1610). “When he turns his face, everything is dark. He’s still there. He’s just not looking at you.”
In that shadow outside the light of God, “we see sin, our own devils. ... I guess it’s about admitting your own vulnerability, your own weakness, that you can’t do anything without God.”
Father Keffer was born in Connellsville, Fayette County, in 1956, a “cradle Catholic” and member of a traditional parish. “From a very early age, I was wooed by the church. Its mystery, its ritual, its art had a major effect on me.”
When he reached adolescence, he began to question everything.
“There were radical changes in society. I was angry at the changes in the church, that we went from other-worldliness to ‘Kumbaya,’ yarn and burlap.” In a high school humanities class, he saw a picture of Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” It began what he refers to as a re-conversion.
“You’re used to the traditional ‘Last Supper.’ This contemporary version answered the faith of a struggling adolescent. It knocked my socks off. ... It wasn't this sappy Jesus and the saccharine saints.”
He left home after graduation and was living in Chicago in the 1970s when he experienced a vocational calling, he said. He investigated options, and in 1989 joined a contemplative men’s community in Wisconsin that sent him to Switzerland for his formative studies.
“It was like living in the Middle Ages. In that environment of strictness, solitude and denial, the ego disappears.”
While there he gained insight into the spiritual dimension of chiaroscuro. “I really understood the negative space now. In that blackness, that majesty of God — all light — and what is all around it is all darkness.”
Back in the U.S., Father Keffer, who is also an artist, visited his sister in Florida. He went to the Dali Museum and for the first time saw major works in person.
“When I saw his work I couldn't believe the technique — the handling of the paint, the microscopic detail. How could any human being do this?”
He was equally impressed by Dali’s oeuvre, which ranged from provocative surrealist works to ones with religious symbols. “This is one man? What’s going on here? I didn’t find the surreal pieces shocking. They were more reflections of a soul crying out of its own anguish and seeking something.”
In the 1940s, Dali (1904-1989) moved to a classical style concomitant to his own re-conversion to the Catholic faith. He aimed to merge modern scientific discovery and religion with a revival of a traditional approach to artmaking.
For years his art, particularly the religious work, was panned as kitsch. His reputation eventually recovered, but a more decadent side took over in the 1970s, Father Keffer said. “The great light fizzled. ... At times he acted like a buffoon, but underneath he was very intelligent, always probing.”
“The way I look at it now, the whole oeuvre is his spiritual journey.
“I think Dali’s re-discovery of the faith was genuine. He said, ‘I intellectually know that God must exist but I can’t make that leap of faith, and I fear I’ll die without it.’ He was buried with the sacraments of the church, so who knows?”
Father Keffer also experienced a “dark night” when his Wisconsin community closed. “My friends moved away. My family and home were gone. I couldn't paint. I couldn't lift a brush.”
When he visited the Dali museum again, “it was like a slap in the face. My painting had dried up. This stuff was so magnificent. I couldn’t even look at it. I was ashamed.”
He traveled to Saint Vincent for a sabbatical, which resulted in his joining the community five years ago. He began more intensively researching Dali’s life during annual visits to the museum.
Father Keffer serves as student chaplain for Seton Hill University, hospital chaplain for Excela Health, Latrobe, and has served in bereavement ministry. He believes that he wouldn’t be as effective in those positions had he not had his own isolate experiences.
“I’m not just giving platitudes. I’ve been there. The darkness you’re experiencing is part of the light. You’ll get out of it eventually.”
M. Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.
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