First Vision Art

February 6, 2005 | 13 comments
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I took up the Ensign last week to do my hometeaching. Leafing through it, I spotted a First Vision art show.

I have high hopes for these Ensign art shows, though they do not always succeed. This one does, I think. It shows different cultures and different viewpoints joining in testimony of the same event. To see it, click here and select “the First Vision: Searching for the Truth.”

Most of the artists view the First Vision as an intimate event, a human event. They give us an up close view of Joseph Smith or else they draw our attention to the humanity of the whole event. A painting by Leon Parson, for example, shows Joseph Smith kicked back and chatting with the Father and the Son, who are about a foot off the ground and in no rush. A doe is looking in. That’s a pretty typical view of the First Vision. It is common among the Saints and, I think, it is valuable. It shows the Father and the Son as beings who are like us. It narrows the distance.

But if we forget the great distance that is naturally between us and God, we don’t see how miraculous it is they stepped across it to speak to a farmboy. That’s why my favorite piece would have to be the cast bronze by Kraig Varner (ignore the base). It shows the Father and the Son atop a great and soaring pillar. Joseph Smith reels at the base.

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13 Responses to First Vision Art

  1. Jim F. on February 6, 2005 at 2:21 pm

    Adam, I think you’re right that we have to be careful not to forget the great distance between the Divine and us, wheteher in art or in our teaching. Mosiah 4 seems to make remembering that distance a condition for our salvation.

  2. Rusty on February 6, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    I was Leon Parson’s student when he was painting that. I saw it in a few different rounds. Not that that has anything to do with Adam’s post. I just thought it might make me more popular.

  3. Shawn Bailey on February 6, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    I agree that the bronze was nice. It expressed a certain gravitas that I find lacking in alot of mormon art (which often seems too bright, clean, crisp, sunny, etc.).

    I recall Eugene England writing about how a shoddy rendition of the first vision would be sacriligious in a sense (he was arguing that in a similar way we need creative writing of a quality appropriate to portray things like the first vision and the restoration). I haven’t seen any first vision art bad enough to call sacriligious, but many renditions of the first vision do fall short for me. While many missionaries in my mission pasted a different picture of the first vision in their flipbooks that depicted the Father and the Son, I stuck with the one provided (you know, with Joseph kneeling beneath a light more brilliant than the sun). I understand that the other missionaries wanted to emphasize the literal-physicality of the vision, but that painting did the opposite for me: the Father and Son that I imagine when I read Joseph’s account are much more real and imposing to me than those depicted in the illustration.

  4. Ronan on February 6, 2005 at 5:42 pm

    What I would love to see is a piece of First Vision art based in the 1832 account–with Jesus only! Not for aesthetic reasons, but because I gain sadistic pleasure from opening bewormed cans. Can’t help it…

  5. Matt Astle on February 6, 2005 at 7:24 pm

    I’ll tell you what I like best about that bronze sculpture. It’s less realistic in its representation of the First Vision. The more I think about it, the more I believe that abstract representations of the Father and Son are best. I have two reasons.

    First, any attempt to depict the glory of God in a literal manner will fall short, and end up looking hokey. Especially as years pass and tastes change or techniques improve. You don’t want a viewer laughing when he sees God.

    Second, and perhaps more important, any attempt to depict the glory of God in a literal manner will fall short, and therefore limit us in our imagination and the depth of the spiritual meaning of the First Vision. That is to say, if someone holds up a picture and says “This is what God and Jesus look like,” people will think that’s what they look like, and that’s limiting. The truth is more sublime than any movie or painting or sculpture could portray, and I’d rather contemplate the truth than the cheap imitation of it.

    Thus, the more I think about it, the less I like the paintings of Christ by Del Parson and Greg Olsen and the like, and the more I like Minerva Teichert, and wish there were more impressionistic Mormon artists like her. Her work calls up the spirit, but not the precise image, of Christ. I think this bronze sculpture is more Teichert-esque than Olsen-esque. Where can I buy a copy?

  6. Wilfried on February 6, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    Excellent, Adam. When my wife and I saw Kraig Varner’s sculpture First Vision in the Conference Center last year, we felt overwhelmed: finally, Mormon art with an internal force and an expressionistic audacity. Here we saw, for the first time in many years, in a Mormon topic, something of Rodin’s power, Bourdelle’s daring balance, Richier’s visionary structure… But next, just a couple of yards further, we moved to the gallery with Arnold Friberg’s paintings. They should not place those pieces so close to each other, just like they should not place Leon Parson next to Varner on the same page in the Ensign. It’s unfair. With all due respect for Friberg’s talent, his imagery seemed to have blocked the visual imagination of many, more recent artists, also fixing in our minds a (ridiculous) folkloristic depiction of Book of Mormon people. True, colors and tastes are personal, and there should be an offering for all, but it seems that many aesthetically trained people find the overall Mormon pictorial art, as often reproduced in Church magazines, insipid, idealized, rose-tinted, much like 19th century Catholic Saint-Sulpice productions — which does not mean those painters do not have high technical talent. But art is more than technique. However, there is hope when you see Varner and others enter the scene. The triennial Church International Art Competition also opens the horizon for new forms and new approaches. Refreshing.

  7. claire on February 6, 2005 at 10:22 pm

    Matt, #5, yes! This is one thing I like about the new Restoration video, I’m pretty sure it does not show a representation of the ‘personages,’ just the light. It is more timeless and avoids the issues you mention.

    My five year old saw the ‘art show’ and was happily pointing out all the ‘personages’ to me. Intersting how we are socialized about what Heavenly Father/Jesus Christ look like. I have made the point several times that these are artist’s representations, but that is a fairly abstract concept for children, much less adults to grasp.

    BTW, I’ve also had to do this with Peter Pan (to debunk the Disney version as ‘official”!)

  8. Sheri Lynn on February 6, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    My primary manual says that any role play in class is not to include any child acting the part of Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ save the infant Jesus in nativity plays. I presume that is to avoid disrespectful behavior on the part of those chosen actors? But art is imagination and understanding made tangible. There will be multiple visions of the First Vision and would be even if cameras could have been present all over the scene to document this amazing event.

    The Restoration video I saw was in Spanish and I have little Spanish as yet, but they clearly skipped entirely the scenes where Satan was oppressing and trying to destroy young Joseph Smith. Why?

  9. Jack on February 7, 2005 at 9:44 am

    Good thread.

    LDS art (generally speaking) has a way a trivializing the sacred. I think we of all people should have a better feel for capturing the sacred in art. I think most LDS art comes from a good place, but it misses the mark because of a strange sort of zeal. I don’t know…

    Wilfried, you amaze me. Do you teach the full spectrum of humanities? If not, it certainly seems like you’re qualified to do so. (at least, that’s what I gather from reading some of your comments re. art)

  10. Wilfried on February 7, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for the compliment, Jack. But no no, I’m not an art specialist. I just grew up in an art-oriented home, my dad was museum curator in Antwerp, a wonderful art city where I lived most of my life. Painters and sculptors were daily chat.

  11. Shawn Bailey on February 7, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks to this thread, I have been reflecting on the challenge of portraying the sacred. I have been trying to put my finger on the source of what I earlier described as lack of gravitas and what Wilfred put so much better (“insipid, idealized, rose-tinted …”) in mormon art. It occurred to me that another way of explaining the problem is the failure to adequately capture the weight or darkness of mortality, the grandeur and incomprehensibility (to a degee) of the Divine, and the contrast that results when the Divine inserts Itself into our fallen world. For me, the paintings of Carl Bloch that the church uses does better in these terms than most.

    Some possible sources of the problem I have thought of: (a) it is an artistic iteration of the Mormon tendency to perfectionism (just as all our leaders must be portrayed as super-human, our art must never acknowledge the darkness here on earth); (b) it is the taste of someone important; (c) it is the result of the artists’ apprehension about letting their technique or style predominate over the subject (a truly powerful work may only result from risk–risks that do not pay off may be taken as offensive); (d) it is the result of efforts to illustrate (as opposed to compose in the terms of fine art) in simple, humble, prosaic terms (the artist never intended to portray anything more than what the actual scene probably would have looked like). Do any of these sound likely? Are there others?

  12. Wilfried on February 7, 2005 at 8:22 pm

    You said it better than I could, Shawn. The sources of the problem you indicate ring all true. Let’s hope these comments encourage young Mormon artists to take the risks needed to create Art.

  13. Mike Maloney on April 18, 2005 at 10:34 am

    Has anyone researched the history and use of the First Vision (official version) as a missionary tool? I have heard it was not proclaimed as such until Joseph F. Smith times.

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