Madonna Moms and Book of Mormon Stories

January 25, 2008 | 22 comments

Ensign art shows are themselves a kind of art. The whole is greater than the parts. The Ensign ran art shows in the last two Ensigns and this is my idiosyncratic critique.*

December: Madonna Mothers

Once you’ve clicked on the link above, click on the Featured Article “A Mother and An Overflowing Heart.”

In theory I have no quarrel with art showing bright, happy mothers with bright, happy babies, bathed in light. Art doesn’t have to focus on the ugly. But having almost all of the paintings that way cloys. I liked the statue, probably because its harder to be bright and happy and backlit in bronze. I also liked the painting “She Also Serves,” mostly because its reference to Milton’s “On His Blindness” with its famous last line: “they also serve who stand and wait.” I never thought of applying it to pregnant mothers before.

I was bugged that almost all the mothers were shown with babies until I read the introduction and saw that the theme was mothers and children in the type and shadow of the nativity.

January: Book of Mormon Stories

Once you’ve clicked on the link above, click the Featured Article “It Came to pass.”

Book of Mormon stories isn’t the most coherent theme for a collection and including a Joseph Smith painting made it less coherent. The works weren’t arranged in any particular order either. You move from an angel appearing to Samuel the Lamanite to Moroni’s visit in the fields to Joseph Smith to Enos praying to Nephites walking with their flocks, to Lamanite maidens at the pool of Shemlon, to several Tree of Life works to incidents of Lehi’s journey to Christ’s appearance.

The painting of the angel appearing to Samuel the Lamanite is called “He Did Bring Glad Tidings to My Soul” by Walter Rane. Its arresting. The painting succeeds with the formal, dramatic posing of Samuel and the angel and the angel’s otherwordly aspect. Its the one painting of all these that has most stuck in my mind.

The painting Go Tell Your Father, by Winborg, of Moroni appearing to Joseph near the fence, has some visual symbolism that I really like. At first glance Moroni is nothing special, and probably even a little too bright and shiny in the Mormon devotional style. Then you look at Joseph Smith, who is neither colored realistically nor shinily. He’s all in shades of dull copper. Its like seeing two different orders of being. Oddly the landscape is in yet a 3rd style.

The Minerva Teicherts appeal to me. Incidentally, there’s an article about Teichert in the latest BYU magazine that I recommend to you. She was a character.

I love the Tree of Lifes except for the painting. I don’t imagine Lehi as the Maharishi Santa Claus.

The Waters of Mormon by Jorge Cocco has a landscape like you might find in New Mexico. I can’t help liking it.

Dawn of a Promised Land by Frank Thomas shows Lehi’s company arriving in the promised land. It has a Punic look which I like but the perspectives seem off.

Behold Your Little Ones by Gary Kapp shows a Christ in brilliant white robes appearing to children who are in shadows with dingy-colored clothes. In all theireare three paintings that try to show angelic and exalted beings in contrast to mortal humans. This is the least successful of them. The difference between our state and theirs isn’t just a difference in physical light. Its a spiritual difference, so the paintings that take a more symbolic approach come off better. The Samuel the Lamanite painting, in particular, uses pose and drapery and the play of light and shadow to symbolize the difference in a way that is much more artistic, if that’s the word I want, then just giving Christ brighter clothes.

On the inside back cover there’s a painting of Lehi’s company journeying that’s also impressive (click here and then go to the next to last page). The travelers are all strung out in a line. Lehi and Nephi are in front. They are all dressed in clothes that look Middle Eastern, except for Nephi, who is dressed in in clothes that in the idiom of Mormon painting are Nephite. Its an interesting way of showing that this is no ordinary journey. Its a journey into the Nephite future.

*I don’t know much about visual art or canons of criticism.

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22 Responses to Madonna Moms and Book of Mormon Stories

  1. William Morris on January 25, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    I’m not sure if this link will work, but: Ensign archive. Your best bet to view the art is to click on the pdf version.

  2. JrL on January 25, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I’ll look forward to your comments on the non-US artist discussion and examples in the Feb. issue that reached my house yesterday.

  3. Ardis Parshall on January 25, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Great idea for a post, Adam, especially since I usually read the Ensign on-line specifically to avoid the illustrations, and I had missed both of these features.

    I think we too often don’t dare to say simply what we like and don’t like for fear of sounding, well, simple in the face of all the academics in the Bloggernacle whose evaluations would be filled with specialist jargon. Specialist reviews have a lot to offer, but it was also a pleasure to read brief comments of exactly the same type I might have made, had I dared.

  4. Adam Greenwood on January 25, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    Thank you kindly, Ardis P. In the past I’ve done the First Vision art
    and the missionary art

  5. jrl on January 25, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you for the non-expert review. Expert reviews are too hard for me to understand anyway. My one comment on LDS art – am I the only one that can’t stand Simon Dewey’s immaculate, bathed-in-soft-light, airbrushed approach?

  6. John Mansfield on January 25, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    The credit on the Carl Bloch painting of Christ, which was printed with the First Presidency Message, was interesting. The photographer of the painting is credited, and the warning “MAY NOT BE COPIED” is given. I am a little surprised that it wasn’t edited from the online PDF.

  7. Jonovitch on January 25, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    jrl (6), I’d much rather view Simon Dewey’s paintings than Minerva Teichert’s. Every time I walked past her paintings in the JSB on BYU campus, I noticed another quirk. Some of them have bad proportions, some look like they still have pencil/sketch marks on them, they all appear to have washed-out colors, the figures appear to be stiff, they all look the same, etc. They just didn’t seem professional enough to warrant an entire “gallery” of space there. Then again, maybe that’s why they were in the JSB and not in the Museum of Art.

    In fairness they’re 50 years old, and we now have a larger crop of artists who have built on and learned from the past. But still (and maybe I’m missing something) I’ve never seen the fascination in Teichert’s work. I much prefer Walter Rane, for example — his work shows emotion and movement and uses light and color brilliantly. Ditto for Liz Lemon Swindle.

    There are others who produce some tremendous art, and many others who do some good work. I hope that the truly great artists aren’t crowded out by the popular ones.


  8. Adam Greenwood on January 25, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Ditto for Liz Lemon Swindle.

    For serious? Maybe I’d appreciate her more if I had more training in the visual arts. As is, her people look almost computer-generated.

  9. jrl on January 25, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Yay for Minerva, not so much for Swindle. I like my art to look a little like my world – not so perfect, and in serious need of some help from above… You, know, with a little dirt and chaos…

  10. Carl Youngblood on January 25, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    I’ve also liked Minerva Teichert’s work because it was the only LDS stuff that actually struck me as artistic and thoughtful and not merely attempting to be an idealized photorealistic portrayal. Plenty of art (especially water color) has pencil lines in it. That’s not a valid criticism in my opinion.

  11. Brian W on January 25, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    I also appreciate the layman’s commentary. Adam, I’m with you. Swindle’s work unnerves me, especially her depictions of Christ.

  12. rebecca on January 25, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I enjoy seeing more and more individual interpretation coming through in LDS art. In a way it’s evidence that while we believe the same principles, we aren’t cookie cutter members. It’s nice to see individuality shine through (makes sense that we’ll have our own fav’s & not-so-fav’s:)).

  13. Lynne on January 26, 2008 at 3:42 am

    My mom and I have always liked the Minerva Teichert paintings we saw in the Ensign, so we made a special trip down to BYU to visit the Teichart show,and frankly both of us left the show a bit disappointed. Part of the problem is that the Teichert paintings are murals, which were designed to viewed at a distance, so the closed spaces of the museum did not exactly show off her paintings in the way they were meant to be viewed. I think we were also surprised by her extreme caricature of American Indians (they tend not to print those pictures in the Ensign), so that sullied her work for us a bit. Anyway, we still like Teichart, but I think the beauty of her paintings are best appreciated from a distance, rather than up close and personal. So next time you walk by a Teichart, step back-way back-I’ll think you will appreciate them a bit more.

  14. Jack on January 26, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Teichert’s is still my favorite among the LDS works.

    What is the consensus on Stella 5? As wonderful as the imagery might be, is it stretching it a bit to lump it in with BoM themed art?

  15. Richard O. on January 26, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Some thoughts on some of the really, really tight images of the Savior…
    I like a little looseness or shadow so that every tiny detail of Christ isn’t spelled out visually. My relationship with Christ is personal. Overly tight images visually force the artist’s interpretation/experience onto me. A little visual ambiguity allows some space for my own experience. With some overly tight works, I find myself focusing on something like Christ’s eyebrows instead of what He did and taught. Teichert liked looseness. Rembrandt liked shadows which also allow space for viewer participation. That’s probably why I really like their work.

    As for Jorge Cocco…
    I think that it is really refreshing to see a Book of Mormon painting that looks a little south of the Rio Grande instead of a Viking/Roman setting. One of the wonderful things about seeing a wide range of visual images of the same theme is that it helps me break out of my mental and spiritual ruts and see an event or teaching in a fresh way.

  16. Adam Greenwood on January 26, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    One of the wonderful things about seeing a wide range of visual images of the same theme is that it helps me break out of my mental and spiritual ruts and see an event or teaching in a fresh way.

    You said it.

  17. Adam Greenwood on January 26, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    That’s not Stella 5, Jack. Its an original artwork by a Mormon artist in the same style.

  18. Anneke Majors on January 28, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Great discussion! I\’m glad you brought it up, Adam. Even from a \”non-academic\” viewpoint, your views are perfectly valid and welcome. I\’m glad someone else is following the Ensign\’s \”art shows.\” I largely agree with you. I often wonder if the art directors at the Ensign, who seem to be very relevant and avant-garde in their tastes lately, include some of the more commercial, Simon Dewey-style art only as a compassionate concession to a lot of the readers. I personally have issues with Dewey\’s style (which I nicknamed Sunset in Arcadia), but I think it still has immense populist appeal. The Ensign\’s nods to that sort of art even in the midst of what I see as vastly superior art may be democratic in nature.

  19. Adam Greenwood on January 28, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    I have no problem with the Ensign catering to the tastes of its readers. I think these assemblies of art have some meaning beyond the individual pieces only because they are, in a way, a collection of testimonies. And a great many Mormons have happy-shiny testimonies. Its part of what I love about them.

  20. Larry Ogan on January 29, 2008 at 11:09 am

    I thought Minerva Teichert’s show at BYU was wonderful. Her 1920′s and 30′s modernist style might not be everyone’s cup of tea but you certainly have to respond to the painting’s boldness, color and light. As for here depiction of Native Americans, yes they are romanticized, but in a very loving way. The connection the curators made with her love of theatre and movies was an enlightening insight to her work. She must have loved the invention of Technicolor I would like to see her and her artwork recognized at the same level as her contemporaries Georgia O’Keeffe, Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo.

  21. Adam Greenwood on April 8, 2008 at 12:05 pm


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