the iconography of the church in modernist american art
by douglas Messerli
I am no art historian, so I will not pretend to speak of how European art depicted churches. I would imagine, however, given their many grand cathedrals that art history might record that their primary images concerned these very marvelous constructions. Certainly we can see that continuation, for example, in German-American artist Lyonel Feininger. Although Feininger grew up in New York City, he moved to Berlin in 1888, and painted and drew many works depicting the grand religious constructions of the city and elsewhere, returning to the US with the rise of the Nazis.
Grandma Moses Marsden Hartley Edward Hopper
Charles Demuth Georgia O’Keefe Stuart Davis
Yet it was the Southern photographers who perfectly captured the strangeness of that iconic image, the isolated churches, built in the most rudimentary style and with the simplest of materials. These churches, far from the more standard New England and Midwestern temples of worship, were notably created by primitive architects with little means but great inspiration. Beginning with Walker Evans (1903-1975) and William Eggleston (b. 1939), that tradition has continued in the numerous church photographs and, later, sculptures of William Christenberry (b. 1936).
Paul Strand Walker Evans William Christenberry
Eggleston and black artists such as Jacob Lawrence, meanwhile, took us inside those little churches, revealing the fervor of the worshipers.
Paul Strand, St. Francis Church. Ranco de Taos, 1931