Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Iconography of the Church in Modernist American Art"

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.
      Early American modernists also sought out the grand churches and cathedrals of the age. The photographer Edward Steichen (1879-1973) photographed the beautiful Trinity Church, New York of 1904. Artist John La Farge (1835-1910) created stunningly large stained glass windows for various larger churches, including Trinity Church, Boston; Judson Memorial Church in New York; First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia; Trinity Episcopal Church in Buffalo, New York; All Saints Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York; and elsewhere. His son, Christopher Grant La Farge, moreover, built several churches including the remarkable, if yet unfinished, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. And, although churches were seldom his subject, Italian born American artist Joseph Stella represented his many futurist-like renditions of The Brooklyn Bridge as if it was also a kind of cathedral, albeit a highly industrial one that stood, as in Hart Crane’s long poem, for an entirely transformative age.
     For the most part, however, American artists populated their art with visions of a different kind a church: small, often clapboard buildings painted and white or gray. At one time or another nearly every American artist of the early modernist realist period has depicted just such images, transforming the church through their work, into a sort of American icon, as important as all the industrial sites and New England landscapes and Midwest granaries they also painted.
     Outsider artist Grandma Moses (1860-1961), as well as more establishment art figures such Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) painted small American churches again and again. Below, for example, are photographs of some of their works:
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.
Strand and O’Keefe, furthermore, visited ancient church constructions of the American Southwest, revealing completely different images of what a church might look like.
Paul Strand, St. Francis Church. Ranco de Taos, 1931
Georgia O’Keffe, Ranchos Church, New Mexico
      The great outside artist James Hampton even created a new view of what belief might imagine as a kind of holy sacristy and, simultaneously, a throne to the glory of God.
    As the century progressed, however, the American church not only lost its grandeur, but began itself to be seen as a kind of nostalgic treasure, a thing of the past, that needed, or, at least, was perceived to be a special thing of the past, a totem now lost. We can see this already in the photographs of Walker Evans along with the accompanying writings of James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941. As I have previously quoted Agee (see My Year 2006). Spotting a small church in Alabama, the writer excitedly proclaims:

                    It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and
                    we saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we
                     came even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its
                     goodness and straight through the body so that at the same instant we
                     said Jesus. I put on the brakes and backed the car slowly, watching
                     the light on the building, until we were at the same apex, and we
                     sat still for a couple of minutes at least before getting out, studying in
                     arrest what had hit us so hard as we slowed past is perpendicular.

      As early as 1931 in The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Grant Wood had already satirized the truly iconic North Church which he depicted from an odd bird’s eye view, almost as if it were a cartoon of the Longfellow poem.