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
Georgia O’Keffe, Ranchos Church, New Mexico
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.
Of course, some local churches have not only survived, but grown. The Presbyterian church in Marion, Iowa which I attended as a child now, so I have been told, has a congregation so large that it offers two Sunday morning services, but grand Methodist Church just across the street is now being sold and will possibly be destroyed. New grand cathedrals, such as Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral have been erected—although that church has also lost its original television-based congregation. It still exists—I saw the Philip Johnson-designed building only the other day from my hotel window in Orange, California—but has been now taken over by The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. Yet, it is clear the white or gray clapboard constructions which so identified religious faith in the mid-20th century are apparently something of the past. As more and more Americans abandon their faiths, it may someday be difficult to comprehend all those little trapezoidal or pyramidal steeples.
Los Angeles, June 28, 2016