Sunset in Arcadia

In this post, I’d like to briefly outline what I see as the major problems with a currently popular style in LDS visual arts, a style that I’ve nicknamed “sunset in Arcadia.” This post will concentrate on the aesthetic aspect – what works and doesn’t work in creating relevant Latter-day Saint art. In a future post, I will discuss marketing and economic trends that prove similarly troublesome.

The average art viewer isn’t schooled in various styles and may have trouble differentiating what he does and doesn’t like in various pieces of art, but most people enjoy seeing something that looks “real.” The mere feat of making a two-dimensional surface look like a three-dimensional object or, even better, a recognizable person, is something laudable to most art consumers. Many laymen will tell you that their preferred style is “realism.” But it is this confusion of terminology that proves so troublesome in defining an artistic style, especially when most LDS art produced currently is produced for a middle-class market; there is a built-in filter of populism whenever an artist considers making a career of a talent.

To begin with – let’s define the term “realism.” Realism is a specific 19th-century movement, or any former or subsequent movement that reflects its ideals. What the average art viewer probably means when he says “realism” is “illusionism.”

The Renaissance masters invented laws of perspective and composition that persist today. These pioneers emerged from a largely non-representational period in artistic history in which art was more about idea and symbol than replicating things in the actual world. They began to paint things that looked like believable objects. Raphael’s Madonna, for example, looks like a believable human. She has three dimensionality and color, solidity. Her clothing falls into believable pleats and folds. She sits in a believably rendered landscape. Renaissance buildings and animals and boats look like believable buildings and animals and boats. However, they do not look real.

Some of the first realists included painters like the French Gustave Courbet. Courbet painted scenes such as The Stonebreakers; his aim was to represent real human beings in real settings. Renaissance art looks believable; the figures in the Pastoral Symphony are properly molded and shaded. But Realist art looks like real people you might meet. Manet mocked Giorgione, suggesting in his Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe that the only type of people who lounge around naked in the forest are prostitutes. That was the point of Realism, and that’s why it was so provocative; it dared suggest that art could be about normal people with physical and moral flaws; not just perfect figures who, though centuries had painted them as Christian heroes, were ultimately Greek gods and goddesses. Modern art is about defying the idea that the artist needs only worship the Ideal.

This is the most crucial point in my examination of current popular Mormon art. We have a consumer base who is still confusing illusionism for realism; still marveling at the “prettiness” of a Renaissance throwback style, and entirely missing the point that world culture got two centuries ago; a point that is essential, in my humble opinion, to portraying the reality and the universality of the restored gospel. Latter-day revelation enlightens us to see that God is not only for the elite; not only for the learned; not only for the physical lineage of Israel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of a living Christ; a real man, who was, coincidentally, a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He is not a myth. He is not a romantic legend. He is not a god. He is a God. And he condescended to earth and lived as a man.

Many current LDS commercial artists are trying to portray grand things. And so they give their subjects the grand continental treatment – they dress them all up in the Venetian style to add them class and luster and polish. I cannot fault their motives. But what I wish I could communicate without condescension or pretense is the fact that setting the Savior and the events of His life in a golden, peacefully wooded Arcadia makes Him a myth before you’ve even said a word. Look at some of the more popular paintings by artists such as Greg Olsen, Simon Dewey, and Liz Lemon Swindle. They are characterized by golden lighting reminiscent of sunset in a humid, lush climate. They are invariably set in placid woodlands. Not a fold of fabric is left unsmoothed – not a single figure has a face with wrinkles or pockmarks. No one is old or thin or frail or anything less than a Greek ideal. And while the artists have finely-tuned techniques that capture amazingly illusionistic scenes… not a single one of them looks real. And Mormonism is filed away with feel-good philosophies and Chicken Soup for the Soul and the reality of it all is lost.

Not that this style can’t be effectively used; nor do the artists always portray “Arcadia” in their work. Swindle’s Be it unto Me, for example, is maybe the first depiction I’ve ever seen in which the infant Christ looks like an infant. Not a glorified miniature adult – He is a vulnerable human baby, and Swindle’s execution of it is admirable. Artist Walter Rane is doing some amazing things – his He is Not Here uses Arcadian lighting, but it’s not for atmosphere – it’s the light of sunrise, which becomes beautifully symbolic in this very simple, conceptual work. Rane’s painting on the cover of the January 2007 Ensign, likewise, bodes beautiful things for LDS art to come. A final embracing of Modernism (not full-fledged allegiance; simply taking those principles of the movement which support gospel ideals) is what will move our artists into a larger circle than the mere self-congratulatory interior market they now enjoy. Our message is a light to the world; our art should be as well.

There are also LDS artists working in abstraction; a personal favorite about whom my mother and I have written two research papers, is Czechoslovakian-born painter Wulf Barsch, but Abstract Mormons have columns of their own to fill.

What I’d like to see as a result of the raised awareness of the shallowness of the now-popular Arcadian style is a larger market for LDS artists and a raised vision of what we can do, and ultimately an art so strong as to transcend current comprehension of doctrinal topics, rather than merely gussying up our beautiful Latter-day doctrines in dead European aesthetics.

18 thoughts on “Sunset in Arcadia”

  1. Anneke: Fine post. At the risk of seeming severe, I make a confession: I have a very difficult time even looking at most popular LDS art; in private households where it adorns the wall I tend to avert my eyes. I avoid going into Deseret Book and Seagull stores almost as I would if I were to go into a store that sells racy mags. I’ve wondered why I felt that way. Now I suspect that the underlying principle of illusionism evident in both cases — in LDS art where the “illusory ideal” is pedaled and in various degress of p$rn — is what disturbs me.

    I realize my reaction to a lot of LDS art will be thought extreme, but when one looks at LDS art as partaking of an illusionist tradition it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t run dangers. For instance, couldn’t nearly all propaganda fall into the class of illusionism, from the most benign to the most dangerous?

    TV commercials, including alcohol and prescription drug commercials also seem to bank upon illusionism to attract buyers for their products. I am repulsed how many drug companies use pastoral backdrops to attract audiences — especially when many members of such audiences suffer a complete, even painful disconnect from nature. Oh, and all those pharmaceutical butterflies! How much more Arcadian can you get?

    I’m not arguing that illusionist LDS art = p$rn, I’m simply wondering if both categories of portrayed images are tethered to underlying principles about the value of portraying the illusionist-rendered ideal.

    Also, you refrained from using the word “sentimentality” to describe illusionist LDS art. Is it because you think the word is overused, because you don’t think it a useful word for describing art (after all, some patrons of art think sentimentality in their art is a thing), or because …?

  2. An outstanding post, Anneke. You put words to what I’ve felt for years. One of the reasons I have always felt drawn to Carl Bloch was because his Christ was realistically between the androgynous Christs one finds in the Italian Renaissance and the “American masculine” Christ one finds in LDS illusionism. There’s something ugly about Bloch’s work, which makes it all the more realistic to me. Who today would paint “The Slaughter of the Innocents?” Who would backlight Christ in “Denying Satan?” I’ve often complained about the wildlife paintings sold in Montana mall galleries (you know what I’m talking about) for the same reason. It’s why I think Charlie Russell was so brilliant. He combined the beautiful (an expansive sunset) with the ugly (a craggy muleskinner cooking dinner) and because of that, made something breathtaking over and over and over again.

    I sometimes wonder if this Arcadian style isn’t indicative of the Christ we want investigators to meet more so than the one we know. By this, I certainly don’t mean to intimate the our Lord is not kind and inviting and everything that these paintings seem to [be trying to] embrace. I simply mean that he always seems to be presented as a friend rather than a God (or both). I suppose this is why paintings of the cleansing of the temple, the crucifixion, or Gethsemane are so fascinating to me. These are instances in the Lord’s life that aren’t really beautiful or benign. The Christ I know, while certainly kind and merciful, is not so to the exclusion of the qualities of power, righteous indignation, and celestial expectation. As with most LDS art, I hunger for something more comprehensive: The Lord who loved Peter and Joseph Smith enough to rebuke them; the Lord of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Perhaps because representing deity with illusionism or realism is inherently humanizing, the addition of “abstraction” and other styles holds a degree of promise.

  3. Ooops! Left out a word in that last line. Should be, “some patrons of art think sentimentality in their art is a good thing …”

  4. Thanks for putting a name to what I consider good technique, but not very good art. I have very little LDS art in my house because I find the popular images to be repetitive and uninspiring. Did they all learn from the same school? My hope is that there will finally be artists who branch out and explore other ways to do art.

  5. This is an outstanding post and a discussion that needs to be ongoing within the art community. As artists we have an obligation to explore different ways to express the Gospel while maintaining what we know to be true. Our Church has less dogma than most other denominations. Every first Sunday the Church invites its member to testify of beliefs, which they do in a variety of expressions. As artists we should follow this tradition. If we allow ourselves to become just illustrators, then we water down our own testimonies.

    Eric’s should substitute the word grit for ugly. What Bloch and Rane have in their work is grit and substance. If you could stand in their paintings your feet would get dusty. Dewey’s and Olsen’s paintings are inhabited by folks who once a week have there robes dry cleaned, go to a barber shop or beauty shop for a trim and styling. They are not bad painters their work just lack the grit of life. Every day is a magic day or as Anneke says “sunset in Arcadia”. Jesus lived in a desert. As a person who lives in a high mountain desert I can tell you the light is sharp, the heat dry and it is dusty. Swindle in my opinion lives between Bloch and Dewey.

  6. This is why I read AMV! Somebody who knows a lot about a subject I find interesting, explaining something I’ve always sensed but never been able to put my finger on.

    Excellent post. Nothing to add.

  7. Interesting articulation of what happens more viscerally for me when I see LDS art. It seems to aspire to iconography, but doesn’t accomplish even that.

    As things work out, an hour ago, my wife and I returned from a gallery where we just (gulp) spent more than we’d planned on a landscape. It was in an odd gallery, and the artist was working on several more in the back. We looked at it, thought it would be irrational to buy it. Chatted with the artist for a while. My wife loved most the landscape that originally caught both of our attentions — evening sky reflected in an irrigation ditch in the foreground, a homestead surrounded by the inevitable elms and cottonwoods in the back. I loved a darker one of a dirt road through brush in the evening. Took a business card. Wandered some more galleries and streets, and returned at the end of the evening.

    The artist gave us a decent price on the one my wife loved, and he threw in the one that I loved for the price of the frame. His reasoning: to make the dark one I liked sell, he’d have to paint in something else — maybe a little girl walking a dog along the road — and he couldn’t bring himself to do that to a painting that worked the way that one did.

    That experience followed by my read of your post left me with a couple of related thoughts:

    First, most artists need to sell art, so there are relatively few who can stray too far from commercial demand. I suspect the demand for images of a short, fat, hirsute Christ with a receding hairline and bad skin isn’t all that high (despite Isaiah’s promise that he had no beauty that we should desire him). And second, what we find on the walls of a home may say more about the homeowners than the artist, but it still says something about the artist.

    Displaying art, like making it, is a strange combination of desire and expression.

  8. That’s hilarious, Ann.

    Of course, I think Klimt isn’t as far from that as he or his admirers would like to think, but that’s just my taste in art.

  9. Thanks for the replies and expoundings. This post was originally much longer, but I abridged for politeness. 🙂

    Patricia asks: “Also, you refrained from using the word “sentimentality” to describe illusionist LDS art. Is it because you think the word is overused, because you don’t think it a useful word for describing art (after all, some patrons of art think sentimentality in their art is a good thing), or because “¦?”

    I didn’t purposely exclude the word “sentimentality,” but I do think it is a bit overused and has a bit of a condescending overtone and thus don’t use it much. I’m accustomed to hearing it used in diatribes against Thomas Kinkade, and though I typically agree wholeheartedly, I try not to come across as a diatribe.

    I don’t think that sentimentality in art is necessarily a bad thing either; it depends on context. For instance, one of my undergraduate papers was a comparison of 19th century American painter Lilly Martin Spencer and contemporary commercial artist Mary Engelbreit and their commentaries on sentimentality as an essential part of femininity. There is a very large segment of humanity that enjoys sentimental art, and I don’t think it needs to be dismissed as a low sort of endeavor.

    Personally, I don’t find sentimentality very appropriate in art dealing with the life of the Savior, (or Joseph Smith, one of my largest issues with Swindle’s work) but that’s an issue of personal preference. What I do think merits censure, however, is the intentional reliance on sentimentality to sell prints to a middle-class market, something that I will explain more in my forthcoming “Mormon art economics” post.

  10. And please do not worry about seeming severe. Someone has to be, for heaven’s sake.

  11. Larry, I was thinking of the same thing (Rodin, not Klimt.) I was being snotty. It’s what I do best, I’m afraid.

  12. As someone with an artistic background when I look at a painting I look for something more than the usual lighting and “illusionism” it more about, at least now and at least in Europe, the concept, the idea the means of expression, like the trail of the brush, the patterns all you showed and talked here I would put it under Kitch. People who go to an art exhibition have to have a certain taste and a cultural background. I remember going to a exhibition called “Renascence Masters” and there was a 7 year old kid with her grandma telling her all this nonsense about a painting that made my hair stand up straight, I mean you don’t go with you nice to a art museum and expect her to get a lot out of it.
    Really i love Klimt and the Austrian secesionism, even Schiele and I don’t see porn looking at it, I mean what grade are you in? It;s just not right comparing Rodin with Klimt, different eras, different ways of expression.
    Probably people should leave the art criticism to actual artists and not people who think they can. Even our Aesthetics teacher refuses to be in the Teacher evaluation committee just because it wouldn’t be fair, it’s not in his jurisdiction to do so.

  13. Excellent post, I’m going to link to it from (which I also hope any LDS artist out there will join, it’s free!).

    I agree with this idea completely – I think the art we had was better, and grittier, when we had artists like Arnold Friberg, Harry Anderson, Tom Lovell.. compared to much of what we see today. They spent professional lives doing quickly executed illustrations for the magazines.. in a style that was a lot looser than what we see today.

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