Dr. Herman du Toit discusses one of the beast known artists among members of the LDS Church, 19th Century Danish painter, Carl Bloch. His works are nearly ubiquitous, but his role is much more pervasive than the reduced size depictions that are common in magazines and manuals.
You can pick up Herman Du Toit's book, Masters of Light: Coming unto Christ through Inspired Devotional Art on Amazon
Transcript of the conversation with Dr. Herman du Toit
Micah: Welcome to Mormon Visual Culture, the podcast presented by the Zion Art Society and hosted by me Micah Christenson. This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of President Spencer W. Kimball’s landmark talk, The Gospel Bison of the Arts through discussions with prominent artists, collectors and scholars about the art work that has inspired them and shaped LVS culture. Today we are very pleased to have Dr. Herman Du Toit, he’s the former head of education and research at the Brigham Young University museum of Art, he was the dean of what’s formally the school of fine arts at Durban Technical Institute in South Africa and holds post graduate degrees in art history, studio art and Sociology of Education. He has a PhD in Educational Leadership and was a fellow at the J. Paul Getty Institute. He is the founder of BYU Biennial Art & belief symposium. Dr. Du Toit has authored several books including most recently Masters of Light, Coming unto Christ through Inspired Devotional Art. Dr. Du Toit, we’re very pleased to have you, thank you for coming.
Herman: It’s great being here, thank you so much for inviting me.
Micah: Well, I had a chance to read your book and we’ll talk about that, there’s specific things that I want to ask you but first tell us about the work, art you’ve chosen.
Herman: Well the book I chose is the cover piece for the book, Masters of Light and it comes from the exhibition Sacred Gifts and opened at the BYU museum of art a couple of years ago. This was the culminated religious exhibition of these artists from Northern Europe and it was probably the most successful of these exhibitions. This particular work caught my attention because of its powerful full frontal engagement that it demands of the viewer. It is more than life size, it’s a large alter piece, Carl Heinrich Bloch and he painted 8 alter pieces in his life time and this probably the most distinguished one. Significantly the museum had the resources to actually replicate the architectural framework for this piece, so it’s presented very much in the same way as you would see it in the chapel that it came from in Denmark.
Micah: I remember seeing it in person, it was quite impressive and one of the things that I want to ask about this is I think you’d probably agree that Carl Bloch along with Heinrich Hofmann are 2 of the most reproduced artists in church culture.
Herman: Well Hofmann definitely.
Micah: And both of them, most of their works are not seen in their full scale. They’re generally seen reduced to an 8 and a half by 11 or on a computer screen and there was a great deal of effort made during that exhibition which was opened I think in November of 2013, to bring about the originally pieces and to put them in their architectural settings.
Herman: As they were seen originally, exactly. So this particular painting is typical of Bloch’s very personable and direct naturalistic depiction of Christ as a corporeal figure standing upright with a small child to his right. It adds symbolism.
Micah: Let’s talk through the painting, almost a formal analysis of the work itself.
Herman: Let’s look at it, yeah, first of all you see the light, it’s lit by a sort of ambiguous diffused light, you’re not quite sure where the light source is but it emanates from the robe of Christ and it’s seen against the foil of this very dark background which is typical of the tenebrism that Carl was so adept to using in his paintings, specifically the use of light and shade for dramatic purposes that he learned from Rembrandt, from Caravaggio, so we see a very strong iconic image which would fulfill most of the requirements to what the gestalt sociologist would call a good gestalt. It doesn’t disintegrate, it impresses itself on the mind, it recurs in memory and it’s well integrated and it has a quite a starkly centralized composition.
Micah: You bring up Rembrandt and Caravaggio who are 2 artists that Carl Bloch would have been well aware of, he was trained in the royal academy in Denmark, classical tradition and that school was dominated up until the mid 19th century arguably, maybe I’m wrong about this by the success of artist like Bertel Thorvaldsen who was where is Denmark was somewhat provincial arguably compared to a lot of other capitals in Europe and known for its art, Thorvaldsen put Denmark on the map. He went to Rome, worked in Rome, was world famous, kind of took over Canova position as the predominate neoclassicist and I assume that had a huge effect on Carl Bloch’s generation, which was a generation or two removed from Thorvaldsen but Thorvaldsen’s neoclassicism had fallen out of favor by the time Carl Bloch was in school. I think it was probably what 1850s, he went to Rome in the 1860s right?
Micah: What was going on in Denmark when Carl Bloch was in school and when he went to Rome? Is this typical, is his work typical of what was going on there?
Herman: Politically Denmark had suffered a demise.
Herman: Carl Bloch had an idea that it would be wonderful he thought if he could revive the glorious heritage of Danish art, again.
Micah: Okay, meaning going back to Thorvaldsen glory?
Herman: Actually, maybe to the baroque tradition, because Thorvaldsen was much more of a neoclassicist and I mean he’s on record for having said that his work devolves upon the Greeks, he said without the Greeks you have no basis for doing sculpture. So where is Carl Bloch has a very interesting relationship to the art of the day to the extent that he is a reformed baroque painter, he’s a protestant reformist, remember that there was a reformation against the excesses of the Renaissance by the Catholic church and this was replaced by the baroque art of Caravaggio and Rubens and Carl Bloch comes along when people are becoming disenamored with the remote stylizations of baroque art that didn’t really speak to the common people, to the laity, and Bloch comes on when the art of the Protestant reformation starts to impinge upon the homes of the common parishioners. They all had small paintings produced, Holland was particularly indebted at generating thousands of what they called little masters who produced small paintings that were much more in keeping with the understanding and the circumstances of people who more than likely illiterate and looked to these depictions as simple, pneumonic reminders of their faith and captured daily temporal occurrences that were domestic and close to their experience. So, Bloch benefits from the archetypal history painting of the day, remember that was upheld as the highest order of painting, when you depicted historical mythical themes and rolled into that was religious paintings. Religious paintings, religious themes, they were constantly looking at the Old Testament for themes that they could depict in their painting, along with mythology historical paintings.
Micah: Well this begs a question that I have about the environment that he’s working in, if he were in Paris the zeitgeist there was very different and Paris was arguably because of the salon system, because of the patronage of the state and of a commercial market there’s famously this idea that, it was said by a Spanish art critic but I think it could have been said of most of Europe, that you stay at home and paint if you love your country, you go to Rome if you love deep and spiritual things to study and you go to France if you love money and I think when I look at Carl Bloch’s work, he’s not doing French Parisian… There are a few examples of him doing genre scenes that would have been commercial in his early year, there are scenes of him doing a few beautiful women in a kind of impressionistic style, I’m thinking in particular of a painting that’s right now at the Hope Gallery of Art that’s kind of a toilet scene, which just means it’s kind of a bedroom scene of a women with her back towards us in a more impressionistic style, but he’s not doing small commercial pieces at this point in his career.
Micah: He’s doing monumental on the ladder of genres, he’s doing the highest order of art in large scale and its commission work from the state and from churches. This piece in particular that you’ve chosen is in the church of Saint Nicholas in Holbæk and his 23 paintings from life of Christ that he did in Frederiksborg Castle. I don’t know if there’s anywhere else in Europe where one artist is getting commissions to do as much religious art from the state. Why is Denmark commissioning in the 19th century so much religious art?
Herman: Interesting question, remember that images were few and far between.
Herman: We are flattered with ubiquitous imagery all day.
Herman: They had a very limited exposure to images, they were very powerful and that’s why they were monopolized by the church at the time. They wanted to use that medium as a means of propagating their doctrine and that’s why images were very powerful however Carl Bloch was not commercial motivated. He could have painted faster, he would spend years painting one altar piece. I forget how long, 12 or 13 years to paint the 23 painting in Frederiksborg Castle.
Micah: How could he afford to do that, was it just because he was on royal salary?
Herman: He just made ends meet, like we all do. He wasn’t driven for high production and for maximizing his output. That wasn’t in his mindset, he was motivated by the purest desire to exemplify his God through his artwork, to give expression, the profound doctrines that he adhered too and he identified with these works.
Micah: Did he write about them?
Herman: No, he didn’t write about them but it’s on record that he did say that he denounced the impressionists when they showed 1880 in Paris, he said “what do they think they teach us”.
Micah: Now that goes to the question and maybe we should back up a little bit, let’s talk about his training.
Micah: His parents wanted him to be I think it was in the navy, right.
Herman: His mother wanted him to be in the navy.
Micah: I mean the 3 traditional stable places are lawyer, military or at the priesthood and they wanted him in the navy and did he show some proclivity at a young age?
Herman: Yes. He would actually use paints that he got from house painters that were painting in his village so that he could. He would beg, borrow and steal bits of paint, pigments that he could paint. He was at an early age, he was converted to the notion that he wanted to become an artist and when he failed the entrance to the naval academy it was a sigh of relief for him so that he could rather pursue his admission to the royal academy.
Micah: Now the royal academy after going there, he received what I would imagine was a pretty standard education at the time.
Herman: Very rigorous.
Micah: He would have copied from old masters, studied compositions, studied tones, studied the human figure would have been the basis for his works.
Herman: Only after they’d spend about a year or so just drawing, they wouldn’t even touch a paint brush until they had progressed sufficiently.
Micah: So, this was typical with the French model, that they wouldn’t until after they’d left, famously Ingrs who was the professor at the academy in both Rome and in also taught at the Ecole de Beaux Arts of art said it takes you 20 years to learn to draw and 3 days to learn how to paint. Is this the kind of mentality that he received at the academy?
Herman: Basically yes, remember he was functioning at the apogee of the academic system and it’s significant that the whole system went into decline almost immediately and during his own lifetime. During his lifetime, the impressionist took over the focus of art interest and the laborious training of the academies was seen as passé and new movements and the avant garde took over the interest of the critics and the consuming collectors.
Micah: He really was one of the few that made it all the way through this system to what its conclusion would be, Ingres also famously said for every 10,000 artists we produce 9,999 copyists and one true artist. He graduated from the academy, he goes to Rome on a kind of prix-de-Rome.
Herman: He goes via Holland, where he studies and gets a lot of inspiration from Rembrandts works.
Micah: So, does he go and live in Holland after graduating from the academy?
Herman: He travels through Holland.
Micah: So, he stops on his way to Rome?
Micah: And this is where this idea of where the Protestant masters of the reformation in the 17th century have an influence on him. Do we know specifically who he’s looking at, you mentioned Rembrandt before, is he looking at Hals I imagine?
Micah: And maybe Jan Steen and some of these others?
Herman: Probably, the protestant artists in Holland who are very prominent and well displayed. I mean they were flooded with thousands and thousands of these paintings.
Micah: It’s interesting because there seems to be in Germany, and I don’t know as much as Denmark, I know it was true for the Munich school which becomes quite dominant at the end of the century. They kind of add to this, if you were to say every school of art has a pantheon of artists, so if you’re Spanish Velasquez, Ribera, Cano if you’re French you’ve got Poussin, you’ve got all of these other artists, but all of them add Rome to it, right.
Micah: If you’re Danish I imagine and you’re German, was it typical to stop into Holland as a pit stop?
Herman: No, not necessarily.
Micah: It wasn’t necessarily.
Herman: No, it wasn’t.
Micah: This is something that he adds.
Herman: This is something that he adds and he had gone extensively to Rome to look at how the old masters during the Renaissance period had depicted Christ and religious iconography, so this was a bonus that he got and was obviously very influential for him.
Micah: I know that in the exhibition that was done on Carl Bloch, Spiritual Gifts, that they had a few of his genre works that were there. Is that how he’s making a living in the beginning, before he starts getting these big state commissions. Is he making it doing genre scenes of everyday life, of children, of families?
Herman: You know he was constantly concerned with the anxiety of providing for his family through his work. It would seem that he always scraped by, and I’m sure that the Frederiksborg Castle commission that really gave him a prominent name.
Micah: And that happened after Rome?
Herman: Yes, that happened after Rome.
Micah: So, he’s in Rome, I understand that he gets married while he’s there.
Herman: Yes, to a wonderful woman.
Micah: She sounds like she has a Russian name but I couldn’t find much about her.
Herman: Yes, you’re right.
Micah: But I don’t know much about her but they’re very happily married, right?
Herman: Very happily married and he’s devastated when she passes away.
Micah: She passes away after they’ve not even been married 20 years. Is that right?
Herman: That’s right.
Micah: Do we know what she died of?
Herman: No, it was something like an consumption, maybe it was tuberculosis.
Micah: Which would have been a common death at that time.
Herman: Yes, it was a common death.
Micah: But after going to Rome, and I’m just trying to get this timeline ordered out, he goes back to Denmark and as an artist who’s graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and then gone to Rome, he would have immediately been at the top of the food chain I imagine, right?
Herman: Well yes, he was never very pushy, he never pushed himself and he was very fortunate in getting the commissions that he did and that made his name but he was never really a celebrity artist to the extent that maybe Thorvaldsen was, Thorvaldsen was better known than he was.
Micah: And Thorvaldsen made his name at a distance.
Micah: He was the big fish in the big ocean.
Herman: Yes, very interesting man. I mean he arrived in Rome without being able to speak a word of Italian or Greek and he was denounced for that and they said how can this Philistine possibly learn to produce fine art when he can’t even speak the classical languages but he proved himself and he was a maverick to the extent that he was a loner. He worked on his own, he was very productive, he produced an enormous body of work and he was not as openly religious as Hofmann or Bloch were but he was obviously totally dedicated to producing religious iconography, particularly the Christus statue and the 12 apostles.
Micah: So, I want to ask about, since we’re talking about Thorvaldsen and Hofmann and Bloch and it seems like for us as members of The Church of Jesus Christ’s of Latter Day Saints as Mormon’s in general, that these are names for us that are often said in the same sentence.
Micah: I don’t know if anywhere else in the world they’re always said in the same sentence and for this podcast we’ve done, we’ve told guests that we want them to choose a work by a Mormon artist and some people that we’ve talked to said I’d really like to do Sergeant or I’d really like to do another artist and I said no, not LDS but we made an exception, clearly for Bloch. He’s what I would put in this camp of non-Mormon, Mormon artists.
Herman: He’s a co-opted artist.
Micah: He is and let’s talk about why he’s been co-opted.
Herman: That’s what intrigued me about this whole thing, that’s why I eventually wrote this book. These exhibitions were the first exhibitions under the auspices of the church, at Brigham Young University that brought these artists out of obscurity. It was only when the healing at the Pool of Bethesda was donated to the museum by courtesy of the Wheatley’s who purchased it when it became available for sale in Denmark that we got a glimpse of the spectacular and impactful painting of Carl Bloch.
Micah: He had been used by the church in publications long before that.
Micah: I believe that it even dates back.
Herman: In 1962.
Micah: It probably dates back to the beginning of the Improvement Era, right?
Herman: Yeah, the Improvement Era. It was the first color publication by the Improvement Era by works that were then obtained from the Frederiksborg Castle. We don’t know how the church came by those images.
Micah: So that’s still unknown as to why he was adopted.
Herman: Yes, we don’t know who it came to under the purview of the Improvement Era editors but they saw his work, they latched on to it, the church obtained the copyright for those images and they’ve been promulgated through the church ever since.
Micah: This begs a question for me that I’ve had, so if you were to look back at the history of art in the church, the images that we think of that have been produced or commissioned by the Church, of Christ are probably not until 1964 with the world’s fair and Harry Anderson. So, if we were to try and look back at what images of Christ we had before that period, you have a copy of C.C.A. Christensen’s maybe, you’d have a J.T. Harwood but there isn’t a lot to speak of and it seems to be that this Improvement Era and the world’s fair in 1964, so 62 is the Improvement Era, 64 is the world’s fair, coincides with a new effort by the church to say we’re not just the Mormons, we’re member of the Church of Jesus Christ, all in caps, Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints.
Micah: All right, and the question then is if we don’t have our own imagery who do we borrow imagery from, how do we get that imagery, which we don’t know exactly how they got Carl Bloch but there are so many religious artists we could have use. We could have gone to, the vast majority of converts to the church were English. We could have used some of the pre-Raphaelite works, what is so useful and I’m not contesting it, it’s just a question, why Carl Bloch?
Herman: Again, this is what intrigued me, I mean I came into this culture, this Mormon culture specific to Utah late in my life.
Micah: How old were you when you came?
Herman: I’ve been here 25 years, so it must have been about 45.
Micah: Did it seem odd to you when you came in and saw it? What is a very distinctive culture in your opinion artistically?
Herman: Yes, it was. That’s another podcast but what caught my attention was how powerfully these works impacted the church members in this spot of the world. I mean these exhibitions were seen by over a half a million people and they were thrilled by them, they made meaning of these images.
Micah: Are we talking about the exhibitions in 2013?
Herman: Yes, beholding salvation.
Micah: Which beholding salvation featured the pool of Bethesda.
Herman: Yes, and then The Master’s Hand which was Carl Bloch.
Micah: Carl Bloch and then Sacred Gifts and these all happened within about a 10 year period, right?
Micah: From 2006 or 2007 is when the first one happened at the pool of Bethesda, even though the painting had been acquired in 2002?
Herman: Yes, 2006.
Micah: So, 2006 and then successively almost every 3 years there was an exhibition after that.
Herman: Yes, and they built on each other and they cemented the impact that Carl Bloch’s work has. As I said with the signature piece that we chose for this discussion Christ looks out at the viewer as a psychological injunction, it’s as if He is looking directly at you, He is not judgmental, He’s not a God of wrath, He’s not a suffering Christ, He is a resurrected Christ, fully corporeal with compassion and intelligence and engaging. He gestures to the little boy to His right indicating the scripture from Matthew that we need to become as children to enter into the kingdom of God, also indicating that He’s not a respecter of persons, even a child can enter the kingdom of God. He’s very attuned to symbolism, Carl Bloch is, you look at the palm frond held by the little boy, signifying the victory over death by Christ. He puts in this classical column as a nod to the classical tradition.
Micah: As I’m looking at images of the physical space of the Saint Nicholas Church in Holbæk , it seems to be not an exact copy of the physical space but somewhat a continuity.
Herman: It gives a clue to the ecclesiastical space.
Micah: It also seems to me contextually this piece sits right behind the baptismal font for the church and it seems like because they baptize their children in that font, this would have been a direct reference to that.
Micah: It’s not a narrative scene necessarily, it’s more of a symbolic allegorical.
Herman: It’s very iconic depiction. They both stand with bare feet symbolism sacred ground that they stand and what is significant to me about this painting, what caught my attention and you may think this is an interesting aspect, when you look at the original work, it doesn’t come through the original work but if you look at the craquelure in the dark folds of the Savior’s robe you’ll see evidence of craquelure, there is also craquelure in the nimbus around his head which doesn’t come through in that photograph. But in right light that craquelure in the nimbus looks like a crown of thorns. It was unintended by Carl Bloch obviously, because it hadn’t cracked at the time of his painting it but over the years the craquelure has developed significantly around.
Micah: So, it was somewhat unintended iconographical…
Herman: Unintended, I don’t want to make it into a Mormon scared icon but it’s so interesting to me to see this manifestation over time in this painting that again speaks to the divinity of Christ, almost as if the Lord had said don’t paint me with a nimbus, I’d rather put in a crown of thorns.
Micah: It seems on a material level one of the things that would have made this very difficult to paint is the huge amount of dark space that’s in it because dark paint is famously more transparent, even thought that would seem for non painters to be a contradiction and artists usually had craquelure problems because you’d have to do several layers and you’d do different levels of thinking out that paint, it would dry at different rates. That would mean that he’d painted over the dark paint, that nimbus or that light around his head and that would have eventually lead to that cracking. What a happy accident that would have taken place.
Herman: That’s a good term for it.
Micah: one of the questions I want to ask you about the exhibitions and people’s experience with the exhibition is that when these works were shown in their full size and architectural setting, I imagine that it’s the first time that people saw them in full scale, they were used to seeing them as small pieces we mentioned before. What do you think that effect has had on us, that we’ve been seeing these mainly as small works rather than large images?
Herman: That’s why we have museums, so we can show people the actual artworks.
Herman: Because reproductions do not capture the full impact of an original artwork when you confront it as the artist would have seen it at the same distance that the artist would have been exposed to it as he or she painted it.
Micah: Do you think that our reducing those to smaller size and most of us having that experience with them needs to be corrected?
Herman: It’s difficult to correct. I mean our iPads are limited in dimension, although we get bigger and bigger TV screens we never really see these things in their full scale. So that’s why we have museums so we can actually confront these works in the scale that they were produced and in the manner that the artist would have produced them.
Micah: So, a question that I’ve also got about the exhibition, were you involved in the exhibition by the way?
Herman: Which one? In the first 2.
Micah: In the first 2 you were, okay and so maybe this isn’t a question for you but I’d be interested in your opinion because I don’t know if you had control over it so much, when I went to the exhibition Sacred Gifts and saw these pieces with their labels, the museum labels, one of the things that was so interesting was BYU Museum of Art which is an institution owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints and in a way it’s got a relationship with it, they had a small label with the title and the original location and media and then a much longer label that accompanied it that was usually a quote by a general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints talking about its doctrine and I found myself wondering a couple of things, one was I wondered how would a Lutheran painter or a Protestant painter feel about us not only reducing the artwork in the way we’ve usually seen it in print but then when we get it there in person putting our doctrine next to it, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. It would be the equivalent of let’s say 300 years from now or 100 years from now a Mongolian religion really loved Minerva Teichert and called Minerva Teichert a proto- Mongolian artists and took this art, is that something that is problematic in your opinion
Herman: Oh, it could be problematic, it’s a matter of interpretive things. However, these artists have gained their prominence not by happenstance, they have in their own doctrinal approach to the doctrine of Christ, they are amazingly aligned with the LDS perspective.
Micah: So, you feel like their art, it’s continuity is with us.
Herman: It’s congruent and that is why they’ve been so popular and I have no doubt that Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann would probably have already embraced the restored gospel.
Micah: So, for you, you feel like they were painting in harmony with doctrine?
Herman: Yes, and I think it’s significant that they were painting at the time of the restoration of the gospel in the United States. Their main production was simultaneously with the establishment of the church in the mid 1800s.
Micah: So, I have a question about how we use their art and you talk about it a great deal in your book. I was really fascinated in the sections where you talk about how we use art and the use of art in the church and you talk about 3 aspects in the way that we use art. The first is you say that it invites us to think of a particular time and place, this is one of the uses of a religious work of art. So, we’ve talked a little bit about that but let’s talk specifically to it when it comes to this work of art. It gets us to think about a particular time and place or person, how does Carl Bloch do that uniquely well in your opinion? In this or in the 23 works that are in Frederiksborg?
Herman: Because he uses body types or facial expressions that are common and even universal. His art is of the kind that are universally recognizable and that’s another aspect of their epistemology. Carl Bloch and Heinrich Hofmann and their cohort have an epistemological perspective of reality that’s congruent with the LDS perspective. It is their attempt to give expression to the mind and will of God, which is the meta principle which postmodern philosophy rejects in favor of situational and modulated social realities. So they speak in the same way as Tolstoy, as Charles Dickens speak, as if there is a universal reality.
Micah: A very classical tradition notion.
Herman: Exactly and the LDS church has coopted their very classical perspective in expression of the mind and will of God, it’s as simple as that.
Micah: When I look at works by contemporary representational artists who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, they seem to borrow very heavily from Carl Bloch and Heinrich Hofmann, what do you think their influence has been, Carl Bloch, Hofmann too, their influence has been on contemporary artists?
Herman: Contemporary artists walk a very precarious line between sentimentalism and illustration and more profound depictions that evoke illicit and spiritual responses.
Micah: There’s a lot in what you just said, keep talking but I want to break down aspects of it.
Herman: The fact is, and we don’t hold it against the average viewer, the average MOA.
Micah: Museum of Art.
Herman: Museum of Art attendee but these people you would classify probably as uninformed by these heavy topics of aesthetic literacy. They respond in the way that Gustave Courbet would have couched it in the democratic vision of realism. That is why these artworks are so popular, it is the way the people see the world, it communicates across a broad swath of humanity, it’s not specific to cultural or language differences. Carl Bloch and Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz paint images in the way that Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines what realism is, the way that people actually see the world.
Micah: So, it sounds like you’re saying something is lost in translation in a way, that these artists who are working today often, and we’re speaking very broadly, look at a Carl Bloch, look at a Heinrich Hofmann and they take that work and they’re missing, they’re reducing it to something and missing a fundamental. What are those fundamentals?
Herman: That is the sacral nature of inspired devotional depictions. Remember in accepting these works at museum worthy, exhibition offerings we accept the notion also that art is instrumental, that this kind of art specifically has a value in achieving some change in the viewer. It can engender compassion, dedication, strength in testimonies, it can edify, it can uplift, it can help people who are depressed, it can soothe, it can make people feel uplifted and instrumental of art and instrumental function of art that has been denied by modernism. In the first aesthetic we know that art is perhaps interesting and important and that’s where it stops, we don’t attribute any other value to it and that’s because the very notion of beauty has been eroded in post modernism to a sentimental subjective idiosyncratic warm fuzzy feeling.
Micah: If I were an artist today, and I know they’re out there, artists who want to achieve and paint in a way that would have the same sacral as you used, the same deeper feeling that comes across in these works. What would your advice be to that artist?
Herman: Repent and cleanse yourself.
Micah: That reminds me there used to be in the middle ages a prayer for the icon maker and the icon maker was supposed to say a prayer before he picked up his tools, he was supposed to pay his debts, forgive his enemies, make sure that he was in perfect, basically he repented and was in complete order before he could receive inspiration but here’s a question that I have. In your book, you talk about there was a certain decadence by Rubens who I love by the way, and I’m sure that you love him too on an artistic level and Catholicism had kind of reached an apogee of decadence that was the antithesis you believe of what inspired art needed to be and then you championed Caravaggio and boy there’s a guy who needed repentance. He was in to prostitutes, he was into fighting, he was in to all kinds of problems.
Herman: Yes, he killed somebody.
Micah: Yeah, he killed somebody in the process of a fight and he was on the run and I think he died of a venereal disease after fleeing Rome because of it and the question then is, do you believe that these artists, that it is as simple as being devoted or can great art be created by evil people?
Herman: Now remember, Caravaggio is used for a special case.
Herman: For his tenebrism, he brought a technique to the form.
Micah: Right, and you do in the book do that and I’m glad you clarify that.
Herman: Yes, I don’t celebrate him as an example of a righteous living person. Sacral art can only be produced through a process of sanctification.
Micah: So, you would say that he has a useful technique but you feel like his rapscallion nature would somehow come across in that art and it does for you.
Herman: Yes, he made his impact because of the technique, this dramatic technique of tenebrism, chiaroscuro and his use of everyday figures. The people that he painted, the subjects that he used in his paintings for models, for the apostles, for Christ and so on were people of his own experience from everyday workaday experience and that’s what made his work powerful. I’m not saying that he himself produced art that was, we don’t use Caravaggio’s paintings in our liturgy, in our canon of approved works.
Micah: Do you feel like that’s part of it?
Herman: I think so. It doesn’t come through in his work in the way that it comes through in Carl Bloch and Heinrich Hofmann.
Micah: So, rule one is be a good person, repent.
Herman: Yes, be a good person.
Micah: That makes me wonder to your second point, the first point you talk about and how the use of art and you don’t put it exactly in those terms, but the use of art is you say, it invites us to think about a particular truth and or place, second it can reveal new truths, it can challenge your ways of thinking and reveal new ideas. It’s almost an aid to revolution and this would seem perfectly harmonious with the idea that the person making it then.
Herman: Yes, remember that art work, particularly narrative art work which is what we’re talking about his relies on the suspension of disbelief. When you look at a painting you’re actually looking at a piece of canvas that has paint splotched over it. It’s the suspension of disbelief that allows your mind to reconcile those blotches of paint into a recognizable image to start with, and then when you see that image you apprehend it in a manner that either confronts you negatively or positively and you must decide whether you accept what the image is telling you or not. If you are of the mind that is teachable, humble, open and believing, you will accept the attitude in which the artist painted that image, if the artist is of the same disposition.
Micah: So, for you this work of art is, it reminds me of this notion in the eastern orthodox church when it comes to icons, for the longest time they didn’t claim that the pieces were made by an artist, they claim that they just appeared and they were kept in spaces and covered when they weren’t in use because they were seen as literal windows to heaven. I don’t know if we would consider Carl Bloch a window to heaven but you’re almost using similar terminology, this idea that Bloch, he was worthy of insight.
Herman: Yes, spiritually inclined.
Micah: And spiritually inclined and you have to meet him on that level, am I right? You have to meet him on that level and if you do there will be a magical meeting of these places where you’ll have a spiritual insight from it.
Micah: That transcends the time and culture between the two of you, in a way. Is that something that you witnessed doing these exhibitions?
Herman: Oh, definitely so.
Micah: How did people react when they were face to face with these works?
Herman: Some very poignant moments that I’ve captured just a couple of them in my book. In one case, we used volunteer docents as guides in the galleries to help people through the exhibition, direct them from one gallery to the other and they encountered people in the most poignant and interesting situations. One volunteer came across a man who was weeping in front of the painting of Christ being accused with the crown of thorns on his head and a man spitting in his face and there’s a drop of blood falling down the Savior’s forehead and the man is standing there and he’s weeping and the woman comes up to him, the volunteer lady comes up him and asks if she can help him and he just looks at her and he says, “He did this for me”. That was a moment of realization where the reality of that message impinged upon one man’s heart to the extent that he was probably brought to a moment of conversion in his life. We’ve had Chinese tourists, a tour bus arrived at that exhibition and on one occasion one of the members of that tour group came up to one of the volunteers and inquired “who is this man, Jesus?” You know they were touched, they don’t know the doctrine, this must be on Tuesday, they were on a Utah tour and they came into the BYU museum of art and this was on exhibition, they don’t know anything about Christianity and they encountered these painting to the extent that they now want to know who is this man called Jesus. On other occasions, you see touching moments of shared testimony when a grandfather shows a painting of Hofmann’s Garden of Gethsemane, Christ being strengthen by the angel to his granddaughter.
Micah: A work borrowed from the Riverside Church in New York.
Herman: Yes, and there’s a poignant moment when he looks down at her and she looks up at him and they share the immediacy of that painting. That is touching and goes beyond, and it’s non-discursive, it isn’t something that you can put in writing, it’s a moment that touches the art conveyed through the instrumentality of an inert painting of pigment on canvas and that’s the magic of this. I’m not saying that any of Carl Bloch’s paintings are being considered as icons or that modern Latter-day Saint artists should paint people revere for their sacral value, notwithstanding the fact that some of them do choose to frame them in tabernacle frames.
Micah: It is interesting, I’ve noticed that it’s a trend that seems to be going on.
Herman: It is a cultural trend.
Micah: Which seems to be a reference to when they were made for homes or personal chapels.
Herman: Yes, personal chapels.
Micah: It was a representation of the church itself.
Herman: But then many LDS homes are built as personal chapels.
Micah: Wow, that’s an interesting insight. We’re running up close against the end of our conversation and I feel like we need to have a follow up. I have so many things that I’d like to talk about and you’re such a rich resource but I want to end with the question that we’re asking everyone and that’s 50 years ago this year President Spencer W. Kimball said that we had the potential to have a Mormon Michelangelo, which in so many words is somebody who would be able to express our greatest values in art.
Micah: And the question that we’re asking everyone, number one do you think we’ve been able to do that as members of the church?
Herman: We’re not there yet.
Micah: And if we’re not there yet, where are we in the process do you think and what role does Carl Bloch play in getting us there?
Herman: As a mile marker, he’s showing us the direction. I think to the extent that his work is now so dated really, these are old works and yet they still carry so much physiological and spiritual content, they point us in that direction and we still have to find the artists who can carry that baton forward, that’s how I feel.
Micah: Thank you so much Dr. Du Toit for being with us.
Herman: It’s been a pleasure.
Micah: It really has been and I feel like we could do 2 or 3 more. We didn’t do justice to all of the ideas that we shared here, but it’s a beginning. Let’s agree to that, it’s a beginning to more conversations.
Herman: Thank you so much for having me.
Micah: It’s a pleasure, we’d like to thank Dr. Du Toit for joining us for this episode of Mormon Visual Culture presented by the Zion Art Society. You can see the works that we discussed here on our website zionartsociety.org under the podcast tab, along with information about Dr. Du Toit’s book Masters of Light, Coming unto Christ through Inspired Devotional Art, I recommend you read it. For more interviews with artists, collectors and scholars subscribe to Mormon Visual Culture on iTunes. I’m Micah Christensen, thank you for listening.