Tonight is the opening reception for a remarkable exhibit at the LDS Church History Museum: a retrospective of the German artist Joseph Paul Vorst (1897–1947), who moved to Missouri in 1930.
The exhibit will run until April 2018 in Salt Lake City. It’s the first major retrospective devoted to the artist, who was well-known and very respected in his day. His artwork is in museums all over the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery, and MOMA.
But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that a historian uncovered the additional fact that Vorst was a Latter-day Saint convert, and curious Mormons began to hunt down information about his life and work.
Here’s the story, as explained to me by Laura Allred Hurtado, Global Acquisitions Art Curator for the LDS Church History Museum. –JKR
RNS: How did you and your co-curator Glen Nelson find this artist?
Allred Hurtado: In 2013, Glen’s associate pointed him to a blog called Keepapitchinin, where Ardis Parshall did a post about a 1940 article from the Improvement Era about a Missouri artist named Joseph Paul Vorst. The story had all these red flags: Thomas Hart Benton, Regionalism, WPA, and the National Academy of Berlin. So Glen did research and purchased a few works, and launched an online gallery.
When I saw the work, I really responded well. There was this one image of Christ done in a German Expressionist style—a sort of cutting, gouging technique used to make woodcuts that creates a really dramatic look. It was just a really different image of Christ, done by a Mormon artist. And then there was a lingering question: How did I not know? How did I, as the curator of the LDS history museum, not know this story? And if I didn’t, who did?
I was out on maternity leave when the exhibition launched, and when I called him a few weeks later, everything had already sold. I was disappointed that I had possibly missed my opportunity to archive Vorst’s history through our collection, so I reached out to Glen, who had been in contact with the estate. By November, we were on our way to St. Louis to see if we could find more work and more information. What we found was a trove.
RNS: Who handles his estate?
Allred Hurtado: His family. Vorst had one son, Carl, who is now a retired engineer. We met with him and his wife, Carole, who live in the Vorst studio. The house was full of work. He was three when his father died and his mother was Lutheran so there were elements to Vorst’s work and life that Glen and I recognized as Mormons—for instance, we found his patriarchal blessing, and the endowment records he had done. There was a photo of him with President George Albert Smith, with missionaries.
From that first trip, the church ultimately acquired 4 paintings and 32 works on paper. We now have the largest collection of Vorst’s works and ephemera held by one single institution.
RNS: Why is he important to recover now? Why tell this story?
Allred Hurtado: After the first trip and acquisition, an exhibition was likely—we felt like his story needs to be told. While the Improvement Era and Salt Lake Tribune wrote articles about him and while he displayed his work at the Springville Museum of Art and the Deseret Gymnasium, Vorst was ultimately forgotten about in church history. Perhaps it’s because he was a convert without any Mormon relatives. Perhaps it’s because he died young. In comparison to Mormon artists we’re more familiar with, there’s no one that compares to him in terms of places he exhibited at and museums he was collected by.
So we started working first on an exhibition. And that evolved for Glen, first into a simple exhibition catalog, and then a full monograph. He fell down the research rabbit hole and was thorough and brilliant in what he did—finding elements about the smallest details of Vorst’s life and discovering work that was presumed lost.
RNS: How did he come to know the LDS Church?
Allred Hurtado: Vorst converted to Mormonism in 1924, while he was still in Germany. We don’t know his conversion story—he didn’t keep a journal—but we do know that his brother died just four weeks before.
We have records from the Essen saints—they list who is giving a prayer, who is speaking, who is playing the harmonium. Vorst’s name is listed over a hundred times. The last entry is on July 18, 1930, and it says “Brother Vorst left today for America. Quite a number of saints didn’t make it to the preaching meeting as they had to see Brother Vorst off. So they say.”
RNS: Are there paintings with explicitly Mormon themes?
Allred Hurtado: There’s a lithograph of a young boy, titled Joe and His Mission. There’s another called Religious Persecution, which shows Mormons being tarred and feathered, and also the Hauns Mill Massacre.
He also would sneak Mormon themes into other things. There’s a German children’s book that he illustrated about a boy who travels all over the world, and he arrives at a city with tall buildings—and among them is the Salt Lake Temple. There’s also a WPA-era mural called Untitled (America). In the far left corner is Lady Liberty, and right behind her is the Salt Lake Temple.
RNS: What is your own favorite work in the exhibit?
Allred Hurtado: I have so many. There’s a work called Untitled (Red House), which is on the cover of Glen’s book. There’s a car in front and these rolling hills in the background, and some telephone lines. Perhaps it could be read as a simple landscape. But to me, the telephone lines look like crosses. There’s an air of loneliness about the painting that is in so many works from the Great Depression. It has an austere Edward Hopper quality, but it also hints at his beliefs.
There’s another painting called Drought that depicts a man in desperate circumstances. He’s on his knees and his hands are outstretched to the stormy sky. And where that would normally be an ominous sign, here it’s a sign of hope. The storm itself offers salvation and the tears running down the man’s face are a sign of absolute relief.
The exhibit will run until April 2017 in Salt Lake City. It’s free and open to the public.