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Bloch party — BYU museum to exhibit Danish artist's work

Published: Thursday, Nov. 11 2010 5:30 a.m. MST

It was said of Carl Bloch that "his soul was so completely that of an artist that artistic representation was the only language whereby his intellectual life could correctly express itself." In his native Denmark, in the late 1800s, there was probably no artist more highly revered or appreciated.

Bloch was best known for his religious art. He had been commissioned to produce 23 paintings on the life of Christ for the King's Oratory chapel at Frederiksborg Castle, and his altarpieces for Lutheran churches in both Denmark and Sweden were so prized that churches that could not afford to commission the real thing often commissioned an artist to paint a Bloch-like altarpiece, copying his style as closely as possible.

But times and fashions change, and after Bloch's death in 1890, he drifted out of favor and became largely forgotten. The art world got caught up in modernism — a style for the new century.

Bloch was not destined to languish in obscurity, however, particularly for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the 1950s, the Improvement Era, the official church publication that was a forerunner to the Ensign, was planning a series of articles on the life of Christ, based on the writings of James E. Talmadge. As illustrations, the magazine chose Bloch's paintings from the Frederiksborg Castle.

So well-received and well-loved were the paintings, that they became a staple of LDS church illustration. By best count, says Dawn Pheysey, curator of religious art at the BYU Museum of Art, "Bloch's images have been used nearly 300 times by the church."

They've graced magazine and lesson manual covers, and been hung in LDS meetinghouses, temples and visitors' centers.

Nor is the LDS Church the only one to find value in Bloch's images; they've been used to illustrate everything from a Japanese Bible, to rosary meditations and teaching illustrations in Catholic Sunday schools, as note cards, stationery, jigsaw puzzles, calendars, embroidery kits and more.

So, Pheysey says, although many people may not recognize his name, Bloch's works have become widely known and loved by Latter-day Saints and other Christians around the world.

And now, through an exhibition at the museum, more than 30 of Bloch's original paintings and other works will be brought together for the first time.

"Carl Bloch: The Master's Hand" will feature five large altar paintings from churches in Denmark and Sweden; four that have been taken out of their altar settings for the first time since they were originally installed in the late 1800s; and one, "Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda," which was acquired by the museum in 2001.

The show also includes history paintings, portraits, landscapes, other religious paintings and etchings from Danish museums and private collections. The exhibition opens on Friday and will run through May 7, 2011.

"What the church has used has generally been in a small format. To see the originals as large and powerful as they are is an amazing experience," says Pheysey.

Head Registrar Emily Poulsen was there when the Gethsamane altarpiece was uncrated. There were about 15 people around, talking and chatting, she said. The painting was face down, but as it was lifted up, "the room became deathly quiet. Everyone looked on in awe. It was a very emotional experience."

The exhibition has been about nine years in the making, says Pheysey. "Ever since we got the 'Bethesda' painting, we wondered if we could have a show." Museum folk began visiting Denmark, building relationships. "It is a common thing for museums to borrow from other museums, but to ask churches to give up an altarpiece is a real sacrifice on their part," she says. Over the years, she has come "love the people there. They have become dear, dear friends."

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