I saw all these beautiful religious paintings and thought, 'Hey, that belongs to the world.' His work is too magnificent for us to forget. —Soren Edsberg
SALT LAKE CITY — When Soren Edsberg was a young boy, he visited Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark with his father. While touring the castle, he fell in love with 23 19th-century paintings of long-forgotten Danish artist Carl Bloch.
Half a century later, Edsberg is intent on making sure Bloch, a once-famous realist artist, won’t remain as obscure as he became during the early tidal waves of modernistic and impressionistic art.
“I saw all these beautiful religious paintings and thought, ‘Hey, that belongs to the world,'” Edsberg said. “His work is too magnificent for us to forget.”
One year ago, Edsberg lent 17 paintings and sketches to the Oregaard Museum in Denmark and the Muesum for Religious Art also in Denmark in an effort to revive European interest in the man whom he considers to be one of the most prestigious realist artists of all time. On Thursday, he welcomed those works back to Hope Gallery Museum of Fine Art and spoke with the Deseret News about his struggle to ensure that Bloch’s contribution won’t be lost to history.
“When he lived, Bloch was considered one of the greatest artists in Denmark, one of the greatest ever. He was very highly recognized,” Edsberg said. “Now, nobody has spent any time with Bloch. He was completely forgotten in Europe when all the attention went to modern art.”
Edsberg, who like Bloch is originally from Denmark, has collected more than 200 of Bloch’s original works, making him the largest private collector of the artist’s work. He keeps that collection in Utah but decided a year ago that he needed to preserve Bloch’s memory by giving some of the pieces more exposure in the same place where he originally lived and died.
“When Bloch saw what happened just before he died, he was worried because he could see the trend (of disfavoring realist paintings),” Edsberg said. “More than 100 years later, it's barely begun that (Europeans) are beginning to pay attention. But it’s coming to light and it's coming to light in a big way.”
But before the recent traveling exhibits, Bloch’s works have actually experienced greater exposure in the United States than in Denmark. Most of the artist’s originals in the United States can be found in Utah, and Edsberg said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has played a large role in the resurgent interest.
“The church had used some of (Bloch’s religious works) for 40 or 50 years, but they didn’t have access to very much of it. When more of the collection came over here in 2001, they realized, ‘Oh my goodness, this is world-class art.' And they’ve used it a lot,” Edsberg said.
BYU’s Museum of Art attracted more than 306,000 unique visitors during its exhibition of six original works from the religious series in 2011. Church publications are also littered with Bloch’s works. But BYU Museum of Art spokeswoman Yvette Arts said most Utahns never think to put a name to the paintings they know so well.
“Some people have grown up with these images, but they didn’t pay any attention to the artist,” Arts said. “I can’t tell you how many times someone recognized a painting that they didn’t know was Bloch’s.”
Some of the familiar religious paintings include: "Casting Out Satan," "Christ and Child," "Christ and Children," "Christ and Nimbus 2," "Cleansing the Temple," "Come Unto Me," "Gethsemane" and "Healing at the Pool of Bethesda."
Even fewer Utahns realize that North America’s largest collection of Bloch’s work is in Salt Lake City — and that after Thursday’s re-hanging of 17 additional paintings, it just got bigger.
“Many of the people who went to the BYU exhibit and got to see some of the originals didn't think they could see them anywhere else anymore. They thought it was once in a lifetime,” said Camilla Laib, one of the museum’s curators. “We want them to know they can still enjoy Bloch’s work.”