SALT LAKE CITY — A new exhibit at the Church History Museum aims to add a lesser-known Mormon artist back into the church's visual canon alongside contemporaries like Minerva Teichert.
The work of American artist Joseph Paul Vorst, a German LDS convert born in 1897, is highlighted in his first-ever retrospective exhibit, which opened Nov. 9 at the Church History Museum.
An artist for the downtrodden
“To have somebody like this, of this quality, completely unknown, this is like a curator’s dream come true,” said Glen Nelson, co-curator of the exhibit and founder of the Mormon Artists Group.
Vorst is known for his ennobling and sympathetic depictions of the poor and oppressed. He was acquainted with poverty and hardship himself, being the seventh of 10 children in an impoverished family, experiencing life as a German immigrant during the Great Depression and living through two world wars.
“His life hits all of these important times and responds to (them),” said Laura Allred Hurtado, the exhibit’s other co-curator. “A lot of his work is very socially aware and has an element of activism, and when you look at it, there is a call to respond.”
Hurtado, the Church History Museum’s global acquisitions art curator, said Vorst’s message of sympathy and hope for the downtrodden is one that remains important today.
“We have neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, … we have all these floods in Puerto Rico and Houston and Florida,” Hurtado said. “His messages still matter.”
The museum’s retrospective showcases 111 works. The art exhibit begins with a few works from some of Vorst’s better-known contemporaries, including LeConte Stewart and Mahonri Young.
It then moves into a timeline of Vorst’s life and areas highlighting works and artifacts from different stages of his life, including his early life in Germany, his conversion and immigration and his art from the Great Depression and world wars.
This sampling of Vorst’s works shows the breadth of media and styles he used, which included paintings, drawings, watercolors, murals and mural studies, artists’ books, linoleum cuts, sketchbooks, photographs, sculpture, etchings and lithograph prints.
Vorst’s work has caught the attention of several prestigious institutions, but remains largely unknown among LDS church members since his death in 1947. His art has been exhibited or collected at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Art, and even the White House.
“It’s funny because if you don’t know somebody, you assume that quality is the reason you don’t know them, and what I’m finding with this is that’s not the case,” Nelson said.
In fact, the new exhibit constitutes a return of Vorst’s art to Salt Lake City, which was exhibited at the Deseret Gymnasium during his lifetime. Vorst had made connections in Utah, and his work was also exhibited at the Springville Museum of Art at the behest of Alice Merrill Horne, founder of the Utah State Art Collection.
A different kind of Mormon artist
Vorst was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1924 and immigrated to the United States in 1930 as a result of his newfound faith and apprehension as Germany began embracing Adolf Hitler. He settled near extended family members in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and traveled to Salt Lake City in 1931 to perform temple work for himself and his deceased father and brother.
Although much of Vorst’s art isn’t overtly Mormon, Nelson said it has had a spiritual effect on those who have seen his works. In Nelson’s experience with focus groups prior to the exhibit’s opening, people connected to and appreciated the uniqueness of Vorst’s work amid the Mormon artworks they are accustomed to seeing on church magazines and websites.
“I think people are eager to explore things, so I have some confidence only because the reactions have been so uniformly positive, and they’re surprised how emotional they feel about these works,” Nelson said.
However, some of Vorst’s art pieces do show an element of religiosity, including a series of prints depicting the last week of Jesus Christ’s life and a suite of prayer-themed paintings. One of these paintings, titled “For Thine Is the Kingdom,” depicts an impoverished man praying for the safety of his soldier son rather than his own circumstances.Comment on this story
“(Vorst is) telling a different story than others told,” Nelson said. “Germany, it seems to me, is what made him different. It sensitized him to things that you’re seeing right there, those people in suffering.”
Hurtado said she hopes the exhibit will help people learn about Vorst as an artist and his powerful and interesting story.
“I hope they ultimately take away his message of compassion for the downtrodden and the othered and the most disenfranchised,” Hurtado said.
If you go …
What: “Joseph Paul Vorst: A Retrospective”
Where: Church History Museum, 45 N. West Temple, Salt Lake City
When: Open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through April 15, 2018