Winston Churchill, who wrote history when he wasn’t busy making it, once quipped that history is written by the victors. He might have written instead that it is only through the writing of history that a victory can be distinguished from a defeat. And nowhere would that insight be more apt than in the history of art. Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, Modernism turned the art world on its head, and the years since have offered a transparent view of the process of sorting the winners from the losers. Each new version has featured a smaller list of artists as consensus gathers around a handful of major names, while the minor figures disappear from popular awareness. Less and less frequently can we expect to see this increasingly settled story shaken up by a reappraisal. Yet it can happen, and sometimes revision results from a groundswell of opinion that begins not in one of the art world’s capital cities, but somewhere in between.
Until now, the story of Joseph Paul Vorst typified the all-too-familiar decline of most artists’ reputations. Once featured on a list of the leading American artists, something—perhaps it was his premature death—robbed his name of its former luster. Yet although the records of his early years in Germany were destroyed by bombing during World War II, he’s known to have emerged from one of the great epochs in art history and inherited many of the outstanding traits of that moment. Vorst came of age under the combined influences of Die Brücke (‘The Bridge,’ Dresden, 1905–1913), Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider,’ Munich, 1911–1914), and a score of groundbreaking artists who were then household names. Together, his contemporaries provide a Who’s Who of early 20th-century art. Then, as eventually happened to many of his peers, Vorst’s independence of mind and concern for social justice brought him into conflict with revisionist social forces that were tearing Europe apart. Like them, he chose to escape to America: specifically to Missouri, in 1930, to join the American branch of his family.
The museums and institutions where Vorst exhibited in America include every major venue of his time, and those that still hold his works include today’s foremost collections. His career highlights and professional associations have been an open secret ever since, yet 70 years after his passing, the man who might well have become known as the fourth great American regionalist—alongside Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood—has become virtually unknown. Credit for his rediscovery goes to two of the most active proponents of fine art in the LDS community: Laura Hurtado, Global Acquisitions Curator for the LDS Church History Department, creator of many local exhibitions, and frequent contributor to 15 Bytes, and Glen Nelson, a poet, best-selling author, collaborator on many significant art and music projects, and the founder of Mormon Artists Group. They added Vorst to their projects lists at least four years ago, and have made a remarkable job of it, between them securing the loan of about 500 works of art for the first-ever retrospective of the artist’s work and writing a biography that comes just in time to mine the recollections of aging witnesses whose irreplaceable memories will now become history.
Nelson, Hurtado, and their associates at the Church History Museum and elsewhere collated the known facts, inferences, and Vorst’s surviving artworks into a multimedia exhibition that provides a comprehensive picture of one of many artists whose affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints escaped notice, not only on the secular art scene, but among his fellow religionists. In the future, scholars who missed this exhibition will regret it, even as they peruse its documentation. In fact, one vital key to disclosing Vorst the man comes through the documentary zeal of the LDS Church. Present here are a number of Church-related documents, about one of which the curators write, “The Essen Branch records provide a nearly week-by-week accounting of the artist’s whereabouts.” Were it not for those records, the fog that shrouds so much of Vorst’s early years might remain impenetrable.
But as has often been said, none of it matters unless the exhibit’s core matter, the art itself, holds up to scrutiny. Fortunately, and this is cause to celebrate, the artist Joseph Paul Vorst stands comparison to any artist of his time. Seen from afar, his powerful compositions look like classics, but on closer inspection they depart from expectations in small, fresh ways that invite comparison to the music of Haydn: both get where they need to go by means of inexhaustible invention. His arrangements of numerous figures and structures in three dimensions, no doubt honed on the public murals that are emblematic of both the Regionalists and the WPA, seems effortless in spite of its daunting challenges. He often makes especially good use of vertical arrangements, as in “White Gold,” a pyramid of figures picking cotton, the lithographic version of “Strawberry Pickers,” and “That This Land,” in which a road winds uphill through a ruined landscape to climax on a burned-out farmhouse.
Vorst’s color palette expresses mood without sacrificing a sense that his scenes are based in fact. At the same time, his brushwork may vary within a given canvas, from exquisite rendering of the principal subject to broadly gestural—should we say soft focus?—backgrounds and a wide range of resonant skies. His skilled hand, everywhere in evidence, incorporates the ability to capture textures in a single stroke, to delineate the exacting detail children want in their illustrated books, and exploit the broad, visual simplicity that makes posters and public art effective. He feels equally at home in color or black and white, so that to reduce the former to the latter, or colorize one of his monochrome images, would be vandalism.
Sadly, Vorst’s extraordinary gifts were accompanied by some of the worst timing imaginable. Had he been born 10 years earlier, or had his artistic training in the German art school where he learned his trade not been interrupted by a World War starting a month after his 17th birthday, or had he been born and raised LDS in Utah, instead of being the only member of his family baptized by missionaries (at a time when missions were three years, not two), or had he lived another quarter century, like his American Scene mentor Thomas Hart Benton, it seems likely that his career would have turned out differently.
Still, looking through this avalanche of paintings, prints, photographs, and drawings, three things do become apparent. First is the sheer skill Vorst brought to bear in his work. In one of his comments, cited here, he says, “Any born artist is a born virtuoso.” He spoke from his own experience, going on to associate virtuosity not with a “mere technique of mechanics” but with a union of realism, imagination, and feeling. In fact, comparing his human figures to those of his fellow Regionalists, the first thing to note is how much more feeling Vorst’s reveal. Few non-specialists today can cite a specific Benton painting, but everyone knows Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” the double portrait of a farmer and his daughter standing, pitchfork in hand, before their farmhouse. Their visages, often described as dour, are about as expressive as most Regionalists get. In fact, Benton, despite his own evident skill, frequently fills his crowd scenes with averted faces, and even paintings based on mythological and biblical tales of passion sport oddly neutral faces. By contrast, Vorst’s faces never fail to reflect his subjects’ interior states, even in illustrations of children. And in his best work, such as “Drought,” not only the face, but the pose and gestures engage the viewer’s emotions. When he came under the influence of the American Scene painters, Vorst’s figures briefly assumed some of their symbolic, working-class anonymity, but in time he reverted to his preference for depicting the individual, inside and out.
A second thing that comes across in even a quick study is the artist’s presence along with his chosen subjects. Although his deep religious conviction cannot be overlooked, his sense of humor may generate the strongest impression of Vorst as individual. The clearest examples are seen among the photographs that appear in the biography but not in the exhibit. One, of a young couple posed in front of a wardrobe, also includes a full-length mirror off to the side that, unknown to the subjects, reflects a second portrait—of the photographer as he directs them and snaps the shutter. Another shows Vorst straddling the hood of an early automobile like a horse, his feet on the fenders as they would be in stirrups. More formal works, even some of more serious subjects, may discover humor in unlikely places, or on more than one level, so that two viewers may find different jokes. Glen Nelson enjoys pointing out the compound meanings of mules for this Missouri immigrant, including those visually stacked up in “Missouri Mules,” which once hung in the White House. In one of Vorst’s last paintings, “Self-Portrait with Mule,” the two title creatures feel like twin survivors standing back-to-back. Easily overlooked is the signature paintbrush with which the artist seems to have just signed the canvas—from the inside.
A third, and most important aesthetic principal that seems to be at work here has to do with a kind of implied parallel between pairs of paintings that treat similar subjects. Vorst witnessed a great deal of suffering in his 50 years: the poverty and desperation that followed the first World War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Dust Bowl, and timeless racial friction between poor black and poor white rural families. It’s interesting to note, then, which of these signature epochs of the 20th century he chose to paint. Of course he may have depicted others of these events in artworks that have been destroyed or not yet located. But while he did make portraits of some of the leading figures of the 1920s, including one of an aspiring politician named Adolf Hitler, no images of the Nazi terror survive to compare with his prescient paintings of the early environmental catastrophes he would encounter in America. The alternating droughts and floods that destroyed so many Missouri farms during the Dust Bowl years gave him perhaps his greatest, most moving subject: the temporal suffering that tested the devout faith of ordinary men and women. Here he not only makes a plea for sympathy, but again and again he constructs parallels between white and black farming families. “Universal” and “timeless” are very big words, even when applied to art, but in these pairs of paintings it’s hard not to see a direct link between the disparity of social response on racial lines he witnessed, and the disconnect we see today between the empathy expressed for some victims of violence and the judgment passed on others.
Art has a history, but it is also a form of history. Walking through the Joseph Paul Vorst retrospective in the Church History Museum’s galleries, it may seem that in the works of this artist we see art not as the history of society’s winners, but of some of its losers: those left out, yet who deserve to be included. So it may be no wonder that his vision of the world wasn’t universally popular among those who initially received it. If that’s true, Vorst may be that rare artist a later, better-informed audience can bring back, and who in turn brings the world—a world he saw so clearly—back to life as well.
Joseph Paul Vorst: A Retrospective, Church History Museum, Salt Lake City, through April 15, 2018.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.