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Provo » For half a century, Mormons have seen Carl Heinrich Bloch's Christ everywhere -- reproduced in LDS magazines, manuals and books, hanging in temples, meetinghouses and visitor centers and used as visual aids in Sunday school presentations.
But members of the Utah-based faith rarely have seen Bloch's Jesus as he was meant to be -- filling a massive canvas above the altar in a Scandinavian Lutheran Church.
That Christ will be on display starting next week at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art in a show titled, "Carl Bloch: The Master's Hand."
It marks the first time these pieces ever have been brought together or viewed in America.
Among dozens of other works, the show features four Bloch altar pieces that, until now, never have left their Danish or Swedish churches since they were installed in the 1800s, says Dawn Pheysey, the show's curator. The museum has re-created the religious setting of each large-scale painting to give viewers a sense of Bloch's style and scope, his use of light and shadow, his command of the details of everyday life.
"He presented a Christ that is divine but approachable," Pheysey says. "Despite their familiarity with the paintings, Mormons will be surprised to see them in full size."
What also is somewhat surprising is how a 19th-century Danish painter's images of the Christian savior came to represent the view of an American faith so theologically different and geographically removed?
The two were brought together, she says, by a lucky confluence of need, exploration and, of course, timing.
Creating the exhibit » In 2001, BYU bought Bloch's giant canvas, "Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda," in what Pheysey calls "the culmination of a series of miraculous events."
The painting, which is the largest and, she says, probably the most beautiful of Bloch's work, arrived in Utah on Sept. 10, a day before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
With that piece in hand, the museum decided it might be nice to build an exhibit around it and other Bloch works.
Thus began Pheysey's nine-year sojourn to Scandinavia, trying to coax parish priests and councils in these churches to let their Bloch paintings be displayed in Utah, a place few of them ever had heard of.
"Museums lend their art to other museums all the time, but it was a big deal for churches to do it," she says. "I spent a lot of time building relationships of trust."
What Pheysey discovered during her time there was what a beloved figure Bloch is in Denmark and Sweden.
Born in Copenhagen in 1834, Bloch was the fourth of 10 children in a middle-class and accomplished family. His mother favored a navy career for young Carl, but his artistic talent was obvious from an early age and dictated his future.
At 15, he was allowed to attend evening drawing classes at Charlottenborg Palace, home of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, according to Pheysey's book, The Master's Hand: The Art of Carl Heinrich Bloch .
The future painter was admitted to the prestigious school later that year. He soon began producing "charming landscapes" of the Danish countryside, which aligned him with a group of artists known as "the Blondes," who advocated a more national art that portrayed the everyday life of the common people, she writes. The rival group -- known as the "Europeans, or Brunettes" -- was more attracted to the avant-garde French painters who experimented with styles, light and color.
Then, in 1859, he won a travel scholarship to study in Rome, where he began to paint the great historical and mythological figures.
This move into heroic art helped Bloch win a commission to paint the Greek myth of Prometheus, punished by Zeus for being an advocate of humans. Prometheus was chained to a rock, where an eagle tore out his liver every day and it would regenerate every night. This went on for thousands of years until Hercules killed the eagle, freeing the shackled god.
Bloch was asked to paint the scene by Greece's 17-year-old king, who wanted it to symbolize the Greeks' liberation from bondage to the Turkish Empire.
The story also was a "perfect metaphor for the assertion of Denmark's spirit of tenacity and determination to become again a great nation after the War of 1864 left it militarily defeated and geographically reduced in size," Pheysey writes. The freeing of Prometheus was read as the liberation of Denmark and the killing of the eagle as a "symbol of the just end to Prussian servitude."
Bloch's masterpiece (a smaller version will be in the BYU exhibit) was an overnight sensation. And his sensitive portrayal of "tormented and fettered Prometheus" revealed, she writes, Bloch's "innate empathy for the oppressed, which is evident in many of his future paintings."
It led directly to his assignment a year later to produce 23 paintings from the life of Christ for Frederiksborg Castle. It also won him the chance to create large-scale altar paintings for several churches.
Soon Bloch's paintings were ubiquitous in Scandinavia, heavily revered by would-be artists. The demand from churches was so great, Pheysey says, that historians have documented some 1,600 copies of his altar pieces in churches in the region.
After Bloch's death in 1890, however, the representational painter soon was forgotten by the international art community, she says. That world was caught up in a new artistic movement, starting with the French Impressionists, toward more emotional, fluid, abstract and surreal works. First Monet, then Matisse, then Picasso.
Not everyone, though, embraced such a modern approach. Not many religious believers did and especially not Mormons.
Finding the right Jesus » In 1955, Doyle L. Green, managing editor of the LDS Church's official publication, the Improvement Era , was searching for images to use in the magazine when he discovered Bloch.
The painter's depictions, Pheysey says, seemed to mirror LDS views of a manly, yet compassionate Christ.
Green got permission to reproduce several of the Danish artist's Jesus paintings in the magazine that year, and they were an instant hit. Green, as quoted in the curator's book, said the works "tell a story of the Savior that can be understood by all. It is hoped that they will bring much inspiration, joy, and understanding to home and classrooms throughout the church."
A few years later, Green was looking for illustrations to accompany a 24-part series on the life of Christ based on the writings of Mormon apostle James E. Talmage. He found Bloch's 23 panels from the Frederiksborg Castle and steered many of them into the LDS magazine.
In 1959, the articles were collected into a book, He That Liveth , and 10 Bloch paintings were reproduced in color, including one on the cover. Fifteen Bloch paintings were used again in 1962 in a special issue of the Era , which became "a classic," Pheysey writes.
Green was ecstatic.
Bloch's "fascination with detail, his powerful use of light and shadow, his dramatic animation and heroic vision, his accurate draftsmanship and the all but perfect structural qualities of his figures, combined with the skillful use of vivid color, give a highly realistic quality to his paintings," Green said, at the time, according to Pheysey. "His buildings, trees and shrubs, clothing, general terrain, and even walls and rocks created a remarkably accurate impression of the Holy Land area."
(An angel's wings were airbrushed out of some reproductions, because Mormons don't believe angels have wings.)
In the following five decades, Bloch's Jesus became almost synonymous with Mormonism.
Bloch was painting history as he saw it, but including contemporary Scandinavians in the scenes, says Salt Lake City art dealer David Ericson, who hasn't seen the exhibit but is familiar with the artist. "Those with Northern European roots say, 'Oh, that's what Jesus looks like."
While Bloch's figures don't look like first-century Jews, he says, the artist did capture the "feel of Christ."
"To me, the power of the images is the concept behind the paintings. That's where Bloch was really good. We don't know what Jesus looked like, but we know what he felt like," says Ericson, a Mormon. "That's why we like [these depictions of Jesus]. They feel like how we interpret the scriptures."
LDS President Thomas S. Monson took the train to Frederiksborg Castle to see the original paintings in 1973 as did the previous Mormon prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, two decades later.
"When I see a Carl Bloch painting, I feel much of what I see with my eyes. And the spirit of Jesus and his ministry comes alive within me," Pheysey quotes Monson as saying. "And I want to follow that which he is doing in the picture and, as a result, the depiction becomes a vibrant lesson of life."
Bloch's Christ comes to BYU
The exhibit features five large altar paintings as well as dozens of other religious works and etchings by Carl Heinrich Bloch.
The display is in the Marian Adelaide Morris Cannon Gallery on the BYU Museum of Art's main level from Nov. 12 through May 7, 2011.
For the run of the show, the museum will be open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free, but visitors must register for tickets online -- at http://CarlBloch.byu.edu -- before attending.