Peer deeply into Mormon artist Joseph Paul Vorst’s paintings, sketches or linoleum cut prints and you will see the gaunt, desperate, ragged, working poor of his Depression-era generation.
But there is something more that transcends that initial, visceral vision. There is, triumphantly, hope born of a subtly displayed faith in God and his fellow humans.
“So much of his work was in response to events of his time,” says Laura Allred Hurtado, global acquisitions art curator for the LDS Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City. “It is socially aware and evocative of action; when you look at it, you are compelled to respond.”
In his 1938 oil painting “Drought,” Vorst captures a black, tear-streaked farmer on his knees amid a field of withered cornstalks, the man’s weeping wife and child in the background, near the porch of a ramshackle cabin. A starving cow bellows nearby, beneath a decrepit wooden wind mill.
Although this sinewy farmer’s hands are held low and open in surrender, the man’s gaze is directed upward in heavenly pleading, to rays of sunlight breaking through dark, foreboding skies.
“Drought” is one of 111 works gathered by Hurtado and fellow exhibit curator Glen Nelson, founder of the New York-based Mormon Artists Group, for the Church History Museum’s new exhibition, “Joseph Paul Vorst: A Retrospective.” The event opened Thursday at the 45 N. West Temple museum and runs through April 15, 2018.
Vorst presented sharecroppers, black laborers and farm families as destitute and downtrodden, but also ennobled by faith and resilience. In paint, ink and pencil, he depicted catastrophic mid-1930s flooding along the Mississippi, the Dust Bowl, the unemployed and the homeless of his time.
“He was the seventh of 10 children, born into poverty [and] he always identified with the poor,” says Nelson, noting that while Vorst’s works seldom were overtly religious, they consistently called upon Christian motivations, charity in particular.
However, such art fell out of favor with the Nazis, and as Hitler consolidated power in Germany, Vorst, who had converted to Mormonism in 1924, fled to America in the 1930s.
Associating with the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Vorst became a fixture in America’s 1930s Regional and Social Realism movements. Their art, often imbedded with biting social commentary, focused on the urban working man and the rural poor in a time of economic, political and natural turmoil.
Vorst’s works found coveted wall space at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carnegie Institute, the Library of Congress, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and even the White House. During World War II, he produced patriotic posters and murals for his adopted country.
Though LDS, Vorst was not primarily known as a “Mormon artist,” unlike painters such as Minerva Teichert, LeConte Stewart or John Hafen, whose works were more dedicated to scenes of Mormon pioneers, Utah landscapes or paintings for the Salt Lake Temple and other buildings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In his short, 50-year life — he died of brain aneurysm in 1947 while rehearsing with his St. Louis Mormon congregation’s choir — Vorst was more an artist who happened to be Mormon.
Still, his personal faith shined through in more than a few of his works, perhaps most notably 40 linoleum cut prints depicting scenes from the final week in Christ’s life.
Others hint at his LDS beliefs. One example is the print titled “Joe and His Mission,” which depicts a young farm boy and a mule, but is seen by the faithful as an allusion to Mormon founder Joseph Smith.
His 1922 lithograph “Wald” (German for “forest”) shows light streaming through a forest clearing, a work LDS art scholars say echoes a treatment Vorst later used in a now-lost 1925 painting of the Angel Moroni (a prophet in Mormon scripture and history) appearing to Smith.