Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Carl Bloch

Now that I'm home again, there's more of a chance to talk about the Carl Bloch exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art. Captain Midnight's mom, who is awesome (and who also reads this blog -- hi Mom!), was kind enough to procure tickets and to take me over to the exhibit.

It's difficult to explain how I felt about the exhibit. The paintings and etchings were aesthetically pleasing -- but additionally, the paintings of Christ were deeply moving. I was also reminded -- as if I needed to be -- that there's a world of difference between seeing a reproduction of a painting, however faithful, and seeing the painting itself.

Consider, for instance, this particular digital reproduction of a painting, one of my favorites in the exhibit:

"Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane," painted in 1878-79. Bloch created several variations on this theme, but this is the composition I consider the best of the lot.

In the reproduction above, it's possible to see the weariness of Jesus, note the folds of the angel's robe, and get a sense of the softness of the wings and the darkness of the surroundings. The basic sense of the painting is preserved.

But when you see this painting in person, you notice all sorts of details that are otherwise lost and obscured in reproductions. You notice the richness and depth of the oils, their colors shining forth in a way that no photograph can ever quite capture. You can see clearly that Jesus -- whose red robe symbolizes his agony -- is close to exhausted; the angel -- whose glory and power are symbolized by white robes and magnificent wings -- is not merely strengthening but supporting his weary body. You can see the way she touches him tenderly, almost cradling him, and how Jesus leans against her in complete trust; Bloch seems to suggest that this particular messenger is no stranger to Jesus, but an intimate friend, and the two know and love each other well. She was specifically chosen to comfort and strengthen him because she was the one who knew what he would most need at this time. You can see the trunk and branches of the dark tree in the background, the near-blackness of the night surrounding this scene, representing the heavy sorrow Jesus bears in this moment; there is a sense of his being very close to despair.

You also notice one of the most striking elements of the composition, at least in terms of symbolism: the bright star near the top of the painting. It's hardly visible in the reproduction, only a reddish smudge, but in the original it is a small, bright sign -- a symbol of hope, enlightenment, and the promised attainment of a goal. This star is meant to be a sign to the observer -- that, despite his sorrow and weariness at this moment and the pain, suffering and death he will experience in the near future, Christ will nonetheless fulfill his mission to pay the necessary ransom for sin. The bright star surrounded by night is also a symbol for Christ himself, as in John 1:5 -- "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

Each one of Bloch's paintings in this exhibit -- the secular as well as the religious -- has the same kind of quality: rich colors, thoughtful overall composition, and loving attention paid to the symbolic details. If you happen to be in Utah in the next few months, I strongly recommend catching this exhibit. Admission is free, but you do have to sign up for a specific date and time on the website. (And do consider springing for the $3 iPad tour; there are some marvelous insights and a wealth of supplementary materials available.)


Maleah said...

Thank you for leaving your insights about the paintings. I was looking for some insight for a lesson I am preparing. It's so nice to search cyber-world and find inspiration and upliftment. Thanks for sharing.

Soozcat said...

Thanks very much for coming by and reading, and for your kind words. I hope your lesson goes well!