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BYU museum to exhibit Danish artist's work

It was said of Carl Bloch that "his soul was so completely that of an artist that artistic representation was the only language whereby his intellectual life could correctly express itself." In his native Denmark, in the late 1800s, there was probably no artist more highly revered or appreciated.

Bloch was best known for his religious art. He had been commissioned to produce 23 paintings on the life of Christ for the King's Oratory chapel at Frederiksborg Castle, and his altarpieces for Lutheran churches in both Denmark and Sweden were so prized that churches who could not afford to commission the real thing often commissioned an artist to paint a Bloch-like altarpiece, copying his style as closely as possible.

But times and fashions change, and after Bloch's death in 1890, he drifted out of favor and became largely forgotten. The art world got caught up in modernism — a style for the new century.

Bloch was not destined to languish in obscurity, however, particularly for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the 1950s, the Improvement Era, the official church publication that was a forerunner to the Ensign, was planning a series of articles on the life of Christ, based on the writings of James E. Talmadge. As illustrations, the magazine chose Bloch's paintings from the Frederiksborg Castle.

So well-received and well-loved were the paintings, that they became a staple of LDS church illustration. By best count, says Dawn Pheysey, curator of religious art at the BYU Museum of Art, "Bloch's images have been used nearly 300 times by the church."

They've graced magazine and lesson manual covers, and been hung in LDS meetinghouses, temples and visitors' centers.

Nor is the LDS Church the only one to find value in Bloch's images; They've been used to illustrate everything from a Japanese Bible, to rosary meditations and teaching illustrations in Catholic Sunday schools, as note cards, stationery, jigsaw puzzles, calendars, embroidery kits and more.

So, Pheysey says, although many people may not recognize his name, Bloch's works have become widely known and loved by Latter-day Saints and other Christians around the world.

And now, through an exhibition at the museum, more than 30 of Bloch's original paintings and other works will be brought together for the first time.

"Carl Bloch: The Master's Hand" will feature five large altar paintings from churches in Denmark and Sweden; four that have been taken out of their altar settings for the first time since they were originally installed in the late 1800s, and one, "Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda," which was acquired by the museum in 2001.

The show also includes history paintings, portraits, landscapes, other religious paintings and etchings from Danish museums and private collections. The exhibition opens on Friday and will run through May 7, 2011.

"What the church has used has generally been in a small format. To see the originals as large and powerful as they are is an amazing experience," says Pheysey.

Head registrar Emily Poulsen was there when the Gethsamane altarpiece was uncrated. There were about 15 people around, talking and chatting, she said. The painting was face down, but as it was lifted up, "the room became deathly quiet. Everyone looked on in awe. It was a very emotional experience."

The exhibition has been about nine years in the making, says Pheysey. "Ever since we got the 'Bethesda' painting, we wondered if we could have a show." Museum folk began visiting Denmark, building relationships. "It is a common thing for museums to borrow from other museums, but to ask churches to give up an altarpiece is a real sacrifice on their part," she says.

Eventually, four churches agreed to let the museum borrow their altarpieces, but "up until summer of 2009, we didn't know if we'd have enough to put together a show," Pheysey says.

Some of the churches had large prints made to use while their altarpiece was gone; one held a contest among local art students to create an interim work of art. "The winner was a 15-year-old girl."

They are proud and happy that someone else is taking such an interest in their art, Pheysey says. "A lot of the churches with copies of Bloch's art had been replacing them with something more contemporary. But now some are re-thinking that. Bloch was not highly acclaimed at the end of his life. His paintings were deemed outdated and old-fashioned. But now a lot of people are taking another look at Bloch," she says.

And they are finding much of value, she adds. From an artistic standpoint, "his careful observation and attention to detail provided the qualities necessary to make him a great genre and portrait painter," says Pheysey. But the paintings are about more than art. "It was his tender and sensitive soul that defined his ability to portray the plights of others with kind consideration, and his deep-seated faith that enabled him to render compelling images of the Savior with devotion and love."

The Savior portrayed by Carl Bloch is strong and powerful and very masculine, she says. "Yet he is also compassionate. To get both of those in the same figure is something you don't always see."

According to museum director Campbell Gray, "Bloch's works illuminate the life and mission of the Savior with extraordinary power and insight. His paintings affirm Christ's mission of salvation and, at the same time, challenge the viewer to make the tough choices that bespeak a living faith."

Viewers who come to the exhibition will not just see the paintings, they will experience them, says museum spokesman Christopher Wilson. The museum has re-configured the Main Gallery to create the feeling of entering a church-like space. A four-minute orientation film introduces the artist and his native land, with scenes of cities, forests, fields and seascape.

The altarpieces have been set into re-creations of their church settings. Instead of benches, wicker chairs similar to those used in Danish Lutheran churches are set up in front of each for those who want to sit and ponder. "There is so much to see in each one," says Pheysey; you can look and look and see something new each time."

Because it was impossible to bring in any of the Frederiksborg Castle paintings — they are actually a part of the structure — one gallery projects some of those views onto some castle-like walls.

Other paintings and etchings are displayed; there's also a case showing how the church has used some of Bloch's images.

For an even-more interactive experience, patrons can rent an iPad for $3 that is pre-loaded with an app with "multiple segments that contextualize the paintings by showing their original locations in Denmark, explain the nuances of each work within its Biblical setting, and educate viewers about specific artistic techniques and their significance," says Wilson.

It is truly a one-of-kind experience, he says. "This is the first time the altarpieces have ever come out of the churches, ever been together in the same room. They will be here for a short time and then gone."

And at the end, perhaps you will agree with 19th-century Danish art critic Karl Madsen, who noted that Bloch "reached higher toward the great heaven of art" than anyone else.

"If there is an Elysium, where the giant, rich, warm and noble artist souls meet, there Carl Bloch will sit among the noblest of them all!"

If you go:

What: Carl Bloch: The Master's Hand

Where: BYU Museum of Art

When: Nov. 12-Mar 7, 2011; extended hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.

Admission: Free, however visitors must register for tickets online before their visit

About the artist

Carl Heinrich Bloch was born in 1834, one of 10 children of a devout merchant family in Copenhagen, Denmark.

As a young boy, he wanted to be a naval officer and enrolled in a preparatory school. "But when he got there, he found his true passion was art," says Dawn Pheysey, curator of religious art at BYU's Museum of Art. "He neglected all his other studies, and failed his final naval exam."

That did not please his mother; who worried about his ability to make a living and figured he would only find a life of poverty and despair, she says.

Nevertheless, at age 15 Bloch entered the Danish Royal Academy of Art, where he did well and was awarded a travel scholarship to Italy, where he stayed for several years to study the Masters.

While there he was commissioned by the king of Greece to do a painting commemorative the recent Greek War of Liberation. His "The Liberation of Prometheus" attracted attention not only in Greece, but also in Denmark, which had recently lost a war and some territory to Prussia. "It gave them a feeling that they would be great again," says Pheysey. Two studies from that painting are part of the "Master's Hand" exhibition.

It was that prominence that led to the commission to paint the images for Frederiksborg Castle, a project that took 14 years. He was also commissioned to paint altarpieces for eight churches.

Bloch married while in Italy; he and his wife, Alma Trepka, had eight children and had a happy and prosperous life, until her death in 1886.

In all Bloch produced more than 250 paintings and 75 etchings during his lifetime in a variety of genres, but he always viewed his religious paintings as his most important. "God helps me," he once said; "that's what I think, and then I'm calm."