Church History Museum Features Work of German Artist Joseph Paul Vorst

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 15 November 2017

An enlarged photograph at the entrance to the Joseph Paul Vorst: A Retrospective exhibition at the Church History Museum shows the artist next to a work he did that is lost today. Depicting Joseph Smith receiving the Book of Mormon plates from Moroni, it is one of a tiny fraction of Vorst’s works with an overtly Mormon theme, yet his work is pervaded with hints of his LDS faith.  Photo by Charles Baird.

Article Highlights

  • Joseph Paul Vorst was a German-born artist who sought to uplift the suffering through his work.

Born in poverty in Germany and observing the horrors in that country attendant to both world wars, Joseph Paul Vorst became an accomplished artist and joined the Church before immigrating to the United States, where he achieved renown, with his works being exhibited widely and frequently before his 50-year lifespan was cut short in 1947.

An untitled portrait of a farmer created in 1940 by Joseph Paul Vorst exemplifies the Regionalism movement of which he and other Midwestern artists were practitioners. Photo by Charles Baird.

Now, the Church History Museum is staging what Vorst didn’t live long enough to experience in his lifetime: a retrospective exhibition of his artistic work.

Joe and His Mission, a 1941 lithograph by Joseph Paul Vorst, is an oblique allusion to the Prophet Joseph Smith and the artist’s Mormon faith. Photo by Charles Baird.

“This is Vorst’s first retrospective,” said Laura Allred Hurtado, art curator at the museum, in a preview of the exhibition for the Church News. “He worked in so many mediums—painting, drawing, watercolors, murals, mural studies, artists books, linoleum cuts, sketch books, photography, sculpture, etchings, and lithography.”

His style was shaped by two countries, from German expressionism to American scenes, regionalism, and social realism, Hurtado said.

Untitled and undated (Red House) oil on canvas painting by Joseph Paul Vorst. Like fellow artists Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth, this painting shows common features of American life. An air of loneliness and moodiness pervades, perhaps as a personal vision for modern America in the depths of economic depression, but the electrical poles in the background are suggestive of the cross and therefore hint at a hopeful redemption. Photo by Charles Baird.

“Our central theme is that he consistently looked to those who were suffering the most—the downtrodden, the oppressed, the underprivileged—and he advocated for them with compassion, hope, and sympathy.”

Such sentiments were consistent with his fervent faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His restored gospel.

Drought, 1938, oil on canvas, by Joseph Paul Vorst. The Dust Bowl was a consequence of land mismanagement and severe drought on the American prairie. Storms came in three waves—1934, 1936, and 1938–39, forcing tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Drought shows a man amid withering crops. He is on his knees, and his teary eyes look to the skies—his desperation is palpable. However, hope emerges. The ominous sky, which is typically a sign of danger, signifies relief to come. Photo by Charles Baird.

That said, he seldom treated Mormon themes directly in his work. An enlarged photograph at the entrance to the museum’s exhibition shows Vorst as a young man next to a painting he made depicting the young Prophet Joseph Smith being visited by the angel Moroni. It is one of the rare Vorst works with an overtly Mormon message.

Even so, one finds hints and allusions to Mormonism in his work, such as understated depictions of the Salt Lake Temple.

Beweinung Christi [Lamentation of Christ], 1922, linoleum cut by Joseph Paul Vorst. Jesus is depicted on the far left side of the image—His feet, legs, and torso appear only in abstracted form—while the mourners at his feet are shown in the shadow of the cross. Photo by Charles Baird.

Vorst, in fact, initially came to the United States during the Great Depression to receive his endowment in the temple. But he eventually settled in St. Genevieve, Missouri, about 45 miles from St. Louis. According to an article about him that appeared in 1940 in the Church’s Improvement Era magazine, he made Missouri his home so he could be near the sacred Church historic site, Adam-ondi-Ahman, the place where, according to revelation, Adam and Eve dwelt after they left the Garden of Eden.

Besides works of art, other items on display in the exhibition include a minute book from the Church’s branch in Vorst’s native Essen, Germany. Hurtado pointed out that the book gives a weekly snapshot of Vorst’s activities in the branch during that brief period, where he gave talks, administered the sacrament, and played the harmonium for hymn singing.

Marble Quarry by Joseph Paul Vorst. Photo courtesy of the Church History Museum.

His activity in the Church continued throughout his life. While directing a rehearsal of his ward choir, Vorst suffered a brain aneurysm that resulted in his death.

In a March 29, 2015, article, the Church News reported the Church History Department’s acquisition of a major portion of Vorst’s works from his estate in St. Louis. But holdings from the museum’s permanent collection comprise only a small fraction of the works displayed in this exhibition. It contains items borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Saint Louis Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, commercial galleries in Chicago and New York, and private collections in the United States and Germany.

The diversity of sources is a testament to Vorst’s fame and stature as an artist in his day.

Joseph Paul Vorst: A Retrospective opened November 9 and will run through April 15 of next year. The museum is located in downtown Salt Lake City, directly west of Temple Square.

In a posthumously titled lithograph by Joseph Paul Vorst, Furrowed Fields, strong geometric rays from the sky dominate the picture plane. The brightness of fractured light causes yellow shapes to illuminate out of the trees and casts bright shadows on the earth below. The work is modernist in its stylistic approach but also laden with meaning—the sun takes on a benevolent role. This motif of the expressive sky effecting the landscape below continued throughout Vorst’s lifetime. Photo by Charles Baird.

This self portrait of Joseph Paul Vorst is part of the retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work in the Church History Museum. The panel notes that he never lived to see such a retrospective exhibition, although he exhibited freely and widely. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Laura Allred Hurtado, curator at the Church History Museum, points out a timeline of the life of Joseph Paul Vorst in a new retrospective exhibition of the artist’s works, November 8, 2017. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.