Museum of art serves up taste of BYU collection

With the opening of two new exhibits, the BYU Museum of Art is now serving the primary purpose for which it was built.

"150 years of American Painting" and "C.C.A. Christensen's Mormon Panorama" opened in the 11-month old museum on Aug. 27, exhibiting some of BYU's collection of 14,000 art pieces. The treasure has been buried in storage, for the most part, for lack of an appropriate place on campus for its display.The 100,000-square foot museum provides a magnificent setting for the unveiling of part of the treasure - 73 paintings by 56 artists representing some of the best work done in America from 1794 to 1944, and 22 of Christensen's 23 "Panorama" paintings depicting Church history. The exhibits are open to the public free of charge from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except holidays, until September 1995.

While the museum was built to house the BYU art collection, it opened with "The Etruscans," a six-month-long exhibit of the ancient civilization on loan from the Vatican Museums in Italy.

In putting together the exhibit on American painting, BYU Museum of Art senior curator Linda Gibbs kept in mind the university setting. She made a commitment towards education rather than a display that would be just an esthetic experience.

She wants people who see the exhibit "to understand there is more than meets the eye, literally, in a painting. We want people to take the time to go beyond the superficial layers of meaning."

To help, Sister Gibbs has used labeling beyond the names of the painting and the artist. Each room is labeled with information describing the general nature of the art it contains. Then every piece is labeled with a paragraph about the artist and the painting. Selected paintings have extended labels, adding more detail. There is also a catalog available that contains copies of the exhibit's paintings and information about each as well as the artists.

Sister Gibbs' preparation for the display began before the museum was built. A student at BYU in the early 1970s, she began her work on the exhibit for the future museum in 1988 while also pursuing a doctorate in New York City. She was also a curator at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.

"American art is the strength of the BYU collection," she said, explaining its selection as the school's first exhibit at the museum.

She went through the BYU inventory and picked out names of significant artists. Then she selected their best works for display. She decided on a chronological display and it just happened to cover 150 years.

Most of the paintings were recently cleaned and put in new frames that represent the period of each painting. The various color schemes used on the walls where the paintings hang identify with the art in that room. Lighting generally is soft, but spotlights ensure the art is well lit. Classical music adds to the atmosphere.

The works represent such styles and movements as the Hudson River School of landscape painting, American impressionism, tonalism, and regionalism. It follows a trend of art from realism to modernism. It shows the shift from heroic painting to the "sideshow" paintings.

The exhibit is full of contrasts. For example, on opposite walls of the same room hang the dark Portrait of a Gentleman (undated), by William Merritt Chase, influenced by the Munich School in Germany, and In the Sun (1899), by Julian Alden Weir, which is a bright, outdoor painting of the artist's 9-year-old daughter in a white dress. The contrast is even evident in comparing the works of the same artist. The only still-life in the show is one by Emil Carlsen, Still Life with Goose (1883). The artist was considered one of the greatest still-life painters of his day. But then he turned to American impressionism, painting landscapes and seascapes such as Misty Sea (undated), which is also part of the exhibit.

Sister Gibbs also noted there is a unity in American art because many of the artists knew each other and often trained together. That training, she said, for many was outside the country, so the influence of many foreign styles is evident in American art.

Some of the art in the show is by artists who were members of the Church. Grain Fields (1890) is by Edwin Evans from Lehi, Utah, whose training in Paris, France, was financed by the Church in exchange for his work, upon his return, on the murals in the Salt Lake Temple. Mahonri Young, a grandson of Brigham Young, known primarily as a sculptor, also produced paintings with a "labor" theme, Sister Gibbs said. His painting, The Pavers, hangs in the show.

Sister Gibbs pointed out that the exhibit is not a complete survey of American art; "There are gaps." The paintings are not all done by American artists, either, she explained. "But what is more American than someone from another country who trained in another country and then came here to do his thing?"

Charles Christian Anton Christensen was one such artist. He was born in Denmark and trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He earned his prominence as a Mormon artist after immigrating to Utah by painting "Mormon Panorama," depicting scenes from early Church history.

The 22 remaining paintings from the panorama share the museum's ground floor with "150 Years of American Painting."

Christensen's paintings are 61/2 feet by 10 feet in size and were originally sewn together for a show that was a predecessor of motion pictures, according to Dawn Pheysey, the exhibit's curator.

Panorama's were popular in the 19th century, Sister Pheysey said. Paintings would be scrolled in front of an audience while a narrator described the scenes, usually a kind of travelog or description of military battles.

Christensen saw the panorama as a way to share the gospel with others. He wanted a new generation of children to be inspired by their religious heritage, according to Sister Pheysey.

Starting with seven paintings in 1879, Christensen loaded the panorama on a wagon and traveled to communities in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona. He eventually added more paintings until he had 23. The first painting was lost when damage turned it to threads because it was on the outside of the roll.

Christensen put on his show in schools and churches. He carried a frame on which to hang the scroll of paintings. He narrated the show himself while a pianist accompanied, often with his son, Charles John, winding the scroll. Christensen liked to involve the audience, Sister Pheysey said, and would have its members sing hymns to go along with some of the paintings.

When he decided to stop traveling with the show, Christensen sold it to Charles John for $100.

Sister Pheysey talked about the importance of the art of the Christensen panorama, which was donated to BYU, still in a scroll, by his family in 1953. She said it is a depiction of the history of the Church from a 19th century perspective and it is one of the few panoramas that are still around. Most, she said, were separated and sold as individual paintings.

Sister Pheysey pointed out that Christensen had never seen most of the scenes of Mormon history that he painted. But he interviewed people who had actually been there to try to ensure accuracy.

"As he would exhibit his paintings, if someone who had been there said, `It was more like this,' he would change it," Sister Phesey said. Still there are some problems with accuracy, she added, whether through misinformation or artistic license.

Sister Pheysey said Christensen's training was interrupted when he was learning about figure drawing, and so the people in his paintings are not considered great artwork. But, she mentioned, he was strong on perspective and detail. In his narration of the panorama, he would often identify people in the paintings by name and talk about their significance in the painting and Church history.

On Mondays and Fridays, the BYU museum is staging a panorama theatrical presentation to let visitors experience the art form. Rather than scrolling the paintings, slides will be shown on a screen. An actor will narrate, using a script by Charles John Christensen, while a woman in period costume will accompany on a 19th century square piano. The rods holding the BYU panorama's screen are the originals used by Christensen to scroll the paintings during his shows.

Christensen's paintings were donated to BYU in 1953 and were cut into individual parts and framed in 1970. Then they were displayed at the Whitney Museum in New York City. They have also been displayed at the Museum of Church History and Art and have been featured in art magazines. Sister Pheysey said BYU continues to receive requests to use copies of the paintings in academic text books as well as Church books.

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