- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

PROVO, Utah (AP) - “History will preserve much, but art alone can make the narrative of the suffering of the saints comprehensible for posterity.”

Those words, from Latter-day Saint artist C.C.E. Christensen (1831-1912), adorn a wall at a new Brigham Young University Museum of Art exhibit. In today’s information age, that statement carries as much weight as when it was written.

The MOA’s new exhibit, “Moving Pictures: C.C.A. Christensen’s Mormon Panorama,” showcases a unique set of American folk paintings that occasionally show up in various Mormon literature. Collectively, the works carry far more significance. Behind it all is the story of a man who reconciled his two passions - the church and art - after they had long been separate.

Goodbye art, hello Utah

Christensen was raised in Denmark, and trained at an art academy in Copenhagen when he met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was baptized into the faith in 1850, and largely left his art to become a missionary himself. After serving proselytizing missions in Scandinavia and Norway, Christensen immigrated to Utah in 1856. At the time there was much discussion within the Mormon community about preserving faith, and how the church collectively would be impacted by the growing membership that hadn’t experienced the church’s initial hardships.

Christensen responded through art. Some 20 years after his arrival in Utah, he revived his artistic passion, painting important moments of early Mormon history on enormous canvases. He stitched these paintings together into a lengthy scroll, which was then attached to gears that would rotate the images shown, and called it the “Mormon Panorama.” Christensen toured Utah and the surrounding region, displaying these “moving pictures” and narrating the events for Mormon audiences. The means of entertainment was fairly common at the time, creating a phenomenon that later culminated in motion pictures.

“At the time it really was a total experience,” said Ashlee Whitaker, the curator for the exhibit. “They’re one of the real gems of the BYU Museum of Art collection. He was one of the first to tell the Mormon story through paintings.”

Old technologies, modern ideas

Christensen’s series, which the Christensen family donated to BYU in the 1950s, was a major regional hit in its heyday. Reviewing one of Christensen’s displays in the 1800s, the Ogden Daily Herald wrote: “Christensen’s Grand Mormon Panorama far exceeds any romance we have ever heard of.”

Though Christensen’s original method of presentation may now seem archaic, it was remarkably forward thinking. Whitaker said Christensen saw these pieces as a way to educate LDS youth who hadn’t had to pull handcarts across the Plains.

“Which I think is really interesting, that he’s using new media in a sense to reach out to younger generations,” Whitaker said. “Because we see that with the LDS Church’s use of social media now. Our whole teaching method is changing based on new technologies.”

Kalisha Grimsman, an educator at the MOA, worked with Whitaker to pull the exhibit together. She echoed those same sentiments.

“People want to not only learn, but they want it to strike an emotional chord within them,” Grimsman said. “They want it to be emotionally resonant. And I think he was trying to accomplish both of those things with this series.”

Beauty in the imperfections

One of the most engaging things about the exhibit, interestingly, is its flaws. Christensen had some early artistic training, but by the time he painted this series he was far removed from his former artistic life. The figures in his paintings aren’t always done quite to scale, and the perspectives are somewhat warped occasionally. Much of his work has a certain rudimentary folksiness to it, but within that there’s real charm.

For preservation and display purposes, BYU separated the enormous canvas scroll into separate pieces. When viewed up close, one can see the weathered marks of its past - of the scroll being rolled up, loaded onto a wagon and taken along rough roads in winter. Grimsman said every person she’s taken through the exhibit has noticed this, which is certainly atypical.

“We forget that an art piece is an actual physical object, because we spend so much time and effort trying to preserve them and make them look pristine - and help you forget that it is historical in nature,” she said. “I think it’s important to remember that these objects existed historically, and they were part of their physical environments.”

An adopted heritage

Historically, the exhibit covers a lot of ground. From Joseph Smith’s accounts of heavenly visitations, to teaching the American Indians, to expulsions from various communities, to the Nauvoo Temple’s destruction and much more. Collectively, Whitaker said, it chronicles moments of earthly injustice as well as those of divine justice - and in turn connects the early saints to God’s covenant people in the Bible.

Christensen interviewed those who experienced these moments of triumph and tribulation firsthand, and those interviews shaped the moments he painted. That nearness is felt in Christensen’s work. He may not have been with the saints in those events he painted, but this work helps viewers get a bit closer to them, just as it did for Christensen.

“He recognized that even though he might not have lived in Ohio and Missouri, they are his stories,” Whitaker said. “And you see that in the way he throws himself into this project - it was a huge investment. This story became his story, and he wanted to pass that on.”


Information from: The Daily Herald, https://www.heraldextra.com

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