The Latter-day Saints and “Stalinist Art” Revisited (Part One?)

The Latter-day Saints and “Stalinist Art” Revisited (Part One?) August 30, 2018


Mormon naïve art
“The Handcart Pioneers” (1900), by Carl Christian Anton Christensen
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)    A solid example of Mormon “Stalinist art”?


A few days ago, I posted some comments (“The Parthenon of the South Pacific?”) about a Time journalist’s passing comparison of the Hamilton New Zealand Temple to “Stalinist” architecture.


It’s a silly comparison.


A painting by John Hafen
In 1902, the LDS artist John Hafen painted “Girl among the Hollyhocks.”  Earlier, he had worked extensively on the murals for the interior of the Salt Lake Temple.

(Wikimedia Commons public domain)


However, for a few critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no negative characterization of the Church is too silly to be defended as true and damning.  And, for a tiny clique of online sufferers from Peterson Derangement Syndrome, nothing that I say can be viewed as honest or true or well-intentioned, or as anything other than an expression of my perpetually seething rage.


So a handful of these critics have been posting comparative illustrations in support of the claim that Latter-day Saint art can be fairly described as “Stalinist.”  And one enterprising sleuth even found another journalistic use of the term in which Temple Square in Salt Lake City was stupidly classed as “Stalinist.”  (I seem to recall having seen several more such comparisons over the years, but I’ll let him find them.)


The method for making the comparison stick is, evidently, to use the adjective “Stalinist” in so vague a way as to permit it to be deployed against any public art or architecture sponsored by an organization that the critic dislikes or seeks to denigrate.


Thus, for example, the Hamilton New Zealand Temple is a Stalinist revisioning of the Athenian Parthenon.  Possibly because the two buildings are white and sit atop hills and are, thus, rather striking.  Or something.


But the Hamilton New Zealand Temple (which was dedicated in 1958) has two architectural siblings and close contemporaries, the Bern Switzerland Temple (1955) and the London England Temple (also 1958).  It’s very difficult to see anything particularly “Stalinist” about either of them:


Der Bernertempel
The first temple in German-speaking Europe was this one, the Bern Switzerland Temple (actually located in Zollikofen), dedicated sixty years ago, in September 1955, by President David O. McKay.


England's first temple
The London England Temple. (LDS Media Library)


Moreover, they plainly stand squarely within an earlier (pre-Stalin!) tradition of both Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical architecture:


Kirtland Ohio Temple, no longer ours
The first Latter-day Saint temple — the first Latter-day Saint building, period — was dedicated in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836. Owing to apostasy and persecution, the Prophet and the Saints were obliged to abandon Kirtland, and the temple is no longer in the hands of the Church.

(Wikimedia Commons)


The second temple in Nauvoo
The Nauvoo Illinois Temple (dedicated in 2002) is an exact reproduction, externally, of the original Nauvoo Temple, which was dedicated in 1844.  (


Utah's oldest temple
The St. George Utah Temple, the oldest continuously functioning temple in the Church, was dedicated in 1877.  With its single tower or spire at the front of the building, it plainly reflects the design of the Kirtland Temple and the original Nauvoo Temple, which was reproduced in modern, stylized form in the Bern Switzerland, Hamilton New Zealand, and London England Temples (and continues to appear in numerous Latter-day Saint temples still today).     (LDS Media Library)


Stalin, it will be recalled, ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953.  (Side note:  I watched the blackly hilarious satire The Death of Stalin again last night, this time with my wife and friends.  There’s a lot of bad language in it, and it’s occasionally quite crude, but it’s both funny and informative, and the crudity is historically spot-on.)  Please keep Stalin’s dates in mind for what follows.


Dover NY church
The Second Baptist Church of Dover, Duchess County, New York, was originally built in the 1830s.    (Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)


The First Parish Church of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, was constructed in 1809. Please note its very Stalinist spire.

(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Such examples as these of American church architecture could be multiplied, literally, by the hundreds.  Drive through any town in the eastern United States and you’ll see them.


Another area in which, according to the loose and self-serving implicit definition of “Stalinist art” adopted by this small handful of critics, Latter-day Saint art echoes Stalinism is in its use of equestrian poses.  Anyway, one of them found a nineteenth-century painting of Joseph Smith, dressed in his uniform as Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion, reviewing the troops astride his black horse Charley.  To clinch the deal, this critic also supplies a photograph of an impressively-mustached man who is, likewise, riding a horse.  Pretty conclusive!  It may perhaps be a young Stalin, although, if I had to guess, the man actually looks like Czar Nicholas II — who died, with his entire family, at the hands of the Bolsheviks (the young Stalin’s political faction, for those who don’t know their history) at Yekaterinburg on 17 July 1918.


But here are three more equestrian statues that, by the standards of certain critics, must pretty plainly be classed as “Stalinist art”:


Marcus Aurelius on horseback
A statue of the second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, currently located in Rome’s Musei Capitolini  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


The Bamberger Reiter of Bayern
The so-called “Bamberger Reiter” (ca. 1225 AD) in the cathedral of Bamberg, in Bavaria, Germany    (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Washington on horseback
Statue of George Washington in the Boston Public Garden

(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Now, I readily admit that a lot of official Latter-day Saint illustrative art over the years has reminded me a bit uncomfortably of Soviet “socialist realism,” and that I’ve complained about that for years.  But then, official illustrations may almost need to be something of that style.  My own preferences run to the work of more or less contemporary Latter-day Saint artists such as Wulf Barsch, Franz Johansen, Trevor Southey (at least, in his Mormon years), James ChristensenDavid Linn, Gary Smith, Brian Kershisnik, and Lisa DeLong.


I may return to this amusing . . . er, I mean infuriating and enraging . . . theme in another post.  But then again, depending on my mood and whether there’s something else on which I feel more inclined to comment, maybe I won’t.


In the meanwhile, see this, from The Amish Catholic:


“Mormon Artists You Should Know”


Posted from Seaside, Oregon



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