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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
His activity in the Church continued throughout his life. While directing a rehearsal of his ward choir, Vorst suffered a brain aneurism 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 Nov. 9 and will run through April 15 of next year. The museum is located in downtown Salt Lake City, directly west of Temple Square.