My mother told me this story of a man she knew in college named Ahab Probst. She knew his father had been a fairly successful artist, and I suspected a name like that couldn’t be that hard to dig up. A bit of googling, and I found this:
To be honest, I’ve never really delved into religious art. Walking around the Uffizi trying to find a John the Baptist that doesn’t look either wasted or hungover is alway a good time, but I don’t know the stories very well and, even if I did, it’s a bit like going into a museum of stills from all the most horrifying moments in Game of Thrones.
That’s why it was so interesting to find an artist working with religion in my very own century. An artist working in a country with no state religion, working on piece only really understood a rapidly shrinking area of the population. Probst was born in the early 1900s, gained minor fame (controversy) in the 60’s painting subjects nobody wanted to be reminded of. The art world was embroiled in abstracted self-expression and the Warhol-driven trend of superficiality. It had been a long time since biblical scenes were lauded as fine art on a national level.
Maybe internalizing the tendencies of the Pollack-led Abstract Expressionists, Probst’s Christianity is much more about the individual’s relationship with faith than any mythology. Probst wrote about his own experience with art and religion in detail: “Alas, Satan spoke. ‘God thou shalt never know, guilt is thy name. Art thou shalt have, best be thy lot an instrument to uphold the faith, Art thou shalt have.” The painter found in art a way of escaping the hell of the earth, having despaired of finding heaven in life or death. While ideally no one ever would be able to relate to this, we’ve all had moments of overwhelming self-doubt, wondering where to access some small moment of immortality.
I wonder if expressionism might be the best strategy for presenting religious-themed art to a secular population. The magic of Probst is the universality of his subjects. His Jesus and his self portrait don’t look remarkably different, since features aren’t the focus. His works don’t tell stories or reference the symbolism of each saint, they center around the ability of color and paint to communicate the emotion behind the character.
Not only can viewers get behind Probst’s work on an emotional level, but it could be a path for the secular to relate to religion, and vice versa. Like Probst and Jacopo express the glory of Jesus in different languages, so the secular and religious express their faith. Expressionism accesses the common thread of human experience, applicable to religion, landscape or portraiture. It’s a great example of how art can communicates across cultural divides.
Now, Joachim Probst isn’t a family name, so maybe I’m way off base and applying expressionism to religion doesn’t help it be understood at all. However, take a look and see if you don’t see it. Even the fact that it wasn’t widely received is a lesson in the cultural attitude of the time. Art doesn’t have to be widely known to deserve a moment considering our heritage; it just needs a reaction.
Liking religious portraiture? El Greco’s apostles took my breath away in Toledo.
Liking gloomy expressionism? Nobody’s got moody tortured gloom like German Expressionists like Max Beckmann.