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McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse

 

Whether preaching the Gospel through the South at tent meetings and revivals or painting biblical scenes in his vivid, highly personal style, Reverend McKendree Robbins Long, a native of Statesville, N.C., embraced his callings with a stirring passion and a visionary's zeal. That passion and that vision are at the heart of the exhibition McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse, on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art April 7 - August 25, 2002. This is the most comprehensive exhibition of Long's work ever assembled and is jointly organized by the Museum and the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College. (left: Reverend McKendree Robbins Long, c. 1961, Photograph by Ralph Tomlin, Courtesy of Ralph Tomlin)

"The interest these days is in mythic characters -- Harry Potter and Tolkien, myths and wizardry," said North Carolina artist Ben Long, a grandson of Rev. Long. "For us, the book of Revelation was as wild as anything we'd heard. His takes on those stories were delivered in these great big pictures, and he took joy in our reactions to them. Our friends would think there was something slightly crazed about them, but that wasn't the case. He just had a very fertile imagination, unfettered to express things as he wanted to express them. And he was a very devout Christian, very confident in his belief."

The exhibition's 30 works range from the traditional portraiture of his early career to later illustrations of biblical scenes painted in bright colors and with compelling detail. Many paintings focus on depictions of Revelation and Long's often politically themed visions of the Apocalypse, including his magnum opus, Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures, which imagines Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin burning in the lake of fire and brimstone, with luminaries such as Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Marlene Dietrich standing to the side, awaiting a similar fate.

Several portraits of the mysterious "Lady in Red" are also featured. A figure who occupied Long's attention for much of his career, this buxom woman was painted by Long in more than 50 portraits, as well as in a number of religious paintings. Long's obsession with the "Lady in Red," probably not his wife, stands as a provocative counterpoint to his stark beliefs about the fate of sinners. Additionally, the exhibition offers a selection of Long's hymns and writings, recordings of his sermons and several family photographs. (left: Reverend McKendree Robbins Long, The Artist at His Easel with the Woman in Red, c. 1960-65, Collection of Bob Gibson)

"With this ground-breaking exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, the North Carolina Museum of Art further enhances its reputation for bold scholarship on important but under-recognized artists," said Museum Director Lawrence J. Wheeler. "It's particularly exciting in this instance to focus on a North Carolina artist and to explore in the process the dynamic world of visionary art."

A quarter-century after his death, Long remains one of North Carolina's most original and distinctive artists, according to David Steel, exhibition co-curator and curator of European art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. "Literate and urbane, the scion of a prominent Statesville family, he spurned a comfortable lifestyle for a career as an itinerant evangelist," said Steel. "And though he was academically trained in painting, he deliberately turned his back on that training to cultivate a uniquely personal style that expressed his beliefs about contemporary culture and religion."

The son of a distingulshed family in Statesville, N.C., Long (1888-1976) expressed an interest in art at an early age. In 1908, after spending two years at Davidson College, he began formal art training at the Art Students League in New York, where he was awarded the opportunity for independent study in Europe. In London, he honed his skills at the Slade School of Art and at Sandow's Curative Institute, enjoyed the tutelage of Hungarian portrait painter Sir Philip de László, court painter to King George VI, and was influenced by the work of John Singer Sargent. Equally important to his future development was Long's regular attendance at religious services during his time in London, and though he had received the baptism as a child, he was baptized again at Charles Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1912 as a gesture of his renewed devotion to Christianity.

"Long's stay in Europe proved to be an extremely prolific and educational period," said exhibition co-curator Brad Thomas, director of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College. "Certainly he was overwhelmed with the attention his art was gaining. But in the years to follow, religion would emerge as his true passion and cancel out his years of artistic learning."

Long returned to the U.S. in 1913 as a local celebrity, married in 1914 and began his family. With the exception of his year as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, he spent nearly the next decade tying to establish his reputation in the world of art: painting portrait commissions for prominent North Carolinians, including N.C. Supreme Court Justice Cyrus B. Watson; teaching at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design; and ultimately moving his new family to Princeton, N.J., from where he commuted to a rented studio in New York to pursue his career. But in the midst of international art movements such as Cubism and Dada, Long's traditionalism did not find firm footing. Returning to North Carolina, he continued to exhibit throughout the state but soon abandoned his artistic ambitions in favor of another calling.

Ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1922, Rev. Long began a 40-year career preaching both from the pulpit and as an itinerant evangelist traveling to small southern churches and tent revivals. Because his religious views grew more fundamentalist, Long was eventually ordained as a Baptist, but in either denomination, his fiery preaching style won a large following and many converts.

During these years, Long filled notebook after notebook with his own hymns and poetry and his thoughts about theology, morality and the ever-looming Apocalypse. After World War II and the onset of the Cold War, Long became more convinced than ever that the events of Revelation were at hand. These beliefs found expression when he returned to his painting in the 1950s.

"Now in his sixties, Long allowed his pent-up artistic passion to flood onto hundreds of canvases," said Thomas. "He abandoned the ideology of his academic training and dove headlong into his obsessions. His paintings based on Revelation are colorful, raw and densely packed with tormented souls and mythical creatures in cavernous infernos. Oftentimes, several passages from scripture were combined into a picture with familiar cultural and political icons in an effort to bring ancient prophecy into a modern context so a contemporary audience might better understand it."

Ben Long recalls his grandfather's often capricious attitude toward the political figures he depicted in his paintings: "My grandfather disagreed with Eisenhower at some point and painted him in the sea of hell with his golf clubs," said Long. "My aunt told him,'Eisenhower is still our president,' and my grandfather, who was very patriotic, felt a little shame about putting the president in hell, so he put this little Dali mustache on him. That's the way he was. Whatever disagreed with him at the moment went into the picture."

The combination of religion with contemporary culture and politics not only finds its basis in Rev. Long's personal attitudes but must also be understood in a broader historical context. "When Long decided in the 1950s to paint a series of visionary religious scenes, he did so having lived through dramatic events in the wrenching transformation of the traditional South into a modern society," said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and contributor to the exhibition catalogue. "Even more dramatically, the end of World War II saw the beginning of the nuclear age, with the explosion of the first atomic bombs. The Cold War added an ongoing, unresolved conflict with the Soviet Union and the dreaded Communism that symbolized atheism to Christians.. . . Evangelical fundamentalists, especially, dwelt in the soul-terror of doomsday, seeing newly relevant biblical meanings in the threat of nuclear war or Communist dominance." (left: Reverend McKendree Robbins Long, God on His Throne Holding the Book of Seals, 1965, oil on canvas, Collection of Bob Gibson)

The earliest public viewing of Long's new works came in a retrospective exhibition at the Arts and Science Museum in Statesville in March 1962. Calling him "a skilled craftsman with keen insight in subjects under his brush," the Statesville Record and Landmark wrote in its review of this show that Long "likes to be referred to as a preacher who paints rather than a painter who preaches."

These works received some critical and popular success; for example, his 1972 portrait of Christ, He Still Loves, and Saves, was voted the most popular painting at the annual Springs Mills Art Show in Fort Mill, South Carolina. But many in Long's family ultimately viewed his paintings as an embarrassment rather than a major contribution to the history of visionary art, and shortly after his death in 1976, one son even suggested that the works be burned. In the end, the family sold dozens of canvases and stacks of panels to savvy collectors who recognized their artistic value.

In the 25 years since his death, Long's paintings have been exhibited m two small one-man shows -- at the Arts and Science Center in Statesville in 1988 and at Davidson College in 1991 -- and in thematic group shows of visionary art, including Signs and Wonders at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1989 and The End is Near! at the American Visionary Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1997-1998. While his work continues to be familiar to scholars and collectors of so-called "outsider" art, Long himself remains an anomaly in the realm of visionary artists. Though his subject matter and evangelical approach is similar to that of other better-known painters such as Howard Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan, Long was not a self-taught artist, and his more sophisticated, more ambitious compositions reflect his academic training.

"Long's career falls somewhere between the more celebrated worlds of traditional art and outsider art," said Thomas. "This unusual combination accounts for the lack of understanding of his work, but it also makes him even more interesting to study and even more worthy of this special retrospective." (left: Reverend McKendree Robbins Long, Charon Ferrying Figures across the River Styx, c. 1948, oil on canvas, Collection of Allen and Barry Huffman)

The current exhibition emerged from a growing interest in Long's work by co-curators Steel and Thomas, who first recognized their shared fascination with the artist in late 2000. "I first became interested in Long's work when I co-curated the exhibition Signs and Wonders for the Museum in 1989," said Steel. "When the Museum purchased Long's masterpiece, Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures, in 1999, I began to consider even more seriously the possibility of organizing a retrospective focused on the artist."

"I discovered Rev. Long when I came to Davidson College in 1999," said Thomas. "Long was a Davidson alumnus, and the college has 16 of his works in its collection. My initial plan was to present a comprehensive show with a modest catalogue, but when I came to the N.C. Museum of Art in Fall 2000 to install a piece of my own work for the Interiors exhibition, David Steel and I began talking about our shared enthusiasm for an exhibition devoted to Long's paintings, and everything just fell into place from there."

In conjunction with the exhibition, Steel and Thomas have prepared a full-color, 120-page catalogue that marks the first major study of Long's work ever published. The catalogue includes all the images in the exhibition, plus other works by the artist; a biography of Long, written by Thomas; and an exploration of the religious symbolism in the artist's work, written by Steel. Additionally, Charles Reagan Wilson of the University of Mississippi surveys Southern society, politics and economy from the Civil War to the Cold War and examines their impact on the region's religious life and on Long's development as both a preacher and a painter. Bill Ferris, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, contributes a foreword to the book

Our readers may also find of interest an earlier article McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse concerning an earlier exhibition at Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the North Carolina Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine


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