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McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse


The Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College, in conjunction with the North Carolina Museum of Art, is organizing the first comprehensive exhibition on the art of the late Reverend McKendree Robbins Long (1888-1976), a unique 20th century visionary artist. Raised as the son of a state Supreme Court justice in a prominent Statesville, N.C., family, Reverend Long studied painting in New York and Europe. But he abandoned his early academic approach to art to spend almost 30 years as an itinerant Baptist preacher. He finally returned to art in the final 20 years of his life to express his evangelistic fervor on canvas, and created a body of colorful, compelling paintings based on the Book of Revelation.

The Davidson College galleries will premiere this major retrospective, entitled Picture Painter of the Apocalypse, with an opening on January 22, 2002. The exhibition will remain on view in Davidson through March 1, 2002, then travel to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh for exhibition from April 1-August 25, 2002.

The exhibition will include examples of work from throughout Reverend Long's life, demonstrating how his style changed radically through the years. It includes early classical portraits that were influenced by Philip de Laszlo and John Singer Sargent. But the exhibition will focus on Reverend Long's visionary, colorful, religious works, which he painted from the mid-1950s until his death in 1976. These illustrious paintings are colorful, raw, and densely packed with tormented souls, mythical creatures, and famous 20th century people in cavernous infernos. Self-portraits and family portraits show Long and his family with Jesus Christ in paradise, while a large series of paintings is devoted to an anonymous, lusty figure known as the "Woman in Red." (left: Self-portrait in Hat and Coat, c. 1925-30, oil on canvas, 38 1/2 x 23 1/4, Collection of Ben Long)

The exhibition will also include samples of the hundreds of journals full of religious ideas, poems, and hymns Reverend Long wrote, as well as actual recordings of his preaching.

Brad Thomas, director of Davidson's Van Every/Smith Galleries and co-curator of the exhibit, said Reverend Long is an anomaly in the realm of visionary artists. Thomas said, "His work is similar to better-known Southern outsider artists like Howard Finster and Eddie Owens Martin. But most visionary artists are almost exclusively self-taught. Long is unique because his early training in the academic tradition provided him with skills to realistically render anything he could imagine onto canvas. That unusual combination of academic training and visionary subject may account for his lack of recognition, falling through the cracks between the more celebrated worlds of traditional art and outsider art."

Long's dramatic life reads like a work of fiction. Born in Statesville on July 20, 1888, he expressed an interest in art at an early age. In 1907, after spending a year at Davidson College, he began formal art training at the Art Students League in New York. As an ambitious, academically trained portraitist, Long studied in the best American and European studios during the early part of the twentieth century. But he eventually turned his back on a rapidly changing art world dominated by the Modernist movement.

He returned from Europe to his hometown in 1913 to establish himself as a portrait painter. He put his career on hold in 1917 to serve as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. Following the war he attempted to pursue portrait commissions, but ended up following his heart into the ministry. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1922, but ultimately found Presbyterian doctrines too confining. He became a Baptist in 1935, and for many years traveled the "sawdust trail," preaching a fiery gospel to congregations at churches and tent revivals up and down the East coast.

During his years in the ministry, Long filled dozens of notebooks with hymns, poetry, and ideas on theology, morality, and the ever-looming apocalypse. The many years of writing and preaching fueled his return to painting in the 1950s. Now in his sixties, Long allowed his pent-up artistic passion to flood onto hundreds of canvases. He abandoned the ideology of his early academic training, along with his youthful desire for money and artistic fame, and dove headlong into his religious obsessions.

Long's family ultimately viewed his paintings as an embarrassment rather than a major contribution to the history of visionary art, and following his death in 1976 sold rolls of canvases and stacks of panels to collectors who were quick to recognize their unique artistic value.

In the 25 years since his death, Reverend Long's work has been shown in a handful of exhibitions, most notably Signs and Wonders (North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, 1989) and The End is Near! (The American Visionary Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, 1998). Both were thematic group exhibitions curated by Davidson College alumnus Roger Manley.

The exhibition in Davidson and Raleigh will include selections from the Davidson College permanent art collection, as well as complementary works from the private collections of Bob Gibson (Greensboro), Allen and Barry Huffman (Hickory), Tony Griffin (Charlotte), the North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh), Max Jackson (Charlotte), Ben Long (Asheville), Margaret DuB. Avery (Greensboro), and the Iredell County Museum of Art (Statesville).

A 120-page, full color exhibition catalog will complement the exhibit. It will include essays by Charles Regan Wilson, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, David Steel, Curator of European art at the N.C. Museum of Art, and Brad Thomas. Wilson writes about itinerate preaching in the South, Steel explains the religious symbolism in Reverend Long's work, and Thomas writes Reverend Long's biography.


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