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39 Do You Know This Man? DANIEL ZALEWSKI What did Jesus look like? Think for a second: Most likely, your mind will conjure up airbrushed golden locks, a silky beard, and baby blue eyes. Yet another reproduction of Warner Sallman's 1940 painting Head of Christ will have permeated your brain. Sallman's portrait may be bad art (one critic has called it a "pretty picture of a woman with a curling beard"), but, for better or worse, the image has cornered our consciousness. How did Sallman's Savior become so popular? A new essay collection, Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman (Yale), edited by Valparaiso art historian David Morgan, tries to answer that question. Rather than defend Sallman's work on aesthetic grounds, the essays trace the social history of one of American art's most beloved (and reviled ) images. Warner Sallman was a devout Christian and a commercial artist who designed everything from advertising flyers to magazine covers for religious publications. Though he attended the tony Art Institute of Chicago, Sallman was most comfortable with the language of advertising. (A shiny copyright symbol can be found emblazoned on the original canvas of Head of Christ.) In the Twenties, his commercial instincts found a welcome home in the evangelical movement-which understood that you had to sell the Savior to fill increasingly empty church pews. Though Sallman's image might have been heavenly, his inspiration was terrestrial. The Head can be found in full-bodied form in French artist Leon Lhermitte's 1892 painting of Jesus, The Friend of the Humble. In the December 1922 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, Sallman saw a black-and-white print of the work and produced a colorized version before contacting the Golden Trumpet Company, a maker of Christian art objects that had been scouting around for a new trademark image. Over the years, Sallman and the Trumpeters produced an entire line of Jesus paintings with the same interchangeable head-often simply cutting the face from one picture and pasting it on the next. Critics, particularly liberal Christian theologians, have long disparaged Sallman's Jesus as a cheap "matinee idol," and it's easy to see why. The Hollywood halo, the rigid studio pose, the honey-glazed lighting-the composition of Head of Christ comes straight from the devotional world of celebrity publicity stills. Sallman jettisoned all historical background and narrative detail from Lhermitte's painting, opting instead for a close-up of Christ, whose limpid eyes upturn with Garboesque glamour. Is it a coincidence, Morgan asks, that Sallman's Head was painted during the glory days of the movie-star pinup? In Reprinted by permission from Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, published in New York. E-mail: 76200.414 @ Originally published in Lingua Franca, May/June 1996. Copyrighted Material 254 Daniel Zalewski Morgan's view, the "photographic rhetoric" of Sallman's work largely accounts for its success : Head of Christ was frequently sold in wallet-size form (at 50 cents a dozen), to be tucked into one's billfold right next to family snapshots. At its peak, Sallman's Head of Christ could be found stamped on bookmarks, calendars, and stickers-even night lights. And during World War II, the Salvation Army and the YMCA supplied millions of American servicemen with tiny reproductions of Sallman's painting, complete with a prayer on the back. While Sallman's detractors saw a feminized figure in Head of Christ, those who carried the image with them into foxholes and trenches perceived a manliness that contemporary eyes may find difficult to see. According to Utah religion professor Colleen McDannell, this strength-by-association allowed Sallman's depiction to break free from the limited women's market, becoming so successful that 14 million copies were sold by 1943. (By now, that number has passed one billion.) To the liberal Christian clergy and seminary theologians, however, Sallman's success was a spiritual calamity. In 1956, the philosopher Paul Tillich fumed against what he called Sallman's "Sunday school art," declaring that "the religious art of capitalist society reduces the traditional religious symbols to the level of middle-class morality and robs them of their transcendence." Sally Promey documents the various ways in which liberal Christian leaders tried to ward off religious kitsch. The Methodist magazine Motive, for example, sponsored a sale of "Original Works of Art!" in 1958, in response to the "reprehensible custom of collecting art via the printing press...


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