Utah artist Arnold Friberg in his studio with his most famous painting: Prayer at Valley Forge. Courtesy Friberg Fine Art.
If you grew up as a member of the LDS Church, you'll remember this: It's a Sunday morning Sacrament meeting at the ward house. You, in your Sunday best, sit between your mother and father, dazed by the droning from the pulpit. 'Cause, right? When you're a kid, church is capital B, Boring. You open up a copy of the Book of Mormon, which is also way-over-your-head boring, so you look at the pictures—12 illustrations that depict iconic moments in the LDS church's central scripture. You spent many a Sunday engrossed in these images of muscled Nephite and Lamanite warriors, corpulent kings holding court with emaciated, chained - yet, still ripped - Nephite prophets and white-bearded patriarchs sailing across an ocean, to call out a few. Conan the Barbarian had nothing on these pre-Columbian studs.
When the talks couldn't hold your attention, which was usually, these intricate and compelling images fascinated you and gave life to the mythology of Mormonism. That, of course, is exactly what they were created to do.
The artist who painted these images, Arnold Friberg, created much more than the Book of Mormon's illustrations. He painted monarchs, presidents and princes, rubbed shoulders with movie moguls. Art historians consider him part of the golden age of American illustration.
He died at the age of 96 on July 1, 2010 and would have been 100 years old this year. A sprawling retrospective of his life’s work, called “Friberg at 100,” now on display at The Gateway, celebrates his centennial and gives scholars like Brigham Young University visual arts professor Robert Barrett the opportunity to reconsider Friberg’s work as a whole.
“You’d be stretched to say who his influences are,” says Barrett. “Was he influenced by Picasso or Pollock? Probably not. He was a bit of an anachronism in terms of all that. His big influences were the narrative painters of Europe and the golden age of illustration. It was a very democratic art form. He wasn’t trying to impress a few art critics and get his work into the Whitney. He was trying to talk to America.”
First Passover: Friberg's Moses looks a lot like Charlon Heston. Photo courtesy of Friberg Fine Art.
Of Mounties and Monarchs
Friberg was was born Dec. 21, 1913 in Chicago, but his family soon moved to Phoenix. The young talented artist started drawing cartoons at the age of 7 and later hung out with the editorial cartoonists at the Arizona Republic.
After high school, he attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and was hired by the Northwest Paper Company to create a series of patriotic paintings featuring the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, now known collectively as “The Force Paintings,” which are prominently displayed in the RCMP museum in Saskatchewan and are a fixture of rustic Canadian decorating.
His work with the Mounties led to a commission in 1988 to paint Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. But Friberg’s daughter in-law and Executive Director of the Friberg Institute, Carolyn Dominy, explains that the queen’s painting turned into a minor controversy.
“It was an 18-year process,” says Dominy of the commission to paint England’s Queen. “The RCMP had wanted him to paint the queen on horseback in her Mountie uniform at the head of a mounted regiment of officers.” But when Friberg arrived at Buckingham Palace to paint her, the queen wouldn’t don her scarlet mountie outfit. “She wanted to be painted in her riding clothes in the palace garden. So Arnold said, ‘You’re the Queen’ and painted her the way she wanted.”
Unfortunately, the painting sans mountie hat didn’t satisfy the RCMP and Friberg wound up with the painting in his own collection. Elizabeth did eventually see the 5-foot-by-8-foot painting at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and was said to have been complimentary. For his pains, Friberg was given an honorary commission in the RCMP and is one of the few non-Britons to be invited into the Royal Society of Art.
Her Majesty, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo courtesy of Friberg Fine Art.
Book of Mormon Stories
After his service in World War II (he drew maps at the front for the 86th Infantry Division in Europe), Friberg found his way to Utah in 1950 to teach at the University of Utah.
“He liked Salt Lake City,” Dominy says. “He said it ‘gave a man some room for the legs to grow.’ “
He would live in Salt Lake for the remainder of his life. This Utah move also would lead to what Barrett calls the “quintessential Book of Mormon paintings.” Which is interesting when you consider that although Friberg was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a boy, he was famously coy about his religious affiliation.
"He said he didn't like labels and that once you announce yourself as one thing, you exclude people who are another," Dominy says. "He would just say that he believed in God and the Bible and people could interpret from there."
The iconic paintings were commissioned in the 1960s, not by the official LDS Church but by the leader of the church's children's program, Adele Cannon Howells, to illustrate the church's youth magazine The Children's Friend. She paid for the 12 paintings herself.
"Howells thought children in the church needed spiritual heroes—she was a visionary," says Barrett. Howells died before the paintings were finished, Dominy says, but she left the work to the LDS Church in her will. And in the 1970s and '8os the images were included in the missionary copies of the Book of Mormon. They hang prominently in the LDS Conference Center.
"When Friberg came to BYU to for a lecture, he attracted lines of students waiting for him to sign their old blue-covered Books of Mormon," Barrett says. "He had a tremendous influence on a generation of LDS Church members."
Ready for My Close Up Mr. DeMille
Barrett recalls seeing in Friberg's studio a prominent sign reading: "I believe in God and DeMille." That's Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary Hollywood director famous for his sprawling epics featuring literally casts of thousands, most importantly one of the last such screen-chewing behemoths, The Ten Commandments.
"Friberg came up near the end of the golden age of Ame rican illustrators," Barrett explains. "And a lot of artists in this period migrated into movie work and private commissions; DeMille and Friberg were very close."
The Book of Mormon paintings, with their larger-than-life, strapping Nephite and Lamanite warriors and prophets, had caught the eye of DeMille, who in the mid-1950s brought Friberg in on the pre-production work for his sword, sandal and burning-bush masterpiece. His imagery influenced nearly every aspect of the film from set design and costumes, down to the hair and make-up Charlton Heston sported when he famously bellowed "Let my people go!" Friberg was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design for the work.
Illustrator or Artiste?
Despite Friberg's contribution to American popular culture through film, the Canadian mystique and the minds of young Mormon children sweating out a sacrament meeting, Barrett says, in the current modern art climate, it's hard to place Friberg in the larger art world.
"If you're talking to a modern art critic, they're going to dismiss him as a narrative painter," he says. "Modernism was about rejection of the past, and this idea that real art is trying create a new perception. But Friberg didn't come from that. His art is about visual communication and creating an idea of story and he was a great storyteller."
Friberg's work is so ubiquitously in the cultural background that Dominy fears people don't know enough about the man.
"There was a burden to having the gift he had," she says. "We want people to see how hard he worked and how much he produced in his life. It's quite amazing that one man did all of this."
Friberg turned his eye to the Canadian West. Photo courtesy of Friberg Fine Art.