July 18, 2010

I'm Ready For My Closeup, Brother DeMille

abinadai_friberg_iri.jpg

The things you learn at church. So of course I knew that the late illustrator Arnold Friberg's dramatic paintings of scenes from the Book of Mormon, with ripped Nephites and Lamanites striding around the Promised Land, are lodged in every Mormon's head for the last three generations. [If you don't believe me, as you study Friberg'g painting above, go ahead and listen to this impromptu ukelele rendition of "Abinadai" by the at least somewhat LDS ska masters GOGO13, who ask the eternal question of wicked King Noah (L), "Why you got that flower pot on your head?"]

And I knew that Friberg also did the concept studies, opening titles, and some key costume designs for Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments. What I did not know is how closely those two men--and those two over-the-top religious projects--were intertwined.

friberg_brother_jared.jpg
So let it be written: Brother of Jared sees the finger of the Lord, Arnold Friberg, 1951

Friberg was commissioned to make twelve BofM paintings in 1951 for the LDS Church's children's magazine, The Children's Friend. Four ran in 1953 and four in 1954, but Friberg stepped away from the project for several years, after growing frustrated with doctrinal micromanaging of the images. [1]

friberg_moses.jpg
So let it be done: Moses and the Burning Bush, Arnold Friberg, 1954

It was DeMille seeing a portfolio of Friberg's Book of Mormon lithographs in 1954 that clinched him the The Ten Commandments gig. Friberg's illustrations were extremely close to the finished look and feel of the movie, and in the process of working on the film, Friberg and DeMille became close friends.

Which led to DeMille meeting the President of the LDS Church at the time, David O. McKay. Who invited DeMille to speak at Brigham Young University's commencement in 1957. Which he did. He basically gave a sermon about the Ten Commandments. As part of BYU's The Board, a community service--meets-Mechanical Turk resource, someone named Laser Jock retyped DeMille's entire speech from one of BYU's two surviving transcripts. It's available on PDF. He was quite a preacher. [DeMille's relationship with BYU was such that after his death in 1959, his extensive archive was donated to the university. It is in the Harold B. Lee Library's Special Collections department, which seems to be almost entirely unavailable--or even unindexed--online. Amazing.]

Anyway, Friberg went back to finish the last four Book of Mormon paintings after the film, and they were published in The Children's Friend between 1961 and 1963. But more importantly, the paintings were included in softcover copies of the actual Book of Mormon starting in 1961. Which all but put the canonical seal of approval on them, paintings essentially functioning as scripture.

There has to be several doctoral theses worth of material about the cultural and theological impacts of Friberg's religious superheros, and on the symbiotic relationship between one of classic Hollywood's most bombastic religious spectacles and one of America's most unorthodox religions. Maybe there already are.

[1] Apparently, Churchs officials [whether ecclesiastical leaders of bureaucrats, I don't know] at the time had a strong aversion to LDS artists making portraits of Christ. They had no problem with using non-LDS artists' naturalistic representations, though. After much back and forth, Friberg's solution was to only show Jesus as a tiny figure descending from the sky.

This reluctance eventually faded, and there are plenty of illustrations of Christ by LDS artists in use, and even more in circulation. But I distinctly remember the frisson of faith when the Church commissioned a new portrait of Christ, and the rumor mill began churning about why it was the most accurate ever, because it was based on Christ's ID badge for the Church Office Building or whatever. nother thesis topic, perhaps.

Brigham Young University Commencement Exercises
Commencement Address: Mr. Cecil B. DeMille
Introduced by Pres. David O. McKay
May 31, 1957
[theboard.byu.edu]
Journal of BofM Studies: The Book of Mormon Art of Arnold Friberg: "Painter of Scripture" [maxwellinstitute.byu.edu]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: July 18, 2010.

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