Here’s a painting by a guy who dared to paint Jesus Christ. Joachim Probst was his name, and he did it in the 1950s.
Probst chose what was then, as it is now, the most controversial, outside-the-mainstream subject imaginable for serious art. It’s a vagary of the post-war Weltanschauung, and a sublime irony as well, that in a big-business, big-media art world given over almost entirely to shock and irony, nothing is more shocking than an image that dominated Western art for 2,000 years. You want to snicker, Saatchi-like, at the masses as they howl before your perpetrated outrage? Then out-Saatchi Saatchi. Skip the eviscerated sharks in aspic. Skip the Virgin smeared in elephant crap, and just show them Jesus. Not Piss Jesus, not Eviscerated Elephant Crap Jesus. Just the man himself, straight up, portrayed by someone who believes or is terrified.
Mel Gibson will tell you the same thing. Well, not exactly. I don’t think his intent was to snicker at the masses. But he created a monster.
Back to Joachim Probst who seems to have been a legitimate Greenwich Village madman. Here is his brief autobiography:
“I was born September 1, 1913, in New York City. Self-taught. Through my endeavor to seek self-esteem, I became a misanthrope with a firm hand on delusion. This brilliance soon introduced me into poverty, and with so fearful a future granted me, I coined and struck this phrase, ‘Art is the stand against decay.’ And with this in mind, I entered my paradise of immortality. And with this paradise came my hell. And in hell I called on Satan.
O noble Son of God
‘Consider my madness.
I am a lunatic without an asylum,
Even a cripple without a crutch,
Surely the angels must weep for me.’
I feared, I trembled, and I painted. I stood in dark places (clothed in black) calling, ‘Would’st that I could take a sure step in a sure direction.’ Alas, Satan spoke. ‘God thou shalt never know, guilt is thy name. Art thou shalt have, best be thy lot an instrument to uphold the faith, Art thou shalt have. Sing thee Christ forever. Will is woe, woe is thy will, change “me” to “I,” brevity is thy purity—Seek the pact, turn not from gloomy madness. Despair is thy mother.’”—From an article in Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture, University of Illinois, 1959.
In the catalog for an exhibit of Probst’s work at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1962, the Rt. Rev. James A. Pike, Bishop of California, wrote:
Joachim Probst is one of the few contemporary artists who has recklessly committed himself to deal with the ultimate symbols themselves; the Christ, the Mother, King David…and Ahab. These are some of the figures he dares to paint.
“Christ painter, go away,” was the epithet hurled at Probst by some of the Greenwich Viallage habitues who paint. Our Cathedral church again pushes the lesser over and makes room for the Christ painter who uses the contemporary idiom that few others can handle with any but non-objective work. This artist with unique defining power comes among us. His Christ will cause many of us to tremble as we are confronted by Him.
Greenwich Village hasn’t changed much from the place Pike describes. And his description of Probst is very powerful, I think. Few, indeed, can deliver these images, can handle this truth in paint–Christ, King David, Ahab.
My friend Paul Weingarten, a painter, would see Probst in the Village back in the ’60s. He never spoke to him. Few people did.
So, the Christ painter. Irony trumps irony, and we see through a glass clearly. Some tremble.
Painting: February Christ by Joachim Probst