“From earliest childhood I have loved Jesus Christ and wanted to serve him,” said Warner Sallman, and serve him he did—to over 500 million mostly Protestant consumers between 1940 and 1984. The Head of Christ is perhaps the world’s most popular image, bringing wallet-size comfort and protection to millions of U.S. soldiers in World War II courtesy of the Salvation Army and the YMCA, inspiring countless conversions and reportedly weeping tears of blood in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1979. It has been admired as “a true portrait of Christ,” a perception verified by devotees in actual visions of the savior. Most importantly, it has provided solace when the going gets tough and paved the way for millions of worshipers to a greater intimacy and communion with the Lord.
The six essays that make up this book address different questions raised by Sallmania, exploring the whys and hows of his oeuvre’s astounding success. Sallman seems uniquely chosen to have served Christ as an artist: The son of devout Swedish immigrants, young Warner was tutored in painting by his carpenter father. He studied commercial art at the Art Institute of Chicago, then went on to work for some of Chicago’s top advertising agencies. There he mastered that most American of skills: the creation of images which can be all things to all people. Mimicking Hollywood glamor shots of the time and creating a feeling of immediacy by following the conventions of contemporary portrait photography, Sallman conjured a Christ which could express whatever an individual’s needs dictated. Sallman, though seemingly very sincere, knew not to change the formula when classic Coke was what people wanted: Most of his other famous images feature an identical head of Christ atop a differently postured body in a different setting.
While legions flocked to Sallman’s Jesus, various Protestant factions wrung their hands. Liberal Protestants were embarrassed by it, preferring abstraction, the alienated, revelatory “thinking-man’s art.” African-Americans and others were angered by its ethnocentrism. Intellectuals saw it as a debased and dangerous product of the proto-fascist culture industry. Alfred Barr, founder of MOMA and son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, in a buried chapter of his life issued a report from a commission he founded under the auspices of the National Council of Churches’ Department of Worship and the Arts. The proclamation called popular images of Jesus “art on the level of cosmetic and tonic advertisements,” adding, “They call for iconoclasm.” With 14 color and dozens of black-and-white reproductions, this book is a delight for anyone interested in religious iconography, Caucasian culture or popular art. MH
Publisher: Yale University
Hardback: 247 pages