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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

McKendree Long

Charon Ferrying Figures Across the River Styx, c. 1966-70, McKendree Long
McKendree Long Self-portrait
ca. 1925-30
It's not all that uncommon for a trained artist, at some point in his or her lifetime, to give up art. I've known several who have done so. Usually it's for financial reasons. Sometimes it's a matter of family responsibilities becoming such a burden as to simply crowd out art. The artist no long has the time to paint, perhaps not even the interest and inspiration to do so. I've come close to that at few times, going for several months at a time without producing anything. Even now, my production is less than one-fourth what it was fifteen years ago. Let's face it, producing art is hard work. Promoting oneself and selling what one produces is nearly always more difficult than the painting process itself. Only the dedicated survive. Those without the drive to excel, seldom do. McKendree Robbins Long was one such individual.

McKendree Long was born in 1888. He grew up in the small town of Statesville, North Carolina, during the first decade of the 20th-century, the son of a state court judge. His schooling included a military academy in Oxford, North Carolina, followed by Davidson College an the Art Students League in New York. There he won a scholarship to study art in Europe where he picked up an academic style, in pursuit of a career as a portrait artist. In returning to the U.S., Long set out to establish himself first in New York, then back in Statesville. He might have succeeded, it's hard to say, but in any case, WW I intruded, sending him off to Europe once more, this time to fight the Germans. His self-portrait (above, left) from around 1925 is one of the few known pieces from this era.
The Apocalypse, McKendree Long. (Notice the portraits of historic figures.)

Vision of White Horse and Rider,
ca. 1965-69, Mckendree Long
Wars not only change the geo-political landscape wherever they're fought (never more so than after the First World War in Europe), but it changes the people who fight them as well. The war changed McKendree Long profoundly. After the war he returned home to become a minister (some sources say Baptist, others Presbyterian). By this time he was well into his thirties, and for the next thirty years, Long made his mark, not as an artist, but as a traveling tent evangelist roaming across the "Bible Belt" of the South, winning souls for Christ. It's not hard to imagine what kind of preacher Long must have been in studying his paintings done several years later. Long's Gloaming and Glimmering (below, right) from 1945 hint at the type of work he did before taking up the tent circuit.
Gloaming Glimmers, 1946, McKendree Long
Gradually, McKendree Long retired (preachers seldom just stop preaching). Gradually also, during the mid-1950s, Long returned to painting. It's not surprising that a war and thirty years preaching the gospel would make Long a different man, also a different artist, than he had been in his early years. But if the changes in Long's art mirrored other changes, he was, by then, profoundly changed. There was little or no vestige left in his work from his academic training. Though not quite painting on a folk art level, his naïve form of Surrealism tended to suggest such a complete rejection of academic "rules and regulations." Given his background as a "fire and brimstone" preacher, it's not surprising his work took on an apocalyptic flavor...actually, more than that, an end-of-this-world, out-of-this-world substantive content preaching the choice of destruction or salvation as forcefully and dramatically on canvas as under the canvas.
Untitled, undated, McKendree Long
The Damned Are Cast into the
Lake of Fire and Brimstone, 1968,
McKendree Long,
Long's Charon Ferrying Figures Across the River Styx (top) from around the late 1960s is relatively mild compared to some of his later, truly apocalyptic works such as his almost abstract "end of the world" piece (above). And at first glance, Long's The Damned Are Cast into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone has a warm, benign, "Sunday school" look but in studying Long's iconography, it is actually every bit as brutal in its righteous retribution as Michelangelo's massive conception of The Last Judgment. You might say Long was a "fire and brimstone" painter. His Vision from the Book Of Revelation, (below) from 1966, is similar but somewhat harder to decipher in its more mystical, figurative images. Long died in 1976 at the age of eighty-eight. His grandson, Ben Long, is also a painter, specializing in religious frescoes.
Vision from the Book Of Revelation, 1966, McKendree Long


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