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Church History

Museum

“Much Greater Things”: Sacrocubism and Jorge Cocco Santángelo

By Laura Allred Hurtado

Jorge Cocco Santángelo was born in 1936 in Concepción del Uruguay, Entre Ríos, Argentina, an Argentine city that lies on the western shores of the Uruguay River, just south of Paysandú, Uruguay. Raised Catholic, Cocco married Myriam Verbauwen in February 1962. They joined the Church in June of that year, becoming Argentine Mormon pioneers. The first members in their city, they were baptized by missionaries who were serving in Uruguay but felt impressed to cross the river to find someone to teach. At the time of their conversion, church meetings were held in the missionaries’ apartment.

In 1965 the family moved to Buenos Aires to advance Cocco’s art career, and in 1976 they moved to Ibiza, Spain, which allowed him to work as a graphic designer and to have quick access to some of the most important museums throughout Europe. In 1984 another move came, this time to Puebla, Mexico, where Cocco taught drawing, painting, etching, and art history at the Universidad de las Americas. In 1991, after 15 years abroad, the family returned to Argentina. While living on three different continents, they had served the Church in many capacities, often witnessing (and assisting in) an area’s growth as it progressed from branch to ward to stake.

It is natural, then, that there were already several works by this prominent Latin American artist in the Church History Museum collection by the time I discovered him. The earliest are two abstract paintings, The Covenant (1976) and The Voice That Cries from the Dust (1976). The Covenant depicts an abstracted, stone-sculpted face with one arm raised to the square. Four circles drawn near the top of the composition represent the three degrees of glory and outer darkness. Two doorways depicted near the bottom suggest the two-way promise associated with covenant making. 

After those early painting acquisitions, three more works eventually came into the collection: Moroni in the Cave (2003), The Waters of Mormon (2004; acquired as a purchase award from the 7th International Art Competition), and No Poor among Them (2005; acquired from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies). These works show a dramatic shift in style from the 1976 paintings. They are narrative illustrations and part of a series of works by Cocco that depict figures from the Book of Mormon dressed in a Mesoamerican-influenced style. 

I first became aware of Cocco’s work during the 10th International Art Competition, Tell Me the Stories of Jesus, which opened in 2015. His submission, The Call, depicts a blue sky filled with sharp, triangular patterns of various shades of blue. The lightest part of the sky is nearly white, with diagonals that frame Christ, who is also dressed in white. He stands in the foreground, His arm extended as He beckons toward Simon Peter and Andrew: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”1

The painting is interesting because of its ability to hold two styles simultaneously—it is narrative enough that the biblical story requires little guesswork from the viewer, but it also has a clear reference to modernist styles in its treatment of color blocks, the strong use of primary shapes, and a visual reliance on geometry. While narrative art and modern art are often perceived as opposites, Cocco seems to have achieved something of an accord. 

The new work was a clear synthesis of his earlier, somewhat dichotomous work. Cocco calls his style sacrocubism because of his use of sacred subject matter and the clear influence of cubism, an early 20th-century art movement most closely associated with Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. The sacrocubist works don’t abstract the picture plane to the extent that the early 20th-century modernists did, nor do they show multiple perspectives at once. Rather, they tend to draw specifically on synthetic cubism, a late phase of cubism where objects are reduced to the most essential attributes, to those elements that characterize them absolutely and without which they would not be what they are.2 Similarly, what sacrocubism does is move the viewer’s attention away from superfluous details—textures of fabric, the accuracy of historical backgrounds, or the impossibility of capturing an exact likeness of Christ—by depicting simple shapes that allow the viewer to focus on the most essential and most holy aspects of the sacred events themselves. Everything else is left out. 

The style was just as much a spiritual choice as it was an artistic one for Cocco: “In sacrocubism,” he said, “beyond the obvious, other aesthetic experiences can also be discovered, and even when these are not realized consciously, they are perceived spiritually.”3 Returning to The Call as an example, the arm of Christ forms a 90-degree, right angle, with one line pointing to the boat and the other, with the assistance of a deep blue line, pointing toward heaven. 

Continuing to explore sacrocubism, Cocco explained: “The decision to use cubism for the story of the New Testament, and specifically the life of Christ, was made because all the events of [the life of] Jesus Christ have several levels of interpretation. Most people listening to the parables and miracles do not [understand] more than the surface of the event at first . . . [because] the miracles, life, and plan of God are sometimes hard to comprehend in full, and in some ways, they seem surreal to us. They are somewhat abstract, and we don’t fully comprehend the ramifications and the depth of every teaching of the Savior. But in reality, Jesus Christ was teaching much greater things. . . . Cubism allows me to play with the composition in such a way that it can express a much deeper level.”4

This effort to convey the essence of these powerful stories, the “much greater things,” was significant for me as a viewer and as a Christian. The simplicity of the forms—the aim of getting to the deepest meaning of the story—felt extremely significant and refreshingly new. So I, like curators before me, reached out to Cocco with a purchase award for The Call. From that conversation sprang a larger discussion regarding Cocco’s desire to produce a series depicting sacred events from Jesus Christ’s life as recorded in the New Testament. Ultimately, 21 works were commissioned. The exhibition, Jorge Cocco Santángelo: Sacred Events from the Life of Christ, showcases these new acquisitions. 

From the daughter of Jairus being raised from the dead to the blind man receiving his sight, Christ healed the sick and the weary, taught profound and transformative truths, and offered His life. But these individual stories do not end with just a single person being healed or with a single miracle being performed. Rather, taken together, they witness the eternal and essential truth that Jesus Christ has the power to heal all humanity—deeply, profoundly, personally.
 

Footnotes

[1] Matthew 4:19.

[2] See “Cubismo” (Spanish), Wikipedia, accessed May 4, 2018, wikipedia.org; see also “Cubism” (English), Wikipedia, accessed May 4, 2018, wikipedia.org.

[3] Jorge Cocco Santángelo, interview, conducted by Laura Allred Hurtado and Chad Carr, Feb. 23, 2018, Church History Museum, Salt Lake City.

[4] Jorge Cocco Santángelo, interview.