peacenik chapel

by Art Chantry (

IT’S hard for us to remember during thee heady days of conservative religious political activism. but, back in the 1950′s and 1960′s, the church was a bastion of liberal and progressive thought and action. religious activists dominated the peace movement beginning with the ‘ban the bomb’ movement begun in the mid 1950′s. the neighborhood church meeting room was the epicenter of the popular peace movement and the minsters, priests and lay clergy were the masterminds of the civil actions that eventually removed us from legal segregation and even the vietnam war.

AC:other famous designer/illustrators vastly influenced by matisse's "jazz" piece (just like the xtians were influenced by the stained glass chapel) were ivan chermayeff and reid miles, two of the greatest infuential masters of graphic design even to this day.

attending peace march planning meetings were always halfway between a angry mob and a church service. you were surrounded by smiling beaming young people with god on the brain following the dictates of their leadership into street battle. it was much like today, except the target was the atomic bomb and not the abortion clinic. peace, not assassination, was the goal. SSDD.

the religious left led the marches that peppered the land, always carrying home made signs that read sappy things like “war is not healthy for children and other living things”, and “today is the first day of the rest of your life”. these phrases were, in their day, actually calls to action against a common enemy. but the corporate psychedelic pop culture machine turned them into ridiculous cliches meaning nothing at all (“hang in there, baby!”)

[strangely, the phrase 'today is the first day of the rest of your life" was first uttered in public by emmett grogan, one of the leadership of the notorious DIGGERS. he was invited in the early 60's to attend a 'convention' (of sorts) in london featuring all the major thinkers and doers of the emerging underground culture. grogan stood ON the podium and gave a rousing ranting diatribe about smashing the enemy and creating a new united front. it was met with pandemonium and thunderous applause. after the racket died down, grogan announced, "that speech was first delivered to the german reichstadt by adolph hitler in 1936." there was a dead silence followed by angry booing. then grogan said, "today is the first day of the rest of your life." then he left the stage (as the crowd rushed it to get their hands on him.) talk about raining on a parade!!]

the imagery for all of these signs were also dictated by the church. these meeting halls were decorated with the religious design style of the era – tha christian banner. we’ve all seen them. if not, you can go into any christian books store in the country and still find books on “how to make” them. anybody who was a member of hi-school pep club and owned a pair of scissors was perfectly qualified to handle their creation.

AC:here are some samples from inside the book. not much there as far as color reproduction, but, the black and white examples will surely spark some recollection. try to imagine the last 50 years of american pop culture imagery and visual graphic design language without this stuff teaching us where to start....the pope recently claimed that christianity is the most oppressed religion in the world today! imagine that! the pope is now the most powerful WHINER in the world!

this style seems to have emerged from the influence of matisse. back in the 1930′s, henri matisse (the uber-famous modern artist) underwent surgery that left his eyesight impaired. in response, he decided to tackle cut paper as a medium of choice (obviously influenced by the likes of other modern artists like jean arp). he simply cut out colored shapes and created what he could still actually see. the result was one of the most popular illustration styles of the last half-century.

by the late 1940′s, matisse had created a series of illustrations and covers for magazines like VERVE that begat numerous imitators across the creative spectrum. then he released his monograph called simply, JAZZ. it was a lightning strike. from that point on, his new style was THE modernist look. it even continues to this day. it did more to launch the ‘international modern’ style and even the ‘googie’ look and ‘retro 50′s design’ than any other single look.

around 1950, shortly before his death, matisse installed his ‘chapelle du rosaire de vence’ with the famous stained glass windows. this new modern style so perfectly fit the mood of the modern church and the forwa

hinking ‘peacenik’ movement that it echoed extremely powerfully. many creative sorts in the church groups saw those images of glass and color and realized that they could do the same in cloth. it was a perfect “DIY’ appropriation into the heart of the american religious community – liberal and all. and it was so pretty!

these banners, simply by their physical locality next to the anti-war movement’s birth became the style of much of the early protest signs of the 1960′s cultural movements. monkey see, monkey do. through that channel it became adopted directly into an influence on even the fabled ‘psychedelic poster’ of the hippie era.

try to imagine the career of sister corita kent without he influence of the banners surrounding her. kent’s  style owes so much to that environment of christian banners as she does to the influence of any ‘fine art’ printmaker of the same era (even matisse himself.) through this lowest of lowbrow arenas came one of the most populist and profound visual language “dialects’ in america. those crummy fake psychedlic daisy stickers that every volkswagen in america had slapped on them back in the 60′s are a perfect example of the influence of these matisse inspired goopey christian banner art murals.

so, these fake- matisse banners with their re-interpretatin of style and meaning became the visual art of the liberal christian church of the late 50′s and early 60′s. they still exist today, but more as artifacts in the choir practice room or youth ministry offices. they are a nostalgic reminder of the distant past. still powerful and still so very wholesome.

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