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David Noll


Going to Hell

The command "go to hell" has a fine literary and artistic pedigree. Exiled on Patmos, Saint John the Evangelist dreamed of the second coming of Christ and the suffering that the end time would bring for disbelievers. "In order that the bliss of the saints may be more delightful," wrote Aquinas, "it is given to them to see perfectly the punishment of the damned." Gregory the Great, Roger Bacon, Langland, Dante, and Milton all took up the theme. In the visual arts, a handful of names—Michelangelo, Signorelli, Dürer, Blake, Jim Dine—suffice to indicate the diversity of figures who have found a fertile subject in the suffering of the wicked.

After last fall's terrorist attack, the satiric newspaper The Onion printed an article titled "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell." "I was promised I would spend eternity in Paradise," says a Qaeda terrorist, "but instead, I am fed the boiling feces of traitors by malicious, laughing Ifrit." Ha ha, we chuckle, half believing the article, half repulsed by our own instinctive acceptance of the image.

The paintings of the Reverend McKendree Robbins Long, the subject of a new exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, are similarly grotesque, comic, and ultimately disturbing. Long, an itinerant Baptist preacher and evangelist by trade, made large, complicated paintings that show John's Apocalypse, the rewards for Christians in heaven, and the pains of hell. Long's subjects range from God on His Throne Holding the Book of Seals and The Good Shepherd to Like the Torture of a Scorpion and Death Rides a Pale Horse; his paintings feature an odd cast of politicians, celebrities, skeletons, angels, glowing Christians, and benighted disbelievers. Jesus and Satan regularly appear.

Long's apocalyptic scenes—cartoonish and awkward—bear all the marks of the self-trained "outsider" artist. In many of his works, the sense of perspective does not hold, objects are out of proportion, and characters seem to break through the front of the picture ...

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