Author Archives: Suse Cairns

About Suse Cairns

Digital Content Manager @artBMA. I'm an Australian living in Baltimore, geeking out on museums, art and music. I podcast at museopunks.org.

BMA Voices: Reflections on Christmas

Eugène Samuel Grasset (French, 1841‑1917). Drawing for Harper's Magazine: Christmas. 1889. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The George  A. Lucas Collection, purchased with funds from the State of Maryland, Laurence and Stella Bendann Fund, and contributions from  individuals, foundations, and corporations throughout the Baltimore community, BMA 1996.48.13255

Eugène Samuel Grasset (French, 1841‑1917). Drawing for Harper’s Magazine: Christmas. 1889. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The George A. Lucas Collection, purchased with funds from the State of Maryland, Laurence and Stella Bendann Fund, and contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations throughout the Baltimore community, BMA 1996.48.13255

Suse Cairns, Digital Content Manager

It is strange to spend Christmas in a country on the other side of the world. In Australia, where I am from, Christmas means summer. It is sweltering hot days, and swimming at the beach. It is sunburn, and stickiness. It is sometimes a roast lunch, but just as often a barbeque outdoors, or a seafood platter. It is not a place where Christmas looks like the movies; like Home Alone or Love Actually, all snow and decorations. Rather, Santa Claus often dons shorts and goes surfing when I see him back in my sunburnt country.

Living in Baltimore, then, is a revelation. Here, December brings cool weather, and the possibility of snow. The lights of 34th Street in Hampden sparkle. The streets look and feel like every fictional Christmas scene I’ve ever imagined. It is like living in a dream.

Until I moved here to work at the BMA in May, I didn’t realize just how much my ideas and images of the world had come from America; from the films and fictions made here, from the artists, whose work I had grown up with, but rarely seen in the flesh before now. My ideas about what Christmas “should” look like are all grounded in America. I have friends who write from home, asking whether the streets and houses really are as decorated with lights and decorations as they always were in the media. And, of course, the answer is yes.

I find inspiration in Drawing for Harper’s Magazine: Christmas by Eugène Samuel Grasset for two main reasons. The first is that the image itself is beautiful in its simplicity, and its detail. The second is that it reminds me yet again of how close to the center of the world I moved when I came to Baltimore. Harper’s Magazine is “the oldest general-interest monthly in America,” dating back to 1850. So many important and influential writers have graced its pages; writers like Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Mark Twain. These are the people who have written books that shape the way we see the world – even in Australia.

The artists in the BMA’s collection, too, are those whose influence has traveled incredibly far. To be in a museum with the largest collection of Matisse’s in the world is humbling.

This Christmas will be unlike any I have ever experienced. No one will be out in the yard batting a cricket ball around. There won’t be kangaroos hopping through the paddocks. But I don’t think things will be too unfamiliar… I’ve grown up imagining a wintery American Christmas as long as I can remember.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

People’s Choice Award: No. 7

Georgia O'Keeffe. Pink Tulip. 1926. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn, BMA 1964.11.13. © The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Pink Tulip. 1926. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn, BMA 1964.11.13. © The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

To celebrate our 100th Anniversary, we invited everyone to vote for their favorite artwork from a group of 100 selected by the Museum’s chief curator.

Your 7th favorite work in the BMA collection is Georgia O’Keeffe. Pink Tulip. 1926.

People’s Choice Award: No. 8

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Paul Gauguin. Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango). 1892. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.213

To celebrate our 100th Anniversary, we invited everyone to vote for their favorite artwork from a group of 100 selected by the Museum’s chief curator.

Your 8th favorite work in the BMA collection is Paul Gauguin’s “Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango)“, 1892.

People’s Choice Award: No. 9

John Frederick Kensett. View on the Hudson. 1865. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Mrs. Paul H. Miller, BMA 1942.4

John Frederick Kensett. View on the Hudson. 1865. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Mrs. Paul H. Miller, BMA 1942.4

To celebrate our 100th Anniversary, we invited everyone to vote for their favorite artwork from a group of 100 selected by the Museum’s chief curator.

Your 9th favorite work in the BMA collection is John Frederick Kensett. View on the Hudson. 1865.

People’s Choice Award: No. 10

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Princess Anna Alexandrovna Galitzin. c. 1797. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, BMA 1938.192

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Princess Anna Alexandrovna Galitzin. c. 1797. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, BMA 1938.192

To celebrate our 100th Anniversary, we invited everyone to vote for their favorite artwork from a group of 100 selected by the Museum’s chief curator, with voting closing on December 21. From today, we’re counting down the top 10 works of art, one each day until the end of the year.

Your 10th favorite BMA artwork is Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Princess Anna Alexandrovna Galitzin. c. 1797.

BMA Voices: The impossibility of standing in the same river twice

Zoe Leonard. Untitled (detail). 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA  2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard. Untitled (detail). 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Suse Cairns, Digital Content Manager

It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transience of beauty should interfere with our joy in it… Nor can I understand any better why the beauty and perfection of a work of art or of an intellectual achievement should lose its worth because of its temporal limitation. A time may indeed come when the pictures and statues which we admire to-day will crumble to dust, or a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets and thinkers, or a geological epoch may even arrive when all animate life upon the earth ceases; but since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.
Sigmund Freud, On Transience, 1915

Sigmund Freud’s On Transience, written during wartime, and translated in the excerpt above by James Strachey, asks us to consider whether the transience of any object of beauty – be it an art object, a season, or human beauty – makes it less valuable; whether the fleeting nature of summer or an aging face destroys the worth of its beauty. Is something less precious if it is only short-lived?

It is an interesting question to ask when visiting an art museum, where through care and conservation the changes that time brings are slowed down or arrested, in order to allow generations to come to appreciate and study the objects. As institutions that enable cultural perpetuation, museums hold onto objects of great beauty and great significance, many of which are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Such objects gain value from the many meanings and lives and interpretations they’ve had. In museums, time slows down and collapses upon itself.

Perhaps because of this, one object that gives me pause every time I see it is Zoe Leonard’s Untitled, 1999-2000, located in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing. The piece, which Helene Grabow spoke about previously, is made up of seven fruit skins that, after the artist consumed their flesh, were sewn back into their original shapes. The peels now slowly decompose. It is impossible to know how long they will last, or whether the piece will look the same or be changed the next time you visit it.

I love this work of art, because it makes no pretence at permanence. Instead, Leonard has captured something vital; the notion that every moment is precious, even those that are challenging, precisely because they are fleeting. As the old saying goes, it is impossible to stand in the same river twice. I have rarely found an artwork that makes me so aware of the changing nature of time and life as this one.

Freud argues that transience increases the value of beauty, because such beauty becomes imbued with a scarcity value as well, and I think that’s true of Leonard’s work. While some works of art can seem unchanging each time you visit them, perhaps leading to a certain complacency – a sense that there is no urgency to again see a piece of art you once saw and loved, because it will be the same next time – the knowledge that Leonard’s work is going to change increases the attention I pay to it, and the frequency with which I visit it. Each time I look at it, I know that it is my only chance to experience the piece exactly as it is at that moment.

Of course, that is true of all art. The experience of seeing a work of art is always different, because even when it hasn’t changed, you have.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Zoe Leonard. Untitled. 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA  2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard. Untitled. 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

BMA Voices: Learning about a 100 year old mask from Papua New Guinea

Biwat peoples (Papua New Guinea). Mask. Early 20th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alan Wurtzburger, BMA  1955.251.40

Biwat peoples (Papua New Guinea). Mask. Early 20th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alan Wurtzburger, BMA 1955.251.40

This post is by Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, former Associate Curator for African Art and Dept. Head of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia & the Pacific Islands. She recently took up a position as the Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As you climb the steps to the newly re-opened grand entrance of the Baltimore Museum of Art and enter Stone Court, it can seem that you are entering a kind of Temple of Knowledge. The atmosphere is often hushed, the architecture slightly imposing, and the sense of weighty ideas about art and history is palpable. But the Museum is not about imbibing knowledge so much as creating it. Each of the objects on display awaits your personal discovery. Each artwork can send you off on a tangent of new ideas.

When I first arrived at the BMA, I knew little about the art of the Pacific Islands. I soon learned that the BMA has one of best collections of art from the Pacific in the United States. Visitors can enjoy a number of artworks considered exceptional, including a Tongan Breast Ornament, a Hawaiian Royal Necklace, and this Biwat mask.

Learning more about the Biwat mask was not straightforward, however, as Biwat art has been studied little. Margaret Mead and her husband Reo Fortune spent three months in Kinakatem, a Biwat village, in 1932, when the BMA mask was already 100 years old. Despite the brief stay, their notes remain the primary resource on this area. An anthropologist who worked for the American Museum of Natural History, Mead did not share my primary focus on art. Instead, her comparison of male and female behavior among different cultures, including the Biwat, helped to document that gendered behavior—such as the idea that boys are more interested in play weapons and girls in dolls—is a cultural construct, not a biological trait. Her research became important beyond anthropological circles during the 1960s, as part of the societal push for women’s rights at school and in the workplace.

Originally worn by a man in the East Sepik Province of what is now Papua New Guinea, the mask was likely sculpted in the early 19th century. I didn’t imagine that it would be somehow connected to the history of American feminism. This connection is only one of many stories, and a visit to the galleries certainly doesn’t require ‘homework’ of this sort—the finely carved surface and play of echoing geometric shapes is a fascinating view into the decisions one artist made, and so close looking tells yet another, perhaps more important, story about this artwork.

Art can take you unexpected places.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: The Boxer.

Malick Sidibé. Boxer. 1966, printed 1980s, assembled 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, BMA 2005.9. © Malick Sidibé

Malick Sidibé. Boxer. 1966, printed 1980s, assembled 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, BMA 2005.9. © Malick Sibide. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

This post is by Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, former Associate Curator for African Art and Dept. Head of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia & the Pacific Islands. She recently took up a position as the Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

1966 : a year of blue jeans, Black Power, and James Brown, whether you found yourself in Baltimore or Bamako, Mali. Malick Sidibé was the photographer of hip young people, whether at dance parties, beach outings, or in his studio. From its opening in 1958, Studio Malick was a place to document changing fashions and take an informal picture in fun poses with friends. Snapshots taken over the weekend were posted in the window of the shop, creating a constant buzz in front of the studio. In this photograph, Sidibé captures a young man in a boxer’s pose. Whether mimicking a national or international star, or a boxer himself, the subject of the portrait is a cool, modern man.

Youth in newly independent Mali embraced the bell bottoms and other styles sweeping the globe in the 1960s and 70s. In Mali, as in the United States, parents and elders did not always appreciate these changing ideas of proper dress and behavior. In the early independence era, the Malian government considered “untraditional” clothing and hobbies dangerous for national unity. The government created a militia in the 1960s responsible for enforcing socialist ideas that included abolishing traditional leadership positions, but also championed markers of traditional culture. Youth caught wearing mini-skirts, tight clothing, bell bottoms, Afros, or breaking curfew were sent to ‘reeducation’ camps to discourage the adoption of trends seen as foreign, and therefore reminiscent of the colonizers. The young man’s defensive pose in this photograph, therefore, seems like an icon of youth struggles in the period.

The serious expression of the portrait subject contrasts with the colorful frame. The frame was added in the 1990s by Sidibé’s dealer. It is a ‘sous-verre’ or ‘under glass’ painting, a popular 20th century art form from neighboring Senegal, and was not chosen by Sidibé.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.