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.

Contours of a Thief, the final pages…

Renoir magnifying glass on name

In April, Baltimore author Justin Sirois (So Say the Waiters) provided the opening text for Contours of a Thief - story two in our Renoir Returns story challenge. Now we return to the start of that story, to see how it unfolded. Below, read the story as it played out from the beginning, with thanks to the multiple authors who contributed to it. Now, we are seeking a final chapter, to pull the story together. 

By Justin Sirois
For thirty-eight years of its secret life, the painting hung in her study, above the hearth that was never lit—sitting there waiting for her cat’s tail dust the frame’s intricate cursive. The study door was always locked. No guests allowed. No husband around. There was a desk and hundreds of books on bookshelves and an austere, but hand-me-down leather chair for reading in. Curtains blocked nearly all daylight.

She, the bandit, would sip tea and stare beyond the painting’s warm foliage. How the gesture of breeze transported her. Prisms of pastel smeared beyond Eden. Men and women walked along the shoreline. Basking and kissing. The bandit sipped and reached into her pocket with her free hand, fingering the study door’s key. She slid the key out and brought her fingers to her lips, kissing the back of her hand.

The cat curled around her ankle—dusting her off too. The painting hummed colorful. Sang inside the study. It was, in a way, a prison. A secret that could only be enjoyed when she fantasied about telling it. The people in the painting walked away.

By Jan Ryan
Honestly, you didn’t protect me well. You let me go out with anyone, the sick woman, anyone, acting like it would be a wonderful experience for me. The patriarch said I was the best thing that ever happened to them. And then I was with them. They were my people. How were you to know that the prettiest one would end up alone and impoverished, discarded in a box of knickknacks at a flea market? Well let me assure you I witnessed plenty of secret adventures before I became too much of a liability.

By Gabriella Russo
I remember the night that bandit came into the apartment, stealthily creeping among the Saints first and then making her way to me. She overlooked the beauty in the intricacy of their portraits and focused in on the vivid, beautiful brushstrokes in my foreground. She looked at me with envy, as if she wished she could be engrossed in my very canvas and that is when she stripped me from my home, carefully tip toeing out of Miss May’s apartment.

By Julia Fountain
The thieves will get their money, just as they always do. The police want to protect the people, but not the artist, nor their art.
135 years later pieces will hang on the cluttered walls of museums, boasting names of the histories renowned artists. Millions of eyes will trace the various strokes and contours, but little do they know that beneath the varnish and oil may simply be a rendition, a mere copy of an original.
The art is still being appreciated, the legacy sustained; no one got hurt.

By Jan Ryan
Yeah, Saidie May would fondly remember her time drinking in Mallorca and her family’s blind eye to it, making and collecting art. No one knew anything she didn’t tell him or her. If she told them how would she remember? How would they remember? Juan Gris’s Bottle and Glass painting could have reminded her of men’s smoky Spanish chats in that independent period in her life but were the spillage tremors an earthquake or a reaction to really good wine? At home wine tasted like a chemical brew.

By Jan Ryan
There is only an appearance of too little. Everything fits together simply. Some of the paintings are needlessly complicated. Black, white and primary colors. They fit. They do it all the time but no one has to create disorder. Timing matters.

The idiot had me restored. That means dirty original paint was removed and repainted. Won’t future generations love that. Makes my reds boil but that is individualism.

By Jan Ryan
Maybe you can paint. Maybe you can’t paint but Saidie May could paint. This is one of her landscapes.
For decades the May family repeated that the theft goes back to 1930s Mallorca. Family members visited the Mediterranean many times with one eye watching for the painting. Rooms were unlocked and cellars searched on a hunch. As soon as a guest named May checked into a hotel word went out, “Hide the painting!” not that anyone had any idea who had it.

By Jan Ryan
The children knew that their father had done something terrible and that their mother had also done something terrible to keep the family together. With teenage friends they pieced together that their father had probably had an affair, a serious affair, with an expensive prostitute who gave him that small painting as a celebration of their love and that he had had the nerve to hang it behind a secret panel in his man cave library and that their mother had gotten away with killing the woman.

The maid was living with a grown child in Virginia. She found a cleaning job to put some cash in her pocket. She had a feeling the Renoir belonged in the master bedroom so bracing for a lecture on how lowbrow her taste in art was she hung it there. The woman she cleaned for dropped her towel when she saw it. Never one to pause and think she said, “Holy sh*t. WTF. How? I suppose you want money.” It was not the response the maid expected but she nodded. Wahoo! The grandkids were going to college.

I don’t know where the he-maniac went or why the she-maniac bought me back. A grown daughter eventually pretended she was returning Nazi looted art. Couldn’t anyone leave me in a bathroom or closet at the museum? Video cameras. Bag searches. They help and they hurt. I will now probably be hanging for centuries at the museum like a vampire bat. All we have are our adventures. If there is ever an opportunity to loan me out, descendants of those barflies in Majorca have been expecting to see me.

Membership at the BMA – curing septic stomachs since 1940

Grace Smith in "Temperance" Costume and Joseph Katz in costume with placard, A Souvenir of Romanticism in America exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1940  Digital reproduction of 1 lantern slide, 4 x 3.25 cm  Photograph Collection, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art. LS3.32

Grace Smith in “Temperance” Costume and Joseph Katz in costume with placard, A Souvenir of Romanticism in America exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1940
Digital reproduction of 1 lantern slide, 4 x 3.25 cm
Photograph Collection, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art. LS3.32

We’ve always suspected the healing properties of a BMA membership, but a recent find by colleagues at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art confirms that joining the BMA will make you well…

Illustrations associated with the exhibit A souvenir of Romanticism in America at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 1940. Leslie Cheek papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Two weeks ago, we received an email from staff at the Archives, noting that they had “uncovered an object in one of our collections which refers to the BMA.” The object – part of the Leslie Cheek papers, 1940-1983 – was an unusual one – a fold-out triptych that depicted three cartoon stomachs, each of which was in a different state of health. The top stomach was a septic stomach, “gangrened by rum and tobacco”; the second one was a sick stomach, “relieved by abstinence but unsatisfied”; finally, the stomach at the bottom of the triptych was a sound stomach, a state achieved “after joining the Baltimore Museum of Art.”

Our interest was piqued. Where had this object come from, and what did it refer to? Could we get any more information on it? Would joining the BMA still heal an ailing stomach?

To the BMA Archives!

To solve this mystery, we turned to Emily Rafferty, the BMA’s Head Librarian and Archivist. In short order, she uncovered the wonderful image above, which depicts Miss Grace Hooper Smith, BMA Membership Secretary, holding the triptych. In addition, the full description for the piece in our files gives far more context to the stomach cartoon:

Two images from the exhibition, A Souvenir of Romanticism in America (May 10 – August 10, 1940) at The Baltimore Museum of Art. At right is Miss Grace Hooper Smith, BMA Membership Secretary, dressed as a woman protesting the consumption of alcohol. The exhibition turned the museum top to bottom into a nineteenth century institution – publications were written in the florid style of the period, costumed actors were hired to greet museum-goers, and a Godey’s Ball was held for the opening. One of the publications was titled, “Popular Poisons, Tract No. 4: Rum and Tobacco” and it appealed to museum-goers to pledge temperance and membership in the Museum. On the left is likely Joseph Katz, a trustee at the time also in costume and holding a sign advertising the exhibition.

There you have it. Not only was the mystery unraveled, but we also get to take a delightful wander down memory lane. It seems like a perfect moment for #throwbackthursday.

What do you think? Does art cure what ails you? Do you have a favorite #throwbackthursday moment? Share it with us. We’d love to hear about the mysteries you’ve uncovered when looking into the past.

 

Exhibit L: Renoir Police Report

Renoir Police Report

Renoir Police Report

This is the final piece for She Poses for Moses, one of two stories in the Renoir Returns Story Challenge that have taken us on a journey inspired by weekly “evidence” inspired by the purloined painting.

I would be happy to return to the museum with the school kids piping up with comments, the stoned teenagers dully saying, “Cool.Renoir,” the adults telling wise tales that aren’t true, the quiet ones (mysteries they are thinking) and intimidated visitors finally blurting out, “I like THIS one.” Thanks! What’s not to like? They all liked me but there was nothing to do but look at me so they looked and looked and I looked back.

Illuminating Bruce Nauman’s Career and Influence

Bruce Nauman Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version) 1981-82   © 2014 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981‑1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © 2014 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In Fall 2013, one of the BMA’s most iconic works – Bruce Nauman’s Violins Violence Silence – was removed from its place on the BMA’s East Wing. Over time, natural wear and tear had begun to take their toll on the piece, so in consultation with the Bruce Nauman studio and the BMA’s conservation and curatorial staff, the sculpture was removed from its normal location, in order that it could be refabricated with more up-to-date and durable neon technology.

Deinstalling Nauman's Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

Deinstalling Nauman’s Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

Deinstalling Nauman's Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

Deinstalling Nauman’s Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

The large piece was Nauman’s first public neon work, and it came to the BMA as a gift of the artist’s galleries, in recognition of the Museum’s pioneering 1982 exhibition Bruce Nauman: Neons – the first survey of the artist’s works in that medium. Wrapped around a corner of the BMA’s façade, the words Violins Violence Silence share letters and form a poetic string of similar sounds. The meanings of the individual words appear unrelated, suggesting that the physical structure behind verbal communication can be surprisingly arbitrary. Alternatively, read as a sequence describing cause and effect, the work relates an aggressive act against art and beauty, and the somber consequence.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the gift of Violins Violence Silence and the 100th anniversary of the Museum in 2014, the BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art (FoMaCA) organized a series of events to raise the $120,000 needed to restore the beacon-like presence of this 20th-century masterpiece to the BMA and the city of Baltimore.

This summer, the newly refabricated Violins Violence Silence will be restored to its former home on the East Wing of the BMA. See more shots of the deinstallation on Flickr.

To mark the occasion, the BMA is tonight hosting Illuminating Bruce Nauman’s Career and Influence, a special event moderated by Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman. The lively discussion will bring together Juliet Myers, Bruce Nauman Studio Manager for the past three decades; Paul Schimmel, former Chief Curator of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Vice President and Partner of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery whose essay Pay Attention appeared in the 1994 Nauman retrospective catalog; and Peter Plagens, celebrated art critic, Newsweek Contributing Editor, and author of the new biography, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist. Plagens currently contributes to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times among several other prominent publications.

Illuminating Bruce Nauman’s Career and Influence is on tonight, Thursday, June 12, 6 p.m. The event will be held at Notre Dame of Maryland University’s Knott Auditorium, 4701 N. Charles Street, Baltimore. Use campus entrance on Homeland Avenue for easier access to parking. Entry is $15 FoMaCA Members, $20 general admission. Free at the door for students with ID.

Exhibit K: Theo van Doesburg. Interior. 1919.

Theo van Doesburg. Interior. 1919.

Theo van Doesburg. Interior. 1919. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1951.292

Theo van Doesburg was a founding member of the Dutch art movement De Stijl (The Style), formed in 1917. The group, which included artist Piet Mondrian, sought to express ideal spiritual harmony by radically simplifying form and color. This idea led to compositions based exclusively on vertical and horizontal elements and a palette limited to the three primary colors, as well as black and white. “Interior” appears more relaxed and painterly than many De Stijl works, and includes diagonals and curves, as well as strong earth tones. These features have led some scholars to date the work earlier than its 1919 inscription (which would place it in the period just prior to the self-imposed restrictions of full-fledged De Stijl).

“Interior” is one of only two works of the important De Stijl movement in the BMA’s holdings. Both were purchased by Saidie May in the late 1940s, proving her foresight as a collector of modernism.

The maid knew what “this guy” was all about. Research at the museum and libraries made her think the painting was real. There was no way to know for sure. She told her kids it was a copy of a corner of a real Renoir. They took crayons to paper to make their own replicas, thereby, in the maid’s opinion, leaving a trail. Uneasily she wiped it clean of fingerprints figuring otherwise her great grandkids would get themselves into trouble selling it thinking they were trying to pass it off as real.

Exhibit 6: Saidie A. May. Landscape with Cypress Trees. n.d.

Saidie A. May. Landscape with Cypress Trees. n.d.

Saidie A. May. Landscape with Cypress Trees. n.d.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The
Baltimore Museum of Art: E. Kirkbride Miller Research Library

Maybe you can paint. Maybe you can’t paint but Saidie May could paint. This is one of her landscapes.

For decades the May family repeated that the theft goes back to 1930s Mallorca. Family members visited the Mediterranean many times with one eye watching for the painting. Rooms were unlocked and cellars searched on a hunch. As soon as a guest named May checked into a hotel word went out, “Hide the painting!” not that anyone had any idea who had it.