On Masterpieces and Mysteries—Jennifer Dasal, ArtCurious

the cover of Jennifer Dasal's book ArtCurious with her ArtCurious podcast logo tiled in the background
Photo credit: Penguin Books and Jennifer Dasal

Episode Notes

Jennifer Dasal is curator of modern and contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. After graduating from the University of California, Davis, she earned an M.A. in art history from Notre Dame and worked as assistant to the curator of Western art at Notre Dame’s Snite Museum. So this episode was something of a homecoming—just without the actual coming back to campus.

Jennifer is the author of the book ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History, published earlier this year by Penguin Books. ArtCurious the book was inspired by ArtCurious the podcast, a show she launched more than four years ago and has written, produced, and hosted ever since.

In this podcast, Jennifer introduced us to several of the fascinating stories she unwinds in the book, ranging from the CIA’s connection to Abstract Expressionism and everything you thought you knew about Norman Rockwell to the mystery of the Mona Lisa’s twin sister. There was also the matter of whether we know who actually created what some in the art world consider the most influential piece of the 20th century—which, oh by the way, happens to be an upside-down urinal.

And as descriptive as that last sentence sounds, talking about visual art in an audio medium isn’t usually so simple. That makes what Jennifer does on episodes of ArtCurious all the more impressive, and why we made sure to ask her about the podcast, as well.


Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. Before the pandemic, we were the show that invited scholars, makers, and professionals out to brunch for informal conversations about their work. And we look forward to being that show again one day. But for now, we're recording remotely to maintain physical distancing. If you like what you hear, you can leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you're listening. Thanks for stopping by.

Jennifer Dasal is curator of modern and contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. After graduating from the University of California, Davis, she earned an M.A. in art history from Notre Dame and worked as assistant to the curator of Western art at Notre Dame's Snite Museum. So this episode was something of a homecoming--just without the actual coming back to campus. Jennifer is the author of the book ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History, published earlier this year by Penguin Books. ArtCurious the book was inspired by ArtCurious the podcast, a show she launched more than four years ago and has written, produced, and hosted ever since. In this podcast, Jennifer introduced us to several of the fascinating stories she unwinds in the book, ranging from the CIA's connection to Abstract Expressionism and everything you thought you knew about Norman Rockwell to the mystery of the Mona Lisa's twin sister. There was also the matter of whether we know who actually created what some in the art world consider the most influential piece of the 20th century--which, oh by the way, happens to be an upside-down urinal. And as descriptive as that last sentence sounds, talking about visual art in an audio medium isn't usually so simple. That makes what Jennifer does on episodes of ArtCurious all the more impressive, and why I made sure to ask her about the podcast as well. (end voiceover)

Jennifer Dasal, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Jennifer Dasal  2:12  
Thank you so much for having me. This is really fun.

Ted Fox  2:15  
So your book is divided into three parts, the first of which is called The Unexpected. And one of the things that was unexpected for me in reading it, there's a chapter that features something called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was developed by the CIA in 1950. What on earth does the CIA have to do with art history?

Jennifer Dasal  2:38  
This is a crazy story that was completely new to me until maybe about four or five years ago, I did not know the story. But the CIA covertly--very covertly--was fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union using visual art as one of their so-called weapons, so their cultural weapons, if you will. And it's fascinating because the idea behind it was that if you were a capitalist nation, then obviously you would have all kinds of freedoms, including the freedom to present art in any way you wanted to--art for art's sake. So you didn't have to have a kind of propagandistic message to go with it like you would in a place like the Soviet Union. And so they thought, Oh, you know, the best way to do this would be to show abstract art, especially at that point, what was really up-and-coming was Abstract Expressionism. So people like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler--people like that, very, very much non-representational. So just thinking about Jackson Pollock, it's like a paint splatter on a canvas. 

Ted Fox  3:42  

Jennifer Dasal  3:42  
And so that was this essential idea of freedom made visual. And so they covertly funded exhibitions that would travel for a few years around the world, especially to these countries that may have seemed like they were a little bit on the fence in terms of, they could accept capitalism, they could go the other way to communism. And so it's really interesting, I did not know about this story. And it wasn't until I believe the '80s and the '90s that the tales of this actually came out and things were declassified. But it's fantastic to think of art having that long-running ability to actually subvert people's expectations and change history perhaps. Yeah, it's really fascinating.

Ted Fox  4:24  
Well, and you mentioned, too--I mean, it was covert even from the artists themselves. Because the artists don't, many of them--I think you pointed out in this chapter that at least some of them were anarchists.

Jennifer Dasal  4:34  

Ted Fox  4:34  
And their work is being used to basically further the aims of capitalism without them really even knowing that's what was going on.

Jennifer Dasal  4:43  
Exactly. There was this idea that a lot of the people who were in the art scene in New York, for example, at the time, were really interested in socialism, and like you mentioned, there were some anarchic people involved. And so the idea that their work was being used to further these governmental reasons--I mean, that would have been completely, just not okay under any circumstances. So they kept what they called this long-leash policy, which meant that things were at a remove of a few degrees so that the artist would just basically be told that his or her work was being shown at a cultural institution that was being funded by this particular foundation. And the foundation was really just a front, either by an individual donor or sometimes by a museum, that was working with the CIA to put the funds forward for these kinds of exhibitions. But the CIA, the government, was always behind it. So that's the really interesting thing. And people didn't know. Nuts.

Ted Fox  5:39  
So I said that was unexpected, which it was, although I confess, I had heard some of it from listening to your outstanding podcast, as well, of the same name, ArtCurious.

Jennifer Dasal  5:48  
Thank you.

Ted Fox  5:50  
But I'd say the biggest surprise for me, not just in The Unexpected section but really for reading the entire book, was the chapter on Norman Rockwell. And I, like so many other people who have visited their grandparents's houses, I know his work from the Saturday Evening Post, which is kind of this saccharin Americana; you phrased it, kind of in the title of that chapter, as sentimental and even a little cheesy at times. But in the book, you get into this whole other Norman Rockwell, who is really the polar opposite of all those things. Who was the Norman Rockwell of the Look magazine years toward the end of his life?

Jennifer Dasal  6:29  
This was probably one of my favorite chapters to write. Seriously. Definitely up there at the very top. This is something that was really shocking to me, and it was based on my experience with this late-era Norman Rockwell. Because I completely agree with you: I see him as being very sentimental and cheesy. And I think a lot of us who are working in the art realm and in museums especially, we kind of like to keep Norman Rockwell a little bit at a distance because I think a lot of people just think of him as being not a real artist in some way, like "real" is in scare quotes for some reason. Even though he was extremely not only talented but proficient, and seriously has had a huge cultural impact on pop culture and also tons of artists who came before him. I think Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons both--separately, obviously, in their lives--have mentioned this great influence that he had on people. But after he left the Post, which was in the late '50s, early '60s, he really wanted to do something that showed more of a vision of America and how it really was at that time. And that was very different than the things that he was doing at the Saturday Evening Post because there was a very strict rule, but one that was very much kept kind of under the table, which was that he was not to show any people of color in any of his illustrations for the Post unless they were shown to be in a subservient position. And so you would have African-Americans only in the position of waiters or train-car conductors, things like that. And when he married his third wife, who was very, very progressive, he started realizing that that was really rubbing the wrong way for him and for his family and his experiences. And I think he started looking through things with a very different lens and was realizing that what he had been putting forward in his illustrations were very different than what America was looking like at that point.

And so he did a series of canvases in the '60s that were very much dealing with social issues, especially civil rights. And for me--I think a lot of people really think about one in particular, which is called The Problem We All Live With, which is an image of Ruby Bridges going to her first day of school, and she's flagged by police officers as they're escorting her in. But for me, the painting that really struck me was one called Murder in Mississippi. And it's completely different. It's so stark, there's nothing sweet about it the way that the image of Ruby Bridges is. There's nothing cute, nothing sentimental. It is just pure horror because you see these three men who were volunteers working for racial equality and voter registration in the South, and you have an image, it's a true-story image--you know, a real-life moment--where you see them captured in the headlights of what at that moment in time would have been the Ku Klux Klan just about ready to kill them, they tortured them and killed them. This was a real event that happened in Mississippi in the '60s. And Norman Rockwell translated that as an illustration for an article about that killing in Look magazine. And it was shocking to think about, I call him sort of like America's grandpa, illustrating something like that. It's really completely unexpected.

Ted Fox  9:50  
And it was, I mean, it was one of those moments in reading the book, too, that happened to me multiple times where I, you know, got out my phone and then was Googling the image just because, you know, just really wanting to sit with it. And you talk about how the magazine editors didn't end up using the final version that he had submitted, they used kind of a draft, more of a draft sketch. And it was starker and even more abrupt than what he did in the finished image. It's really powerful. And yeah, it really kind of takes you aback when you're thinking about Norman Rockwell with the, you know, Santa Claus and the Coke machine and whatever else.

Jennifer Dasal  10:27  
Absolutely. And I think that's one of the reasons why for me that image is so affecting. Because I think if either the sketch or the final one, if they came from another artist, I think it would be easier to accept in some ways. But the fact that it does come from Norman Rockwell, it really makes you step back and go, like, What is going on here? This is not what I picture in my mind when I picture Norman Rockwell at all.

Ted Fox  10:49  
The second section of the book, The Slightly Odd.

Jennifer Dasal  10:52  

Ted Fox  10:53  
And seeing as I make this show for Notre Dame, I have to ask about the chapter that starts with you as a college undergraduate, sitting in an introductory art history class, where a professor that you say would go on to become a mentor to you--so this is someone you look up to--she's talking about the Mona Lisa, and she says, what?

Jennifer Dasal  11:10  
She said, You can go see it at the Louvre, and if you do, great, and if you don't, no big deal, because the one you see at the Louvre is fake. (laughs)

Ted Fox  11:18  
So there's this history--it has been disappeared and/or stolen more than once; is that right?

Jennifer Dasal  11:25  
That's right. You usually only hear about, there was a very famous theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. And that's the one that if you Google it, you get all the background and history for it. It was really an audacious theft, and it was the thing that shot the Mona Lisa into the stratosphere as far as we think about her as being the most iconic and the most famous image in the world. But there is this potential, we don't know entirely for sure, but people, especially art historians--there's one in particular that I know of named Noah Charney, whose work is really about art theft and repatriation--who said that he believes that what happened was that in World War II, there were these conflicting statements about whether or not when the Nazis came in, that they went to the Louvre, you know, when they invaded in Paris, and that they had taken the Mona Lisa as one of the spoils that was ultimately meant to be, in their ideal world, as part of Hitler's grand museum that he was really looting art for all around Europe at the time. And at the same time, there are logs that say that it was indeed looted, and there were logs that say that it instead was packed up and very safely sent out to one of a few different chateaus in France for safekeeping. So it's like, Was the Mona Lisa actually stolen the second time, or was it not?

And the Louvre has been very historically tight-lipped about this. But they did admit at one point a few years back that they have what they called an identical copy, and that they indeed did ship out the real Mona Lisa. And then they allowed the fake Mona Lisa to then have been taken by the Nazis. And so it's this idea of, What is there actually, how is there a fake Mona Lisa, first of all? Who did this? Was it--they say it's supposedly contemporary with the Leonardo original. And then the idea is that, Okay, well say that you do have this fake version of the Mona Lisa; do you then put the real one on view? Or do you allow this fake version because you're choosing between keeping something that's literally priceless extremely safe--you know, buried in the basement somewhere? Or do you showcase the original thing? And I think that's a really interesting story. And I personally believe that the one that you see on the wall at the Louvre is real. But do I have proof of that? I don't. I personally don't. (laughs)

Ted Fox  13:50  
You raise the question, too, which I think was an interesting question of--you said that in terms of, you know, where you stood on that, and then the question is, Does the answer to that question even really matter that much? Because so much of what makes that painting so valuable is the cultural significance, which it's going to hold whether it is the original-original, or the identical original copy that was made at the same time.

Jennifer Dasal  14:16  
Exactly. And then I always come back to the point that when you go--although it's very different now. I mean, I've seen pictures just today of people going in at the Louvre because of the pandemic that so few people are allowed into the galleries, that you do have this more personal audience with the painting in a way that has never been possible in the last century, really. But usually, in normal times, when you go there, you just cannot barely see the painting because it's smaller than you think it should be. And you're kept at such a distance by everything from guards and cordons and protective glass and barriers, and then just a sea of people who are crowding in front of you with their phones up above their heads.

Ted Fox  14:57  
(laughs) Right.

Jennifer Dasal  14:57  
So you really can't experience it. So even if it was the fake version on the wall, how could you really even get close enough to tell?

Ted Fox  15:06  
Right, right. Part three of the book is The Strangely Wonderful. And I had heard the term "Dada" before I read your book. However, full disclosure, I think I may have thought it was an artist and not an artistic movement. (laughing) I had no idea what Dada was. So the first thing I wanted to ask you about that was, When and what was the Dada movement?

Jennifer Dasal  15:31  
So for me, I feel like Dada is one of those slightly tricky things, so I don't blame you at all for not knowing exactly what it is. (laughs)

Ted Fox  15:40
(laughs) I appreciate that, thank you.

Jennifer Dasal  15:41
Because I think there are a lot of things that are a little still unknown about Dada in terms of exactly when it started. I know that it really came in response to World War I in particular, especially in Europe, so places like France, Switzerland, in particular. And artists were really trying to grasp what it was like to be in the middle of this World War--you know, something of this scale where they could not fathom it. And so the idea was, I think the only way that we can actually deal with all the madness in war is just to sort of go whole hog with craziness and nothingness and just full absurdity. And so that's when you get the Dadaists really coming into their prime and their vogue, and it continued into, I would say, the '20s and '30s. And there's some mix-up that happens with Surrealism at that point, as well. And it certainly spread from Western Europe into America, especially New York is also very prominent at that time.

Ted Fox  16:39  
And didn't you say even the name "Dada" is just supposed to come from almost like the gibberish of a baby saying--it's just like, Yeah, okay, whatever this is, this is art. (laughs)

Jennifer Dasal  16:49  
Totally. Yeah, it's like a baby saying "dada" or in some--you know, it's one of those terms that everybody seems to have a different idea about where the name came from. Somebody once said it was the German word for hobbyhorse or something like that. It's something really ridiculous. But yeah, there's not one complete consensus on it, for sure.

Ted Fox  17:08  
And one of the things you talk about is that Dada gave us a piece of art that some people think is the most influential work of art of the 20th century, and others think is literally a piece of garbage--not just that it's bad, but would say: No, it's a piece of garbage.

Jennifer Dasal  17:24  

Ted Fox  17:25  
Yeah. Can you tell us about Fountain and some of the controversy around it, both in terms of its artistic merit and who may or may not have been responsible for creating it?

Jennifer Dasal  17:37  
Absolutely. So just purely describing what Fountain is, and that is the title, Fountain, it was from 1917, and it is literally a urinal that's been tipped over. It's upside-down. And then the artist's scrawled signature on it, and it was a pseudonym signature. So it says R. Mutt, and that is it. It was placed on a pedestal, and it was like, Ta-da, art--yay, I did it! And so I think that was shocking in and of itself because under what definition of art, especially at that time, so over 100 years ago, who would have said, Oh, yeah, sure, art great. (Ted laughs) Because there was really no, it was all about the creativity, the thought behind the work of art at this point, which had never been done before. All the actual making of art had been taken out of it. And the creator of this work, as long as the story has held all this time, is a man named Marcel Duchamp, who was a French painter, French sculptor, French ready-made artist is what he ended up calling a lot of these works like this, they were ready-made, he just put his name on them. He was kind of a jokester in many ways, or he was really trying to get more at the heart of trying to be the boss who gets to determine what art is, and who gets to name an artwork an artwork, for example. So the idea was that he gave this work as part of an exhibition, a really famous exhibition called the Armory Show in 1917. And there was this sort of secretive way in which he supposedly put the art up and was able to put it up for exhibition and had a woman drop it off instead of him so that he could really be anonymous, and he could really test this exhibition system to see how people would react and if such a work could even be accepted for exhibition.

If you fast forward to--oh, goodness, over a hundred years, so about maybe even just three or four years back, so we're looking at now 2016, 2017, a hundred years after Fountain was created--there has been some controversy because some people have really been pushing for a reconsideration of this woman who was really little-known in the art world. She's more well-known as a poet rather than an artist, and she was a German baroness named Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. And again, just like with the story with the CIA and AbEx art, this was someone I am embarrassed to say I had never heard of. I did not know her. I had done an episode on the podcast about Fountain and about Duchamp, and I received an email from a woman who said, I love your show, but how dare you perpetrate this myth. And I said, What are you talking about? I felt awful. And that was when I learned that there was this small but very vocal subsection of historians and artists and just people, researchers out in the world, who were saying that this is another very talented artist who was in Duchamp's circle, and she was known to have been a collaborative person who herself made some ready-mades. And so the thought has been that perhaps she was a collaborator with Duchamp on this particular work, or perhaps that she herself made it entirely. I have to say, again, it's just like with the falsity of the Mona Lisa, the jury is still very much out. And I would say that most art institutions, including people like the Tate Modern and MoMA and other institutions that have copies or versions of Fountain itself--the original was lost about a hundred years ago--they still very much hold onto the idea that Fountain is simply and solely Marcel Duchamp. But it's a really interesting story. I learned so much learning about Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. And it just consistently reminds us to think about the fact that art history and history in general, it's not solid, it's not in this stasis, and we are constantly reconsidering and refiguring and trying to understand from these different angles and really allow room for people who may have been lost or fallen by the wayside.

Ted Fox  21:39  
That leads very well into this question I had. I wanted to pivot from the book to talk about the ArtCurious podcast, and I know in season seven, you did a whole series on "The Coolest Artists You Don't Know."

Jennifer Dasal  21:53  

Ted Fox  21:54  
And you talked a little bit about it there, so I guess I'm wondering, you know, how much richness do we miss out on when we're only focusing on the names everyone's heard? And you talked about Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven there. Were there any other stories in particular from your work highlighting--I listened to one of those episodes, and I'm forgetting the artist's name now, but it was the daughter of the Japanese painter who's very famous for painting the wave--but just kind of what are some of the things that really stuck with you that you learned about from doing those episodes?

Jennifer Dasal  22:31  
Oh my goodness, that's probably one of my favorites that I wrote for that season. It's the daughter of the printmaker and painter Hokusai, who again, as you're mentioning, is if you have this idea of a Japanese print of a giant wave that's cresting, that's him.

Ted Fox  22:45  
That's him.

Jennifer Dasal  22:46  
He's probably the most famous Japanese artist before Yayoi Kusama perhaps, who's still with us, a contemporary artist. I love that story because she very much worked within her father's realm and not only was an incredible artist herself, but also helped to perpetrate the idea of Hokusai, this artist. So he relied on her to help build his myth and work and create the works that were then labeled to his name. So she was really an assistant and apprentice to him, and then went off to create this own career, have her our own artistic career after he died. And in some ways people believe that she probably helped to perpetrate his work after his death, so that maybe without her, he would have never become this world-famous artist that he really is now to many of us. So that was someone that I had not heard about, again, until a couple of years ago. Just as you mentioned, it sort of brought into my view of what art was like, especially during, you know, the late 19th century in Japan; I wouldn't have really known about somebody like her. I love those stories.

My other favorite is one that's very personal to me because it's what I ended up writing my master's thesis at Notre Dame on, which is, again, by no means a no-name artist. There are several people that I talked about in that season in particular that to somebody who's in art history or in an art museum, these are still big names. But to, you know, the everyday person, they might not be familiar with. But this woman that I love talking about was this French painter named Rosa Bonheur, and she was known as an animalière, so an animal painter. And that sounds pretty boring on the surface, but the way that she was able in the about 1850s, 1840s, 1860s to create these pictures of animals, things like horses and sheep and cows, and they captured the imagination of especially everyone in France and in England at the time, and people worshipped her. She was one of the first superstar artists in her day. She's fascinating. People would make appointments to go see her. The empress of France at the time, Napoleon III's wife, personally visited her home to present her with the medal of honor, the Legion of Honor Award. And this is still--by no means is it completely, you know, it's not like it was the Middle Ages or something and women had no power. But this is still the mid-19th century; for a woman to receive that much acclaim, that was huge. It was huge.

Ted Fox  25:20  

Jennifer Dasal  25:20  
So she is so fascinating. And I'm just barely scratching the surface of her awesomeness.

Ted Fox  25:25  
So the podcast is still going, it's ongoing. And I mentioned that series; do all your seasons of the show have themes? Or is that more of a recent iteration? Because like I said, I believe you're in season eight now, right?

Jennifer Dasal  25:40  
I am.

Ted Fox  25:40  
You've been doing the show for a while now. (laughs)

Jennifer Dasal  25:42  
(laughs) I have, yes. So it's been about four-and-a-half years. And originally, when I started the show, I had this intention to put out a new episode every two weeks, just ongoing. And I started really just with shows, you know, ideas for episodes that I liked, and it was very much a one-off situation. And after about almost a year, I realized that that was just ridiculous and completely unsustainable when I had a full-time job, and I was a young mom at the time; my son was only about a year old or a little older than that. That was when I decided I would break it up into this seasonal format. And so I thought, Well, if I'm only doing seven or eight or nine episodes at a go, I could still release them on an every-two-week schedule. But maybe I should have some sort of overarching theme. And that was when I moved to that seasonal format. So I began with the second season with something having to do with art and World War II, just kind of a broad umbrella. Since then I've done rivalries in art, I've considered works that are considered shocking--not necessarily shocking like we might think of them now, but works that we more accept as being very standard or kind of conventional art in art history but at that time in which they were created were completely shocking. And then right now I'm in the middle of a season that's all about art auctions and pricing for the most expensive works ever sold, which has been really fun also.

Ted Fox  27:06  
And you did some some true-crime ones too, correct?

Jennifer Dasal  27:08  
I did, yes.

Ted Fox  27:10  
And there's--I mean, we didn't have a chance to get to it here, but when you go out and get the book, there's some great stuff about maybe the true identity or not of Jack the Ripper and all these kind of theories about, Was Jack the Ripper actually an artist or not? Which is pretty fascinating.

Jennifer Dasal  27:24  
That's a really crazy story for sure. Yeah, definitely. That was one of my other favorites to write.

Ted Fox  27:31  
So as we're nearing the end here, I'm gonna make a very meta comment for two podcasters and say that podcasting is an audio medium. I mean, that's very clear. How do you in doing the ArtCurious podcast approach talking about visual art when you know people are experiencing it exclusively through your words?

Jennifer Dasal  27:52  
It is very bizarre, I have to say for sure. I've thought about that many times. It's like, Why did I choose an audio medium to tell about a visual medium? But I would say the best thing that I try to do is, I try to give you some description so that you can at least get a sense for something in your mind. I always do hope that people will go either to my website or, you know, Instagram or that they'll just rely on our friend Google to look something up. And I know a lot of people do, which is good. But my fear was that I don't want to be so audio-descriptive that you're feeling like you're stuck in a really boring lecture. So for me, it's more about trying to weave a story around the description so that you can hopefully fill in the blanks later if you need to, but that I give you enough of an idea about what a particular work of art looks like or seems like that you can at least not get lost in it while you're hearing the story.

Ted Fox  28:50  
So the book is ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History. The podcast is ArtCurious, which you can get wherever you listen to podcasts, including where you're listening to this one. I highly recommend both. Jennifer Dasal, thank you so much for making time to talk to me today. I really enjoyed it.

Jennifer Dasal  29:07  
Ted, this was awesome. Thank you so much.

Ted Fox  29:09  
(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame. Our website is withasideofpod.nd.edu.