What We’re Reading: ArtCurious by Jennifer Dasal

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Art is booooring. Art museums are booooring. Can we leave noooow? All art museum people have heard these words in their exhibitions and galleries, from both adults and children. Jennifer Dasal, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, begins her book by admitting that she, too, was initially one of those “art-is-boring” people. (Me too, Jennifer!). Then, in an undergraduate art history course taken to fulfill her school’s humanities requirement, she discovered what all of us who come to love art history discover: the stories.  

Jennifer Dasal’s new book, ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History.

ArtCurious is based on Dasal’s podcast of the same name, in which she reveals the unexpected, slightly odd, and strangely wonderful stories behind the greatest artists, artworks, and art movements around the world. Art History, in particular, is a discipline viewed as elitist and stuffy with few access points for those living outside academia. Jennifer Dasal, however, provides just this through her book and podcast, diverse and colorful stories that provide new perspectives on names we all know, whether we are art-is-boring people or not: Leonardo da Vinci and his Mona Lisa, Claude Monet, Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and even Jack the Ripper.  

Curated into three categories, Dasal interweaves her personal experiences and growing interest in art with fascinating stories that merge the historical and modern. Each narrative is singular and does not build upon the previous chapter. This means that the reader can bounce from story to story depending on their mood or read them in order (like I did). As a fellow self-professed art museum person, I was familiar with some of the juicier tales, like the connection between the CIA and Abstract Expressionism and the myth of body trafficking in acquiring human remains for artist study. I wasn’t surprised to read of a woman possibly being responsible for a certain famous ready-made piece by Marcel Duchamp or that the Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre could be a reproduction; however, I was amazed that there is a claim that well-known British painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper.  

Similar to Dasal, and most every other American, I am intrigued by unsolved crimes. I recently read The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. Obviously, this book focused on the victims of the serial killer that terrorized the Whitechapel district in London in 1888, however, I couldn’t remember her mentioning that one of the suspects was an artist. Mystery writer Patricia Cornwall set forth her theory in two books, though it originated in the 1970s, analyzing Sickert’s paintings for similarities with the victims and the crime scenes. Would an artist indirectly plead guilty through his paintings? Or was he simply following the stylistic movement of showing life as it was and capitalizing on the fascination with the Ripper to sell his work? You’ll have to read to find out, I’m not about to share spoilers! 

One strangely wonderful story I was not familiar with, and have since purchased more reading material on, is the Spiritualist women who invented modern art. Instead of giving Wassily Kandinsky all the credit for creating the world’s first completely abstract art, Dasal puts forth the narrative that Spiritualist Georgina Houghton did. Piquing my interest initially because women are often overlooked in the art historical canon [link to ATT_Canon], Houghton and other Spiritualists claimed that not they, but ghosts that inhabited them, were producing their artworks. Vehicles for a spirit’s creativity, now well-known (following her recent Guggenheim exhibition) artist Hilma af Klint engaged in seances and was inspired by the spirits she encountered. Ghosts in art aren’t unheard of. Consider spirit photography, where the camera catches ghosts both in photograph and on film. Was abstract painting pioneered by ghosts?     

Interspersed in each tale are sidebars with additional information relevant, but not necessarily pertinent, to the story she weaves. One of the most intriguing was the analysis of still life paintings as memento mori, or reminders that life is fleeting and not to engage in excess. More fun facts for sharing at parties! 

If you are looking to access art history without having to step into a museum, try Jennifer Dasal’s book or podcast (or both!).  

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