3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

Anxious about an impending Eurozone crisis and a tanking economy? Maybe we all should follow the lead of Paul Gauguin, who quit his job as a stockbroker in Paris after the market crashed in 1882 and became a full-time artist. Today, we’re featuring the painting he considered to be his personal masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” It’s on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a special exhibit from June 20th through September 3rd, but normally makes its home at the MFA, which acquired it in 1936 for $80,000.

1. When Gauguin began his new career, he was greatly influenced by Impressionist landscapes, such as those of Pissarro. Nevertheless, he was always interested in exploring the realms of dreams, mysteries, and symbols, which opened the door to his pioneering work as a Symbolist. Gauguin deliberately avoided specific, finite interpretations of his paintings. Speaking of “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” he said, “explanatory attributes—known symbols—would congeal the canvas into a melancholy reality, and the problem indicated would no longer be a poem.”

2. Although Gauguin was not keen on a finite interpretation of the painting, he did leave some clues in letters. The painting, his vision of earthly paradise, is meant to be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant and ending with the crouched, aged woman.  He described the figures as contemplating the questions of human existence that he inscribed in the upper left-hand corner next to his signature that give the painting its name. The blue idol figure in the background represents “the Beyond,” and the old woman accepts her impending death with resignation of the cycle of life.

3. Gauguin painted “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” in between hospitalizations for syphilis on the island of Tahiti. Gauguin’s relationship with Tahiti was a complex one that generated much artistic inspiration and was filled with both enchantment with its “primitive,” preindustrial civilization but ultimately disillusionment with its Western corruption. Gauguin first visited Tahiti in 1891 after an unsuccessful show in Paris. He returned there in 1893 after financial success continued to evade him in France, seeking out his own Arcadia, or earthly paradise. In this way, he was unique among the Symbolists in seeking to escape to an actual preindustrial society instead of to an imagined dream world.

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3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About El Anatsui’s Metallic Kente Cloths

El Anatsui, an artist and professor who lives in Nigeria, has been creating glittering, fluid sculptures that recall his native Ghana’s traditional kente cloths since the late 1990s. “…Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners,” he once said, and fittingly, his large-scale works create a monumental impact upon viewing.  They can be found hanging in some of the world’s most famous museums, such as the British Museum; Centre Pompidou; the Met; and the MFA, Boston.

1. Kente cloths were so prestigious that only royalty and important officials of the Asante kingdom were allowed to wear them. Anatsui’s sculptures invoke the rich tradition of kente by mimicking the narrow strip patterns of the actual textiles, but also bring to mind global consumerism and the economics of the slave trade through the flattened aluminum caps of liquor bottles from which they are fashioned.

2. Anatsui employs over a dozen assistants to flatten the bottle caps into strips, which they then cut and shape into blocks. He arranges the blocks in a formation to his liking and the pieces are stitched together using copper wire.  Most of his assistants aren’t actually aspiring artists, but rather are Nigerian students waiting to take their university entrance exams.

3. Traditional kente cloths are woven on unique looms that allow weavers to juxtapose vertical stripes (the warp-face pattern) with intricate geometric designs (the weft-face pattern) in a painstaking process requiring significant training and skill. In fact, the origins of kente are traced in Akan mythology to the spider Ananse, a trickster renowned for exceptional cleverness.



  • Anatsui's father and some of his brothers (he is the youngest of 32 siblings) weave traditional Ewe (pronounced Ev-ay) kente cloth. The Ewe are a people of Anatsui's native Ghana.
  • Anatsui does not install each of his sculptures himself. Rather, he allows the curator of each museum or gallery displaying them to hang them. He relishes the unfixed physical quality of each sculpture, and while he prefers horizontal drapes over vertical ripples, does not give curators specific instructions, maintaining an element of surprise. He says: "It’s like when I am firing a ceramic piece — until you open the kiln and let it cool it down you don’t know what it is going to look like. I like that surprise. That is why I allow — I prefer — that other people mount the works."



3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Duchamp's "Fountain"

Celebrate April Fool's Day with this funny, enigmatic work that I've always wondered why it was so famous:

1. Dada: This work is classified as part of "Dada," a movement between WWI and WWII that was a backlash against the "reason" and logic" that had led to war, in contrast favoring "chaos and irrationality" (source)

2. What is art? This work is meant to be thought-provoking and question assumptions about art. For example, since it's a mass-produced object, it questions originality and craftsmanship in art. Since in the bathroom context the same object is considered a urinal and in a museum it's a fountain, It questions the relationship between context and meaning in art. (Janson's)

3. Why a fountain? By tradition, fountains are revered works of art and architecture, and this pokes fun at tradition (Janson's)


Independence Day Edition - 3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Norman Rockwell

Rockwell_Miss Jones

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Rosie the Riveter meets Steven Spielberg and George Lucas - the idealized images and talented storytelling of Norman Rockwell have inspired millions of Americans.

Rockwell_Freedom from Want1. Embellished: Rockwell depicted an idealized version of America, with wholesome images evoking compassion and caring. In the time of the Great Depression, WWI, and WWII, these images provided Americans with a sense of solidarity and common purpose. Closer look: Rockwell's work was often on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Part of the Four Freedoms series, this image is called Freedom from Want.
Rockwell_Miss Jones2. Tableaux: Rockwell "could tell stories in a single frozen image" (NYT). His talent for visual storytelling influenced both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's filmmaking, through the stylized images within their own films. Both directors are avid Rockwell collectors and currently have a joint exhibit at the Smithsonian. Closer look: Just going off of the title alone Happy Birthday, Miss Jones, the viewer can extrapolate what's going on in this endearing scene.
Rockwell_Self Portrait3. Gone bananas? Rockwell "tried to enlist into the U.S. Navy but was refused entry because, at 6 feet (1.83 m) tall and 140 pounds (64 kg), he was eight pounds underweight. To compensate, he spent one night gorging himself on bananas, liquids and doughnuts, and weighed enough to enlist the next day. However, he was given the role of a military artist and did not see any action during his tour of duty." (Norman Rockwell). Closer look: a whimsical triple self-portrait of Rockwell

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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory"

Dali_Persistence of Memory

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As seen in MoMA NY

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Memorial Day Edition - 3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About "American Gothic"

American Gothic

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In honor of Memorial Day, and since I'm currently in the Midwest, I thought it would be interesting to highlight this great American classic. Even thought this work was originally criticized as mocking its subjects, this painting depicts the American pioneering spirit.

Gothic Window1. House: The name of the painting comes from the "Carpenter Gothic" style of the house. The neat lines of the house combined with the conservative mode of dress evoke Puritan ideals and spirit of the pioneers - hard-working, orderly, faithful/religious, and modest. Closer look: The windows in the painting come to a point the same way that the windows of medieval Gothic cathedrals do. An extreme example of this is the chapel of Saint Chapelle, whose Gothic windows stretch from the ground to the ceiling.
Spinster Sister2. That's not his wife: The man in the painting is a farmer and the woman is his spinster daughter, not his wife. The actual models for the painting were the artist's sister and their community's dentist.
Kermit and Miss Piggy3. Parodies abound: This is arguably one of the most parodied paintings in American history, with entire websites devoted to tracking those parodies. Among the most audacious is the ad for the TV show "The Simple Life," starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Closer look: Kermit and Miss Piggy as "American Gothic"

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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Banksy's Public Art

Banksy What Are You Looking At

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You're walking down the street, minding your own business. You happen to look up and see the image above and crack a smile. Banksy is best known for his street art in unexpected locations around the world. Made with intricate stencils and layers of spray paint, Banksy's stunt-like work goes beyond London's walls, from zoos to the wall in the West Bank. Taking viewers by surprise, his work invites them to question their assumptions and look more closely at the world around them.

Banksy Cart Monet Japanese Bridge1. Brandalism: Like Andy Warhol, Banksy repurposes recognizable images in pop culture. Banksy's "brandalism" is often an irreverent, visual satire on society. Closer look: Banksy's spoof on Monet's classic makes a statement on consumerism. Similarly, here's one on The Jungle Book characters and environmentalism.
Banksy In Disguise Putting Painting In Museum2. Mystery: Banksy keeps his identity secret. This anonymity is practical in order to avoid arrest (even though he's been arrested before), but also makes the voice of his work seem more ubiquitous. Here's some speculation on his real name. Closer look: Banksy in disguise, putting a spoof painting on a museum wall.
Banksy Maid3. It's everywhere: Banksy's work is not limited to street art - his work has been displayed in museums and auctioned off for large sums. You walk by public art every day, from decorative murals to Banksy-like stenciled "revolutionary" statements behind the newspaper boxes at Stanford's post office. For public art with a more cheerful spin, look out for Katie Sokoler's whimsical work in the streets of New York. Closer look: Another example of Banksy's work

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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Picasso's "Guernica"


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This week’s issue is curated by Jett, a recent Stanford graduate.

Ever feel like you can’t meet a deadline? Don’t sweat it - one of the most iconic works of art of the 20th century, Guernica, was painted in an incredible three weeks. After Nazi Condor bombers decimated the northern Spanish village of Guernica, Picasso was moved to depict the suffering of Guernica’s inhabitants. This powerful scene has left viewers both bewildered and emotional.

Newspaper1) Newsprint: Why only black and white? As in his other Cubist pictures, Picasso did this to mimic the look and feel of newsprint. Before there was Twitter, newspapers were important in disseminating information about the tragedy. The black and white also may have been a nod to photos or film, both supposedly “objective” sources of info.
Guernica Bull2) ¡Olé! Fascinated by both the beauty and tragedy of the corrida, Picasso uses the bullfight as a metaphor for aggression against the helpless. The bull, which may be interpreted as Fascism, is victorious against the weak horse, or the people. Looking at the weeping figures, these suffering characters are difficult to recognize or understand, partly because we have never seen such suffering in our own lives. Picasso deliberately constructs them from odd shapes and sharp lines to confuse and torment us, to inspire us to think more deeply about the minutiae of suffering and pain. Closer look: The aforementioned bull and a woman holding a dead child.
United Nations Security Council3) Power of art: Since its first showing in Paris, Guernica has been a masterpiece for peace. An incident arose in which the United Nations seemingly hung a sheet over a full size reproduction of Guernica when Colin Powell delivered a speech about the Iraq war in front of the iconic mural.

Guernica essentials:

  • Read: Herschel Chipp, Picasso's Guernica, 1988. Still the most thorough study in English of the mural masterpiece
  • Listen: World-renowned Art Historian TJ Clark gives the 2009 Mellon Lecture at the National Gallery about Picasso's Guernica
  • Visit: Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid. Surround yourself with modern Spanish masters including Picasso, Dali and Miro


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