Behind MMAM’s new paintings
by CHRIS ROGERS
It all started with a blank wall.
Four newly acquired paintings — by pioneering 19th and 20th century artists Giorgio de Chirico, Edward Mitchell Bannister, Max Pechstein, and Emil Nolde — were unveiled at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) on Sunday. With the new Nolde and Pechstein paintings, the MMAM is home to some of the best works of German Expressionists in North America, and the Bannister piece will hang among pictures by the greatest African-American painters of the 19th century, art history expert John Driscoll declared. MMAM founders Mary Burrichter and Bob Kierlin had a more modest goal when they got started.
“We had this huge wall,” Kierlin explained. When Burrichter and Kierlin got married, they moved into a new house with a big, blank, white wall. “We thought we should have a large painting for it,” Kierlin said. “Neither of us knew much about art, so I just started on the internet to see if I could find a large painting of some kind.”
That turned up a lot of results for modern paintings, but the couple was more interested in older art. Burrichter’s neighbor, an artist, handed the two an art catalog, Kierlin recalled. It featured a massive painting of a ship by artist John Stobart that caught Kierlin’s eye. He called the owner the gallery that had put out the catalog to see if the paining was still available. The catalog was three years old, but as chance would have it, the very same painting was back on the market again, Kierlin explained.
The gallery director — who specialized in maritime artwork — came to Winona to hang the piece. “While he was here, he then sold us two more paintings for the foyer,” Kierlin explained. Thus, Burrichter and Kierlin’s marine art collection began.
As Burrichter and MMAM Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Jon Swanson unveiled Edward Mitchell Bannister’s “Rhode Island Afternoon,” Driscoll recalled the big break for Bannister that nearly didn’t happen. In 1876, America threw a celebration of its 100th anniversary — the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Among the best artists from around the country and the globe, one of Bannister’s paintings won first-place in the expo’s art competition. Then the judges realized Bannister was black.
“Mr. Bannister gets to the exposition hall, and goes to the door, and he’s banned from entry. He’s banned from entry. He can’t even go in and see his painting on the wall or collect his gold medal because he’s African American,” Driscoll said.
According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the judges wanted to reconsider their decision after discovering Bannister’s race, but Bannister’s fellow artists and rival competitors insisted that he deserved the medal.
The MMAM already has pieces by Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert S. Duncanson, Driscoll noted. “Now you have a Bannister,” he said. “These are the three great African-American painters in America in the 19th century, and it’s a pleasure to introduce [this painting] tonight.”
Salvador Dalí, Sylvia Plath, André Breton, and John Ashbery were all influenced by the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, Driscoll said as he and Burrichter presented de Chirico’s “Cavallo Fuggente.” However, when de Chirico decided to move beyond his earlier surrealist scenes and paint horses instead, many spurned his new work, Driscoll stated.
In swirling brushstrokes, the painting shows a horse on a shore, running with abandon.
“He loved [horses], as you can see, not so much for their anatomy but for their spirit,” Driscoll said. “He began to paint these pictures, which for him ultimately became the greatest works of his life, but because they weren’t enigmatic the way his earlier work had been, because they weren’t metaphysical the way his earlier work had been, the surrealists sort of rejected him after a while. But he pursued his own course, his own original sense of who he was as an artist.”
“The first time I saw it, it just popped off the wall,” Burrichter said after she pulled a black curtain away to reveal Emil Nolde’s “Autumn Sea XII (Blue Water, Orange Clouds).” “And it’s still popping off the wall. I have to get back a little bit, it’s too powerful.” In the painting, a stormy seascape is set against a supernaturally blazing sky.
When the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, this painting was brought to South America by its original owner, a private collector, Driscoll reported. “This is the only the third time since this picture was painted that anyone had a chance to get it,” he said.
Similarly, the MMAM is only the third collection to feature Max Pechstein’s “Great Mill Ditch Bridge.”
“These pictures only come on the market once every 40 years or 50 years sometimes,” Driscoll stated.
Driscoll advises some of the largest museums and collectors in the U.S. and he helped Kierlin and Burrichter locate and acquire many of the masterpieces now on display at the MMAM. Securing such artwork requires collectors and museums to spring on opportunities when they present themselves, he explained.
“When you’re looking for great works of art, you have to look at what’s going on,” Driscoll said. “Collectors die. Collectors get divorced. Collectors have financial trouble. Museums decide to sell things … Works of art have been buried in people’s private collections. We are just constantly in touch with people about what’s happening.” Then, when he finds something promising, Driscoll has to verify its authenticity, condition, and provenance.
“It’s the hunt and the capture,” Kierlin said of the process.
“John has been in the industry so long he knows where the paintings are,” Kierlin continued. The fact that MMAM will be putting these paintings on public display is another selling point, he said. “A lot of collectors, if they’re going to sell, they want to sell to a museum,” Kierlin stated.
“I feel like a prospector,” Driscoll said with a smile. Lots of searching and a little luck can yield a treasure.
The new paintings come as MMAM is on pace to set a new annual attendance record this year, according to executive director Nicole Chamberlain-Dupree. This fall, the museum broke its own single-day attendance records twice, when 784 people came to one of the museum’s Second Saturday events and then 884 came to the next Second Saturday. Thanks to grant funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board, MMAM offers $1 admission every second Saturday of the month. So far this year, Chamberlain-Dupree said, “Over 30,000 people have come through these doors, seen this art, and had an opportunity to have a conversation about these great works of art.”
More information is available at mmam.org.