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The stories behind paintings and sculptures can be as interesting as the work itself. From romantic intrigue to momentous geopolitical events, looking "behind the easel" can shed light on our shared history and culture. Erin shares the stories behind artistic masterpieces, from Rothko's Seagram Murals to Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Here is the piece we mention about the Benin Bronzes:

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Did you know that Claude Monet's beautiful gardens in Giverny once caused him to curse out an entire town the impressionist would go on to paint his famous water lily paintings in the serene setting, but navigating The small French commune's bureaucracy proved stressful.

Locals objected to Monet's plans for an Asian-influenced water garden, fearing the environmental impact of introducing non-native plant species to the area. They made it so difficult to acquire the land that Monet once wrote to his wife I want no longer to have anything to do with all those people in Giverny on the natives of Giverny Monet's ironic anger in acquiring the tranquil gardens is just the start of the first of many surprising stories behind artistic masterpieces that I'm going to share with you today from the American who painted in a converted model a forward to the abstract pioneer whose work goes in debt to her fondness for seances let's get started.

Despite his initial frustrations, Monet succeeded in acquiring the land necessary for his gardens and soon built the Japanese footbridges he would make so iconic. An avid gardener, Monet also acquired a number of newly bred multicolored species of water lilies, though, in his words, he grew them without thinking of painting them. Luckily, the influential painter was able to make that creative leap on his own, but we still might not have gotten some of his most beautiful later masterpieces without an assist from Georges Clemenceau, yes the former prime minister of France, who also happened to be an old friend of Monet's when the artist developed cataracts late in life he was resolved to avoid eye surgery, even saying he would give up painting if necessary clem and so who had later chide his friend that complaining gives you the greatest joy in life, honestly same helped convince his gifted friend to get the surgery Monet eventually completed the massive water lily paintings that he called his grand decorations and donated the pieces to the French state as he had promised today they're housed in Paris?s Musee Monet's rough contemporary Edward Manet on the other hand once gifted what may be history's most valuable stock of asparagus when the French art critic and collector Charles Ephrussi purchased a still-life painting of a bunch of asparagus mandae charged him 800 francs Ephrussi sent a thousand francs in payment as either a token of appreciation for the extra cash or evidence that he couldn't avoid an opportunity for a good dad joke Manet created an additional painting of a single stalk of asparagus and sent it to his patron with a note reading there was one missing from your bunch today the bonus picture hangs in Paris Muse D'orsay Manet evidently had a good relationship with Ephrussi but it was mark grafco's antipathy for his audience that led to an interesting story, with his Seagram murals on February 25th 1970.

Rothko's nine paintings arrived at the Tate Gallery in London the very same day Rothko was found dead in New York. but that sad bit of historical timing is just the final chapter of an interesting story. The paintings had originally been commissioned by Philip Johnson for the newly built sergeant building which was the most expensive skyscraper of its type when it was built they were meant to be hung in the building's four seasons restaurant There's a Rudy Giuliani joke in there somewhere but I I think it got lost at the adult bookstore anyway, a venue like the four seasons in the center of corporate America didn`t seem like a natural fit for a high-minded artist like Rothko he had his reasons, though, as he told Harper's magazine editor John Fisher I accepted this assignment as a challenge with strictly malicious intentions I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every sun whoever eats in that room Rothko also accepted the assignment with an out built into his contract at any point he could return the money and retrieve his paintings after eating a meal at the four seasons Rothko is said to have remarked anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine that one meal may not be the sole reason for his about face But he withdrew from the agreement and donated the pieces to London's Tate gallery . They eventually ended up in the Tate Modern.

Playwright John Logan actually dramatized the creation of the Seagram murals in his tony winning play Red. Several decades earlier, a different masterpiece changed locations under much more sinister circumstances. Gustav Klim's Woman in Gold depicts Adela Block Bauer, the wife of sugar mogul Ferdinand Bloch Bauer when the Nazis invaded Austria in the late 30s.

They stole from wealthy Jews like Block Bauer, taking his entire art collection and his prized Stradivarius Cello years later, with the painting now hanging in Vienna's Austrian gallery at Belvedere palace, Frederick's niece Maria Altman went on a mission to reclaim her family's property. A lengthy legal battle ensued, discussing the Austrian government's tactics with the Los Angeles Times back in 2001 Altman said they will delay, delay, delay hoping I would die. But I will do them the pleasure of staying alive.

The United States supreme court even weighed in at one point and, the painting was eventually returned to Ms. Altman, who then sold the piece to philanthropist Ronald Louder so he could put it on display at Manhattan’s neue gallery. Of course, the Nazis aren`t the only ones to have stolen precious works of art.

One particularly damning episode took place near the end of the 19th century during the colonial fervor that's been called the scramble for Africa in 1896 the British acting consul in the Niger coast protectorate captain James Robert Phillips saw permission to depose the Abba or ruler of Benin a kingdom located in present-day Nigeria Phillips believed the Abba was standing in the way of profitable trade in the region and wrote I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the king's house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the king from his stool when Phillips and his men were denied an audience with the Abba they went anyway ostensibly on a peaceful mission though that account has been called into question almost the entire party was killed and in less than two months retaliatory British forces were sent to occupy Benin city while the number of casualties is unknown contemporary accounts make it clear the number was substantial British forces burned down buildings including the royal palace and looted thousands of works of art including the so-called Benin bronzes these sculptures many of which are actually made of brass represent not just part of Benin’s history but artistic excellence so advanced that an early 20th century curator of the Berlin ethnographic museum declared them to stand even at the summit of what can be technically achieved many of the sculptures were made with the time-intensive lost wax casting process by master artisans in Benin’s brass casting guild . Today, most of the Benin bronzes are in museums and private collections far outside the original kingdom of Benin. The British museum owns over 900 such pieces and while new conversations about repatriating ill-gotten artwork have led to initiatives like the Benin Dialogue group and plans for a new museum in Benin filled with artwork loaned back to the area, very little has been permanently returned to Nigeria or to the present day Abba.

One notable exception comes from a Welsh doctor named Mark Walker, whose grandfather took part in the 1897 raid of Benin through a series of coincidences and the efforts of two former British police officers, Steve Dunstone and Timothy Awayemi, the younger Mr. Walker helped return two artifacts to the Abba of Benin back in 2014. You can read about the whole saga, and a New York Times piece we`ve linked to below Cara Walker's work is also inextricably tied to the legacy of colonialism and slavery.

While she became famous, largely for her provocative work with paper cutouts, it was a much different type of piece that showed some of the possibilities and limitations of public art in 2014 she installed a subtlety or the marvelous sugar baby an homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the new world on the occasion of the demolition of the domino sugar refining plant in the former location of that same domino sugar refining plant the piece was financed largely by the real estate company two trees which owned the Domino sugar refinery site and was planning a costly development at the location that a giant real estate outfit would underwrite work from an iconoclastic artist like Walker would prove to be just one of the project`s many ironies. The exhibit's centerpiece was a massive sculpture that took a team of dozens to create it mixes the posture of a sphinx with elements taken from stereotypical depictions of the mammy archetype with the entire figure covered in thousands of pounds of actual sugar donated by Domino and the floor of the site still stained with molasses from its history as a working plant. The piece alludes to the history of sugar production and trade and the bitter role the ingredient played in accelerating the African slave trade. we actually discussed some of that history in an episode of food history if you want to learn more Walker called her piece of Subtlety a nod to the old label for grand sugar sculptures created for nobility of the past through her towering work is as she recognized unsubtle in many ways through the sculpture's representation of breasts and genitalia could be read as allusions to the hyper-sexualization of black women in American culture or to an awful legacy of sexual violence Many of the exhibition's attendees seemed blissfully unaware of that history some posed suggestively with the sphynx others made adolescent bodily jokes on Instagram and other social media platforms.

Walker, for her part, anticipated the reaction, saying I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world, and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way they do. She did choose to surreptitiously film some of these reactions and compiled them into its own piece, a video titled an audience. Georgia O’Keeffe probably could have made her own short film about the dissonance between her paintings and the reactions they provoked.

While many reduce her rather wide-ranging body of subjects to flowers that look like vaginas, O’Keeffe resisted that simplistic reading. She once said you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower and I don't. Obviously, you can choose to heed that message or not at your own discretion but there are a couple of facts about the way she painted that will hopefully give you some appreciation for both the tenacity and dumb luck that can lead to artistic achievement O’Keefe spent many years visiting and then living near the ghost ranch in New Mexico. but she might never have discovered the area if she hadn't had such a terrible driver; her difficulties in learning to operate a car were legendary, according to the art critic Calvin Tompkins as she told Tompkins back in 1974 one day The boy who was trying to teach me to drive said he knew of a place he thought I'd like better than any I’d seen and he brought me to the Ghost Ranch.

I think the story is that a family was murdered there and that, from time to time, a woman carrying a child appears in the original house that's the ghost. Well, I came back a few days later, alone, and asked if I could stay. She would go on to paint many of her masterworks in or near the stark setting O’Keefe didn't leave everything up to chance.

Though she eventually started driving her model a forward to find interesting landscapes and then used it as a mobile studio where she painted pieces like Gerald’s tree upon arriving at a location O’Keeffe would remove the detachable driver's seat and unbolt the passenger seat turning it around so she could face the back seat easel the mobile studio allowed O’Keeffe to paint during oppressively hot days and protect her from the bees that tended to gather as days were on O’Keefe wasn't the only artist who had to contend with bugs to bring us beauty. While John Everett Malay was painting his Ophelia, he wrote of the stresses of painting in the open air saying my martyrdom is more trying than any I have hitherto experienced. The flies of Surrey are more muscular and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh on top of that Malay was threatened with reproach for trespassing on a field and destroying the hay his model Elizabeth Siddell had it even worse in order to represent the story of Ophelia’s drowning from hamlet Malay had citadel pose in a bathtub full of water the website my modern met describes the unforeseen consequences like this.

During one sitting, the oil lamps responsible for keeping the water warm went out and Sittle grew severely ill. As a result, her father eventually had to pressure the artist into paying for his daughter`s medical bills. Malay may have felt that the tumultuous process would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging in his own melodramatic words, but the finished painting stands today as one of the finest exponents of the pre-Raphaelite movement.

Many of Frida Kahlo’s paintings employ visual metaphor to allude to her tumultuous life but Her self-portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky doesn't leave much guesswork for the modern viewer. In the painting, Kahlo holds a note of dedication to the Russian revolutionary Cantor Carino. That Spanish phrase which can be translated as with all love probably doesn't imply the same level of romantic passion as Contoso amore would have but if she'd made the piece half a year earlier, there's no telling what she might have inscribed Kalo and her husband, Diego Rivera were avowed Marxists it was actually Rivera who convinced Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas to offer Trotsky political asylum in Mexico years after he was exiled from the soviet union Trotsky and his wife. stayed in their host second home, Casa Azul, while in Mexico that's when things got messy or given the turbulent marriage between the two famed Mexican painters, messier, perhaps in part to get revenge for Rivera's affair with her sister.

Christina Freda began her own affair with Trotsky. The lovers apparently conspired right in front of Trotsky’s wife who couldn`t follow along in English their shared second language some of their meetings actually happened in Christina’s house. By July of 1937, the relationship had fizzled out with Frida reportedly telling a friend I am very tired of the old man the self-portrait was nonetheless dedicated to Trotsky in November a few years later he was killed in Mexico by an undercover agent working for Stalin and Kalo was actually brought in for questioning by the Mexican police when the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint rose to prominence decades after her death the art history and Julia vos suggested art history has to be rewritten.

For years, many had considered artists like Vasily Kandinsky and Francis Picabia the fathers of abstract art before they began experimenting with abstraction around 1910 the medium was dominated by figurative work representing real or imagined scenes af Klint's abstract, often geometric pieces though predate the work of the supposed abstract pioneers by several years and the story of why it took so long to rediscover her work is almost as interesting as the motivations behind the pieces themselves af Klint did show her more traditional figurative paintings during her life and even exhibited her more abstract work in London back in 1928. Perhaps the tepid reaction to the work led her to believe she was ahead of her time a skeptical studio visit from the philosopher Rudolph Steiner, whose anthroposophical society af Klint was an acolyte of certainly didn't help whatever the reason af Klint decided to bequeath her paintings to her nephew with the clear direction that he not display any of them until 20 years after her death af Klint had taken an interesting journey to arrive at abstraction. She attended her first seance at 17 and eventually formed a spiritual collective of five women who called themselves dom femme or the five the women went on to conduct other sciences with one resulting in a commission for a series of paintings from a spiritual entity the group called high master amalil af Klint eventually fulfilled this commission by creating 193 paintings for the temple and while af Klint once said the pictures were painted directly through me, suggesting some kind of channeling she also specified that it was not the case that I was to blindly obey the high lords of the mysteries leaving some tension between her own agency and the spiritual dimensions of the work the temple af Klint had envisioned for her opus was a custom-built spiral that never came to be it`s fitting then that a record-breaking 2018 exhibition of her work took place at a museum once envisioned as a temple for the spirit by its director Hilla von Rebay Frank Lloyd wright's iconic spiral masterpiece the Guggenheim There's one last masterpiece.

I wanted to discuss one or two you'll see today. Steven Sondheim is widely regarded as Broadway royalty, but in 1982 he was coming off of one of the biggest flops of his career. merrily we roll along which had run for just 16 performances, searching for inspiration. He and collaborator James Lapine turned to visual art including Georges Serrat's pointless painting of a Sunday afternoon on the island of Legranjat Lapine noted that "though the painting resembled a scene that might be seen on a stage.

The main character, Surat himself, was absent from the musical that eventually came out of this moment" on Sunday in the park with George beautifully examines the creative process with a focus on a Sunday afternoon on the island of la granjat but it wasn`t a biography of the painter really Sarat died at just 31 years old and one biographer described him as inclined to secrecy and isolation we know that the painting took over two years to complete and that Sarat had a secret mistress whom Sondheim obliquely worked into his musical but the fictionalized George was almost entirely Sondheim’s invention whether by dramatic necessity or want of available information it couldn't have been a simple matter to dramatize the internal inspiration and rigorous dedication needed to create a piece as singular as the grandshot but as someone once said art isn't easy our video for May 7th is all about old-timey scams and grits if you know of a famous con man maneuver from history drop it in the comments for a chance to be featured in that episode thanks for watching