The Object Podcast
Exploring the surprising, true stories behind museum objects. Produced by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and hosted by Tim Gihring, the series offers an object’s view of us—our ambitions, our creativity, our humanity. Touching on race, class, immigration, gender, and other issues that continue to shape the world today, it’s the museum as you’ve never heard it before. Season five is underway on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and wherever podcasts are available. New episodes added every month.
The Object Podcast Self-Guided Tour
Give and Take: The Weird, Wonderful Art of the Gift
From the gift of fire to Pandora’s Box to the original white elephant, the long history of giving is also the history of receiving—a relationship fraught with desire, dubious intentions, and occasional disaster. It’s a playful journey down a winding chimney: four stories about our need to present each other with presents.
Shooting Back: The Photographer Who Unvanished
In the 1890s, B.A. Haldane sets up a photography studio in Alaska and begins documenting the vibrant life of his Tsimshian community—even as non-Native photographers like Edward Curtis are trekking to reservations, documenting what they believe is a “vanishing race.” Quietly contradicting a president and scientists steeped in theories of white supremacy and evolution, Haldane and others offer an alternative vision only now being rediscovered. A story of resistance and resilience and what we miss by seeing only through our own lens.
Goodbye, Columbus: Frida and Diego's American Dream
In the fall of 1930, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera travel to the United States for the first time, welcomed as celebrity artists, ambassadors of an ancient and powerful Latin American identity. But as the months turn to years, can Rivera’s vision of one united Pan-America–and their young marriage–survive the pressures of politics, fame, temptation, cultural differences, and scandal?
You can see examples of Diego Rivera’s work, and that of other modernist Mexican artists, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
You can see Rivera’s San Francisco mural “Pan American Unity,” discussed on the show, here.
You can see photos of Frida and Diego taking San Francisco by storm here.
You can see (and read) Kahlo’s heartfelt letter to Rivera from a San Francisco hospital (“Diego, mi amor”) in the collection of the Smithsonian.
You can read about and see images from the SFMOMA’s excellent recent exhibition “Diego Rivera’s America” here:
Last and certainly not least, you can read some of the story “Queen of Montgomery Street,” written about Kahlo in San Francisco, also in the Smithsonian.
Water for Spirits: The Circus Star Who Became a Goddess
An ancient African water spirit, Portuguese slave traders, and a snake charmer traveling with the circus–incredibly, all of their stories collide in a narrative that spans centuries, continents, and the best and worst of human instincts. How do we find resilience among the wreckage? How do we shape the spirit world when this one has failed?
You can see the Mami Wata figure discussed in this episode in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.
Finding Fanny: The Model Who Disappeared
She was one of the most recognizable women in the world, her long copper hair filling painting after painting, even if few people knew her name: Fanny Cornforth. Model, muse, and mistress to the most influential artists of the Victorian era, she still had to fight for everything she got. Until, in the end, she lost the one thing she could count on for sure: herself.
You can see Fanny in this 1868 painting, “I know a maiden fair to see,” in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, here.
You can see the photograph mentioned in this episode–of Fanny, posing beside a mirror–here.
Making Monet: The Invention of Genius
He rose from scorn and poverty to become one of the most beloved and wealthy artists in history—the original rebel with a cause, dedicated to showing the world a new way of seeing. But what if Claude Monet’s real cause was…Claude Monet? What if his rise was fueled by marketing, myth, and money? Can we still love him anyway?
Dangerous Liaisons: What Happened to the First Queer Art Star?
Simeon Solomon—bold, dashing, and openly queer—is a rising star in the Victorian art world when a scandal in 1873 supposedly forces him into obscurity, a cautionary tale for fans like Oscar Wilde. But the truth is more complicated and only now coming to light, revealing the fate of this forgotten figure as both more tragic and more inspiring.
You can see an “allegorical self-portrait” here, from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
You can see his haunting masterwork “Love in Autumn” here.
The Man Who Broke the World
Truth, beauty, transcendence. For millennia, people think they know the rules of great art. Then, in the 1950s, a guy named Bob breaks every one of them, declaring car tires and Coke bottles and entirely blank canvases part of his art–and, in turn, being declared the greatest artist of his time. As war gives way to optimism, is Robert Rauschenberg offering a weary world a new way of seeing, or is he simply, entertainingly, lucratively bamboozling it?
The Naked and the Nude: A Revealing History
As long as humans have made art, they have made art of naked humans. But why? From Greek gods romping in the buff to saints au naturel to modern “bathing beauties,” it’s the surprising story of a phenomenon as misunderstood as it is ubiquitous.
You can see one of Matisse’s reclining nudes, mentioned in this episode and a great ab workout, here, and a photo of the real thing in studio here, the scandalous Caillebotte nude on a couch here, one of many Saint Sebastians here, and last but certainly not least, Dürer’s winking image of men at the bath.
The Department of Missing Limbs
The first episode of Season 5 is a story as old as life itself: things fall apart. But what really happened to all those ancient statues missing arms, legs, heads, and other appendages? How have we come to treat them as normal–a normal way of seeing the classical age, like paintings of the Renaissance or black-and-white photos of the 1900s? Have they shaped a perception of the past as more remote, mysterious, and, well, broken than it really was?
The Sinner and the Saint: A Christmas Fable
In 1650, a less-than-holy artist is hired to paint a religious mystery even the pope isn’t totally sure about. It’s just one part of the Church’s plan to counter its enemies with guns, inquisitions, and art, but the mystery—and the artist—will become increasingly popular as a new world threatens to end the old.
You can see the grand artwork mentioned in the show here, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
The Man Who Shot America
In the mid-1960s, Richard Avedon is the most famous photographer in the world, redefining fashion and celebrity while becoming an icon himself. But as America is shaken by the war in Vietnam and racial strife, he struggles to reinvent himself as a serious artist. Showing the country as it is—not as it pretends to be.
The Ghost Ships of Xu Fu
In ancient China, a royal sorcerer named Xu Fu is sent with some 60 ships to find the elixir of immortality. But on the second voyage, he and his crew of thousands disappear. Possibly to Japan, legend suggests, where Xu Fu becomes the first emperor. Now, as a Hmong artist explains, one clue to their fate may lie with his people’s own legendary history.
You can see the entire 50-painting series of “The Hmong Migration” by Cy Thao, mentioned in this episode, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, including the painting depicting Xu Fu’s voyage: here.
The Possibly True Story of an American Legend
In 1798, a portrait artist named Joshua Johnson advertises himself as a “self-taught genius.” A few decades later, he will nearly be forgotten. It’s a mystery only now being revealed: the unlikely story of the man sometimes called America’s first Black professional artist. A story of slavery and freedom, racism and redemption, nearly lost to history.
You can see Johnson’s “Portrait of Richard John Cock,” c. 1817, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.
Seeing Ourselves in Animals: An Unnatural History
As long as people have told stories, we have told stories about animals. Stories of slow turtles and fast rabbits, sly foxes and cunning monkeys, that are really stories about ourselves. But why? What can animals tell us about human nature? And what happens to our fellow creatures when we turn them—in art and literature and myth—into something they’re not?
You can see Edwin Landseer’s startling painting of the 17th century fable “The Monkey and the Cat” in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (just don’t show your cat) here.
Escape Velocity: The Woman Who Left the World
Leonora Carrington has never felt at home in her wealthy, conservative family. But when she meets the Surrealists in the 1930s, and runs from everything she knows, it will take everything she has to become the artist and writer she wants to be. Most importantly: her singular imagination, which reveals the world as both more magical and more haunted than most of us care to admit.
You can see her feminist take on Surrealism in this painting from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.
How to Live Forever (or Die Trying)
No one lives forever. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying, and for a long time the noble way to avoid getting old and dying was to avoid getting old at all: the Greek notion of the “glorious death” that confers immortality in battle. It’s an idea that resurfaces throughout history—until it meets its match in a war of many deaths and little glory.
You can see “Kiss of Victory,” the sculpture that kicks off this episode and launched the career of Sir Alfred Gilbert, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.
The Black Musketeer: A Swashbuckling Tale of Race and Revenge
The man behind “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” was one of the richest, most popular authors in the world—an adventurous celebrity who could fight as well as write. But many of Alexandre Dumas’ readers today don’t know that he was Black—or that his best story may have been his own.
View a portrait of Alexandre Dumas, widely reproduced in his day and recently acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, here. Check out another portrait of Dumas in Mia’s collection—younger, dashing, looking a little like Prince.
Hiding in Plain Sight: The O’Keeffe We Never Knew
In the 1970s, Georgia O’Keeffe is supposedly the hermit savant of the New Mexico badlands, rarely heard and seldom seen, even as the outside world can’t get enough of her enigmatic art. But when curators, journalists, and even the FBI come calling, it seems the head ghost of Ghost Ranch is the host with the most—and hardly ever alone. A fresh look at a myth we can’t stop believing.
You can see O’Keeffe’s work, including one of the badlands pictures, “Black Place I,” in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts here.
The Mountain That Came to Dinner
It’s one of the largest jade sculptures in the world, a 640-pound mountain commissioned by the Chinese emperor. But in 1901, in the ugly aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, it ends up leaving China with an American diplomat—only to resurface on the dinner table of a lumber baron. It’s a story of power and scandal, a story as old as stone: can anyone be king of the hill for long?
You can see “Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavilion” here.
Bonus Episode: Take This Job and Fauve It (and Other New Year's Resolutions)
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” wrote Tom Robbins, the novelist. He could have been referring to Henri Rousseau, the fin de siècle autodidact who begins painting seriously in retirement: storybook-style scenes of exotic animals and jungles that eventually catch the eye of Picasso and Matisse. A story worth remembering as you contemplate a new year, same as the old year—or not.
You can see one of Rousseau’s most iconic works, “The Dream,” in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art here.
A Christmas Conspiracy: The Family at the End of the World
It’s good to be the pope in the 1600s. But staying pope is not so easy, as the famous Barberini family finds out when one of their own takes up the tiara in 1623. As Rome fills up with their art, and dungeons fill up with their enemies, can they survive the forces of change threatening their worldview—and the forces of the occult threatening to kill the pope on Christmas Day?
You can see some of the art commissioned by the Barberini family, including Pope Urban VIII, all over Rome—in the Piazza Barberini, the Palazzo Barberini, and of course St. Peter’s Basilica—and also in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which you can check out here.
Look closely and you may see the curious Barberini family crest—a trio of bees—on fountains, frames, and even the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. Read about its symbolism and ubiquity here.
The Man Who Would Be Rembrandt
Rembrandt and Lievens were friends and foes, two of the most promising artists of the Dutch Golden Age. But like Mozart and Salieri, one is remembered as an all-time great, the other is mostly forgotten. Only now is the true story of Rembrandt’s rival being told–a story of ego and admiration, tragedy and triumph, forgery and greed. And it’s rewriting everything we know about the master and the nature of genius.
You can see one of Rembrandt’s etchings made after his rival’s original here.
The Matter of Black Lives
When Gordon Parks becomes the first Black photographer at LIFE magazine, in 1949, he’s determined to show the full measure of Black lives in America. Whether the magazine, and the rest of America, is ready or not.
You can see “American Gothic,” Parks’ photograph of Ella Watson that is featured in this episode, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, here. You can also see a variety of other work by Parks, who began his career in Minnesota, here.
The Photographer in Hitler's Bath
When World War II begins, Lee Miller is one of the most sought-after women in the world–a celebrated model, an irresistible muse, and an emerging photographer in her own right. So why does she trade the high life for the front line, risking everything to become the only female photojournalist allowed in combat?
The Stolen Horses of Venice
In the early 1800s, the four famous bronze horses of Venice are restored to their place atop St. Mark’s Basilica, after a long and humiliating absence. But when American artist Charles Caryl Coleman arrives in Venice, in the 1870s, his celebrated painting of the horses exposes some clues to their real origins. A story of empire and theft, and a betrayal that forever changed the world.
You can see the painting by Coleman, The Bronze Horses of San Marco, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.
The Secrets of the Veiled Lady
They are illusions, no more real than someone being sawed in half onstage. Yet the veiled ladies that Raffaelle Monti sculpts in the 1800s are very real to him. Poignant symbols of an identity he’s forced to conceal, even as they make him famous. To launch Season 3, it’s a story of pride and prejudice and dreams just out of reach.
Here you can see Monti’s Veiled Lady, c. 1860, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
The Miracle of Saint Frida
When Frida Kahlo dies, in 1954, she is soon forgotten. And then, suddenly, she seems to be everywhere: on magnets, puzzles, underwear, flip-flops. How did this remarkable artist become an international icon, an emoji, a figure of fervid devotion? And what does she mean to those who believe?
You can see Yasumasa Morimura’s “An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo,” mentioned in the show, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.
Have you heard Frida Kahlo talk? Neither has anyone else–not since she died, in 1954. Unless it turns out that this is actually her, on a recording surfaced a couple years ago by the National Sound Library of Mexico.
The Psychic Sculptor
In 1852, Harriet Hosmer packs her pistol, her anatomy degree, and two pictures of a sculpture she made and moves to Rome. There, among other “emancipated women” in the expat colony, she becomes one of the world’s most famous artists. But it’s the spirit world that truly calls to her, the realm of the dead that she channels through clairvoyance and seances. So what happens when she answers?
You can see her remarkably tender sculpture of Medusa, referenced in this episode here.
Learn more about “Supernatural America,” the exhibition organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and featuring Hosmer’s Medusa, opening June 2021 at the Toledo Museum of Art here.
The Revenge of the Artist
Mademoiselle Lange is the first celebrity actress in France, as famous for her lovers as her looks. But when the French Revolution roils the country, she is forced to fight for her life, and meets her match in a rising artist who is commissioned to paint her portrait. A picture that will upend both their lives–and the art world–in dramatic fashion.
You can see the scandalous portrait mentioned in this episode, “Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae,”here.
Bonus episode: Love Among the Ruins
When Amedeo Modigliani moves to Paris, in the early 1900s, he soon meets a very talented (and very married) Russian poet. What happens when art and love come together, as the rest of the world is falling apart?
You can see one of Modigliani’s iconic Head sculptures here.
(Spoiler alert) You can see a close-up of the secret fossil discussed on the show here.
Read the transcript.
Bonus episode: A New Year's to Remember
As the page finally turns on 2020, enjoy this bonus episode on the New Year’s illustrations made by Winslow Homer for Harper’s Weekly magazine in 1869. At a moment surprisingly similar to our own, the American artist captured something of the feeling then, even as his life–and art history–was about to change forever.
You can see the illustrations in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.
Read the transcript.
Monsters and Marvels, Part III: The Mermaid's Tale
Mermaids had been surfacing in art for thousands of years when, in the 1880s, Edward Burne-Jones began painting them as avatars of a radical new female identity in the corseted Victorian era. A story of desire and danger as legendary as the creatures themselves.
You can see one of Burne-Jones’ early mermaid paintings, A Sea-Nymph, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. His best-known mermaid work, The Depths of the Sea, is at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University.
Read the transcript.
Miracles in Stone: The Curious Celebrity of God's Sculptor
William Edmondson is a middle-aged laborer in Nashville, Tennessee, at the height of the Great Depression, when God tells him to carve a tombstone. Soon, he’s the first African-American artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. But his short-lived celebrity reveals the art world’s problematic relationship with race.
Young, Gifted, and Gone: The Woman Who Never Came Back
A tale of resilience, romance, and solidarity: The new episode of Mia’s hit podcast “The Object” marks Women’s History Month with the story of Elizabeth Catlett. The granddaughter of enslaved African-Americans is a struggling artist at the height of Jim Crow. But when she leaves for Mexico City in 1946, she finds love, inspiration, and eventually fame. There’s just one catch: she can’t come home.
Spirited Away: The Incredible Ghosts of Yoshitoshi
If you’re an anime enthusiast, a fan of old Japan, or just into beguiling beauty wherever you find it, you’re going to love the latest episode of Mia’s hit podcast, The Object, exploring the life and times of Yoshitoshi, the last great artist of Japan’s Floating World. A fascinating show of his work was on view at Mia until we closed temporarily. Now you can see and read about it online. Then listen to the podcast, as we take you back to the end of the Floating World, that semi-invented era of sex and style, when Japan opened to the West and the ghosts conjured by Yoshitoshi became symbols of a culture on its way out.
Bohemian Rhapsody: The Myth of the Starving Artist
Long before Vincent van Gogh died young, poor, and under-appreciated, artists had gotten the message: you have to suffer for your art. But where did this template of the starving artist come from? And is there any truth to it or is it a myth, a romantic misreading of how great art is made?
Here’s Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees, from 1889, a year before his death, when he was in treatment in St-Rémy in southern France.
Unspeakable Love: The Rebel Who Went Too Far
Simeon Solomon is a young gay art star in the Victorian era. But when scandal threatens his career, offering a cautionary tale to aesthetes like Oscar Wilde, he must choose between his livelihood and his identity.
Incredibly, Mia has two works by Solomon in its collection, acquired in the 1960s when Solomon had been all but erased from art history. Click here to see them.
Read the transcript.
Romancing the Stone: The Secret of the Chac Mool
A mysterious stone sculpture, supposedly found in Mexico, is hailed as a Chac Mool, the iconic Mayan vessel of human sacrifice. It tours Europe as a masterpiece of ancient Mesoamerican art. It’s featured in magazines and books. But a surprising discovery suddenly begs the question: What is it really?
See Mia’s Chac Mool for yourself here.
The Animalier: Rosa Bonheur's Wild Kingdom
The animaliers love lions and tigers and bears — anything with teeth and no business being in Paris in the 1800s. No one more than Rosa Bonheur, the smoking, joking, pants-wearing painter who becomes a celebrity, the most famous female artist of her time, by embracing men’s primal fears.
You can see one of her lion prints here.
And her painter’s palette, charmingly adorned with a deer, here.
Read the transcript.
Monsters and Marvels Part I: The Magic Shell
From narwhals to nautilus shells, dragon eggs to mermaid hands, the obsession with oddities in the Age of Discovery may seem, well, odd. But did the study of outliers, in the early version of museums, help make us the rational creatures we are today?
Monsters and Marvels Part II: Finding Unicorns
Artists have captured unicorns for thousands of years, and for most of that time people thought they were both magical and real. What can an imaginary creature tell us about ourselves? What did we lose when we stopped believing? And why do we still love them anyway?
You can see unicorns in art through the ages in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, including this tapestry from the late Middle Ages.
Thanks to Natalie Lawrence and Marguerite Ragnow for sharing their expertise on this episode.
Read the transcript.
The Case of the Missing Rembrandt
In 1666, Rembrandt painted a masterpiece that disappeared almost as soon as he finished it. Where it went, and what it meant to its various owners, is as fascinating as the question it begs: how can people be so tender and also so cruel?
The Truth About "White" Classical Art
He was the ideal man. Handsome, strapping, with unreal proportions. But ancient statues like the Doryphoros originally looked much different, a revelation that is slowly upending long-held assumptions about race and art in the classical world. And not a moment too soon to confront the dangerous claims of white supremacists. You can read more about the Doryphoros statue here. And read more here about the scholars cited in this episode, who are confronting the abuse of antiquity by hate groups: bit.ly/2YRG5GZ
Flying Too Close to the Sun
Kehinde Wiley, long before he painted President Obama’s official portrait, went to Brazil. There, he was inspired by a monument to the great aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, whose incredible, tragic life is as forgotten in the United States as it is celebrated almost everywhere else. He created the mesmerizing painting Santos Dumont – The Father of Aviation II, now in Mia’s collection, based a curiously anguished aspect of the monument.
The Car That Killed Nazis
How to Stop an Assassin
Long ago, when everyone but your dog was a potential assassin, you needed to protect yourself by any means necessary. Starting with poison-proof silverware. A surprising story of art, myth, and the dangerous world that was. You can read more about the coral-topped silverware in Mia’s collection.
X-ray Man and the Great Mummy Mystery
An assistant curator decides to x-ray a 3,000-year-old mummy case, to learn if anything’s in there, and sees more than he bargained for. The international mystery would change his life — and the fate of the mummy.
The Indian Artist Who Wasn't
When the frontier closed, the fate of Native Americans seemed sealed. But George Morrison, born into poverty near a reservation on Lake Superior, was as determined to be an artist as he was to avoid stereotypes.
The Woman Who Knew Everything
Miriam McHugh Taney was well-educated, well-traveled, and well-known among museum-goers, lecturing on everything from the Italian Renaissance to American furniture—a rare authority for a woman in the 1930s. But the real purpose of her popular museum talks was even more interesting.
The Fellowship of Good Things
There were wolves and caribou on the Minnesota frontier when John Scott Bradstreet arrived with his white suits and Far East fantasies of furniture, determined to elevate this outpost with fine interior design. A globalist mission on a collision course with history.
After founding General Mills, the food and flour giant, James Ford Bell turned to preserving the America he knew and loved. A vision that was fast disappearing in the stampede of mass immigration — and may never have existed at all.
She was wealthy, single, and always in the right place at the right time. But when Lily Place was in Egypt during the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, her art collecting suddenly put her at the epicenter of a curious and powerful trend that was about to shape world history one last time. You can see the objects from Lily still in Mia’s collection here.