It’s fascinating to think about the things that get lost in spans of time both short and long; instances long forgotten, brushed over, overlooked, products of decisions and choices that in their active act of selecting one thing saw to the neglect of countless others. This act can be found with something as little as picking one clearance t-shirt at the Gap among racks of dozens or what picture to slide into a frame, acts that create a lineage of our own personal histories, the composition of our being, eventually forming the canons in which we decide exactly what is significant and noteworthy, and conversely, what is inconsequential. Let’s expand this anecdote to the history we find in textbooks and museums, those that encapsulate a vision of grandeur and triumph and perfection. If I choose to omit details of my life to form a better picture of myself than imagine the amount of things left behind in order to shape our understanding of historical time and its manifestation in material culture. Of course, so much is lost.
Working in a museum, a lot of choices get made: what to exhibit, what to conserve, what to research. Sometimes these choices are intentional and products of business, but when you’re faced with shelf upon shelf and drawer after drawer, endless “stuff,” things get forgotten on the basis that they get pushed to the back or fall behind a cabinet. These are all practical excuses for our forgetfulness and neglect, and besides, it would be impossible to give attention and consideration to everything around us. Therefore, it becomes clear that some things will always have the privilege of sticking out, while others owe their privilege to being discovered.
Last summer, during the museum’s extensive inventory and archival project made possible by The Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), staff and students had the privilege to do just that, discover, an effort that resulted in a curious find. Pushed to the back of on our storage racks, a little disheveled, knocked over, and lonely, was the statue pictured, and its in gleaming abstraction and contrasting materials we had some intuition that perhaps it was unfairly pushed aside through staff changes, new acquisitions, and the like. After plugging in some numbers into our database, checking inventory cards, and perusing through donor records we found out that the statue was one of Sir Jacob Epstein, noteworthy British sculptor of the Modernist period, a contemporary of Brancusi, in fact. The subject of the sculpture is Iris Beerbohm Tree, in which the sculpture is aptly titled after; poetess and notorious muse to the cubists and futurists, literarians, and really, any of the intellectual “who’s who’s” of the Modern period. While the subject of the sculpture is enough to pique interest, let alone the network of suave artists behind the piece that make any art historian like myself weak at the knees, the provenance and life of the sculpture brings Denison Museum in connection to one of the most renowned museums in the world, the Tate Britain.
As it turns out, in 1915, Epstein created two identical busts of “Iris,” one of which we own, the other, on display at the Tate. Using the Tate’s online meta-data, our own exhibition archives, and some tertiary biographies on the sculptor, we can trace the path of each of the two original casts of “Iris Beerbohm Tree.” The Tate’s sculpture was bought directly from Epstein from a woman named Dorothy Schmidt, later donated to the gallery. Denison’s cast was purchased by John Quinn, an American lawyer who, between 1902 and his death in 1924, established a reputation as one of the most important collectors of European avant-garde art.
After Quinn’s death in 1924, his entire collection was dispersed. Epstein’s entered public collections in the United States and Canada, but the remainder remained in private collections or remained in the hands of dealers. Finally in 1947 “Iris” was sold to Edmund Burke, trustee of Denison, founder of the university’s art collection, and benefactor to a visual and performing arts center here at Denison – does Burke Hall sound familiar?
I’ve summarized the path of these two sculptures for brevities sake, but in the spirit of discovery, it’s fascinating to consider the homes and hands not only these artworks have passed through, but really most materials and objects that surround us. Some things will always get buried or washed away in our day-to-day, but that’s not to say that they can’t be uncovered or given some fresh air. With that said and “Iris” in mind, we have one mystery solved, 8,000 to go.
-Marisa Zemesarajs ’15