Jennifer Dasal is an associate curator of contemporary art at NCMA, but her interest first took root in the historical canon and the stories behind it. In particular, a shocking aside from one of her art professors in college—that the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre is a fake—stuck with her for years.
The August before last, she delved into that story in the debut episode of ArtCurious, which reaches its twenty-fourth episode on Monday. While the first season dealt with mysteries and oddities in art history, this season explores the connections between art and World War II, from combat artists and visual propaganda to a certain famous story about Hitler. ArtCurious is an art podcast suitable for specialists but especially tailored to ignite the interest of people who think art is boring; either species can find their fix at www.artcuriouspodcast.com.
INDY: Do you remember the first art-history mystery that ever fascinated you?
JENNIFER DASAL: Yeah, it's what I talk about in the pilot episode. I had a professor in college who I thought was very wise, smart, and down-to-Earth, and she was talking about the Mona Lisa. She was like, "You can go to the Louvre, you can see her, you can get close." Then she paused and kind of brusquely said, "Well, you know, it's been stolen a couple times, and it was gone for so long that they probably were able to reproduce it, so the one that's on view isn't real."
Then she moved on without talking about it much more, and I thought that seemed like such a weird conspiracy theory. It stuck with me and, years later, when I went on a business trip to Paris, I went to the Louvre. That story came back to me and I wanted to know more, and that's really the impetus for this podcast.
Is it a widely accepted theory or is it regarded as a conspiracy theory?
I definitely think it's a conspiracy theory. It's something I've seen mostly on Reddit feeds and things that weren't necessarily historically credible research sites. I think it was something my professor really believed off the record. I understand that if something is truly priceless, you may want to keep it safe and have some falsified version to protect the real one, but the fact that you have so much protection at the Louvre around it today—not just cameras, but two guards who are there all the time, bulletproof glass—I don't think you'd go to such extremes if it wasn't the real deal. But I can't ever quite say for sure.
Is a lot of what you explore open-ended? Are you more interested in the mystery itself or finding the solution?
I think I'm more interested in just sharing stories. If an episode is about a mystery, then for sure I like to give you my perspective, but I also want people to be able to come up with their own. I don't have many mysteries in this second season; it's all about the connection between art and World War II. But mostly, I'm interested in slightly off-the-wall topics in art history because so many people in my past said they thought art was pretty boring, not like dance or music or a movie—something that was static. But you just have to dig into the weird stories behind it. If there's a cool mystery or something kind of sexy, that really helps.
Why did a podcast seem like the right way to share these stories?
This is my first time podcasting, and I jumped into it a little bit blindly. I listen to them every day, they're the audio backdrop of my life. I always thought about it as story time for grownups. It's a lot more work than it's made to appear, from writing the episodes to producing and editing and promoting. But I think it's an easy, free, accessible, democratic way for people to get information.
Tell us more about the format change for Season two.
The first season, the first twenty episodes, were mostly one-offs. I'm linking everything by theme or time period from here on out. This season is about World War II, and I think for the next season I'm going to talk about art rivalries. The first episode was an overview of how war and art have been connected throughout history, and then I did an episode about Hitler as a failed artist. The episode I just released is about combat artists, people who were asked by the military to document what they saw on the battlefields. The next episode is on visual propaganda.
Was there any particular reason you were drawn to World War II right now?
There are so many stories you can talk about with World War II, and some are really famous. A lot of people know about The Monuments Men, but not necessarily about the "Ghost Army," which was all about the Allies using art and design and engineering to create fake armies and fool the Axis. The fact that there was so much art looting in World War II is something I'll be digging into as well.
The story about Hitler being a failed artist isn't an art mystery, but you might almost call it an art legend. Is that a thread in the show, debunking or deepening truisms in art?
Definitely. I do that in the second episode of the first season, for example, talking about a book that came out a few years ago that said maybe Van Gogh was murdered instead of committing suicide. I go through and talk about what my theory is, which things seem more or less credible. And I just did a Creative Mornings talk about Van Gogh as a tortured genius, trying to say whether that term is appropriate for him. He was tortured—was he a genius? Let's talk about that.