How are the Donner Party and Tarsila do Amaral related?

Short answer: Cannibalism. The Donner Party was a group of pioneers who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains and had to resort to cannibalism; Tarsila do Amaral was a Brazilian modernist painter instrumental in the formation of the aesthetic movement Antropofagia (cannibalism).

Abaporu by Tarsila do Amaral. Source: MALBA

One of the other residency applicants during my interview today was from Brazil. Separately, my friend sent me the most recent episode of “Great Art Explained” about Dali’s Persistence of Memory. Somehow these two things together reminded me of the magnificent work of Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973).

Tarsila was the scion of coffee plantation owners in São Paulo and studied art in Brazil before leaving for Paris. There she studied with noted Cubists such as Fernand Leger and Andre Lhote- which helped inform her future work. In 1928, she painted Abaporu (oil painting on canvas) as a birthday present for her husband, the Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade. In the Tupi language (an language formerly spoken by the aboriginal peoples of South and Southeast Brazil), abapor’u means “the man who eats man” from aba (man), poro (people) and u (eat). The painting itself was described by Tarsila as “a monstrous solitary figure, enormous feet, sitting on a green plain, the hand supporting the featherweight minuscule head. In front a cactus exploding in an absurd flower.”

Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question.

Oswald de Andrade in Manifesto Antropofago

When Oswald saw the painting, he was said to have exclaimed “That looks like a cannibal, a man of the earth.” This went on to inspire Oswald to write the Manifesto Antropofago (Anthropophagic [Cannibal] Manifesto”). The manifesto proposes that Brazil “cannibalize” European culture, ridding themselves of direct influences to create their own culture. In the short term, the ideas of the Manifesto were suppressed in the wake of the Brazilian revolution of 1930 and the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas. In the longer term, the Manifesto would help inspire figures in the Tropicalismo movement of the 1960s.

Abaporu was sold in 1999 for $1.5 million to a (gasp) Argentinian collector and sits in the MALBA in Buenos Aires. Today, it is valued at over $100 million. However, as Freakonomics noted in their second podcast on art this week, all value is theoretical until it comes time for auction… The most expensive Brazilian painting to actually sell at auction is Tarsila’s A caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail made with cahaca [sugarcane liquor], sugar, and lime). This painting was sold by court order and went for $9.25 million, beating out Alberto de Veiga Guignard’s Vaso de flores.

A Caipirinha - Tarsila do Amaral -
A Caparinha by Tarsila do Amaral. Source: Wikiart

The Donner Party was a group of unfortunate Illinois pioneers that attempted to join the westward migration to California in 1846. Consisting of the families and employees of brothers George and Jacob Donner and local businessman James Reed, the party started off around 30 people strong. Their journey was unremarkable at first, reaching Independence, Missouri in May and Fort Laramie, Wyoming in July. However, their party (along with 50 unfortunate others) split off from the main group in late July, intending to head to California instead of Oregon. Following the advice of the unreliable explorer Lansford Hastings (and later Major in the Confederate States Army – they truly hired the best and the brightest), the party pushed ahead into the Hastings Cutoff. This route was 125 miles longer than the established trail and cut through inhospitable deserts. The group lost valuable time over the next few months breaking new trails, fixing wagons, and searching for dying cattle. By late September, the Donner Party was the final migrant party heading towards California. On October 31st, the group finally reached Donner Pass… and found their route blocked by snow.

10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party - HISTORY
Hastings Cutoff. Source:

The party then built makeshift cabins around a nearby lake (Donner Lake) and tried to subsist through the winter. Due to the harsh weather and inadequate food supplies, deaths soon occurred; this left the survivors to resort to cannibalism of the dead bodies. For those interested in a more detailed accounting, the Encyclopedia Britannica provides a great summary. Amazingly, the last survivor did not leave the camp until April 21, subsisting on cannibalism for weeks. Although harrowing, the misfortunes of the Donner party did nothing to slow the pace of migration to California. Today, Donner Lake is a gorgeous alternative to Lake Tahoe – I can personally attest it is a great place to boat, hike, and water-ski.

Donner Lake - Wikipedia
Donner Lake. Source



How are Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz related?

Short answer: Both were the names of de facto leaders of the Guerilla Girls.

Sorry in advance if I don’t post as regularly for the next few days – I am currently in the middle of residency interviews!

Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room. Alice Neel. Source: Christie’s

I wrote about the Guerilla Girls and the art market a few days ago. Today, I was listening to the newest Freakonomics episode discussing the art market. In it, they discussed the phenomenal rise in the auction prices of Alice Neel (1900-1984), a portraitist of everyday people. Although she was somewhat well-regarded in her own lifetime, Neel’s Communist leanings, expressionist style, and progressive subject matter never lead to any great financial success. One dealer even remembered finding two of her works on the sidewalk. Today the price and total sales of her work have risen astronomically. Her works have now sold for up to millions of dollars – including her Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room which sold in 2021 for $3.5 million. The Met just put on a large retrospective of her work- which was probably further boosted the value of her paintings.

Total Sales of Alice Neel works. Source: Artnet

From my reading a few days ago, I remembered that Alice Neel was a pseudonym used by some of the Guerilla Girls. She was also listed on the When Racism And Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable poster! The conclusion of the folks interviewed on the Freakonomics podcast is that most people in the art market don’t make any money (as most lion’s share of sales go to just a few artists). However, the example of Alice Neel suggests that strategic investments in artists overlooked for their progressive views or subject matter might still yield value. One decent way might be to look at the names of the Guerilla Girls, especially the ones less well known to the general public.

Frida Kahlo in Coco. Source: Disney Fan Club

Frida Kahlo is of course far too well known. But Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) could still be an underappreciated gem. Kollwiz was born in an era when women were denied access to art academies; instead, she learned from schools for women artists. Her first big break was “A Weavers’ Uprising” which was almost awarded a prestigious national prize until a personal veto by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. This cycle of works depicted Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers (not to be confused with the folk group targeted during the Red Scare), a sympathetic portrayal of the uprising of Silesian weavers during the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Germany. Kollwitz wouldn’t look back, with her work focusing on poverty, hunger, and other social ills.

March of the Weavers, Käthe Kollwitz | Mia
March of the Weavers. Kathe Kollwitz. Source

Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts and gained international recognition in her lifetime. Unfortunately towards the end of her life, her works were largely censored by the Nazis as Degenerate Art and removed from museums. Nonetheless, she persisted in making pacifist art, and to this day she has remained very well known in Germany (there are 4 museums, 40 schools, and even a Google Doodle in Germany in her honor). In the broader art community though, Kollwitz is still relatively undervalued. Per artnet:

Today, art’s status as a viable form of protest and resistance is being critically challenged more rigorously than it has been for a long time, but so far, Kollwitz has been strangely absent from this discussion. Unlike similarly politically progressive and articulate artists like Corita Kent (1918–1986) and Alice Neel (1900–1984), or Kollwitz’s coeval, the American painter Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944), the familiar art-world dynamic of obscurity, rediscovery, and reevaluation doesn’t seem to be so easily set in motion for Kollwitz.

Some of her work seems to be selling for more now with her most expensive artwork, Selbstbildnis en face, selling for a little under $800,000. Still, I feel like her subject matter should lend itself to more growth in years to come…

Mother with her Dead Son 01.jpg
Mother with Dead Child. Kathe Kollwitz. Source

Final note: For what it’s worth, Freakonomics also mentioned that there were perhaps 100,000 art advisors in the world, the vast majority of which are “art history majors that have not made a single sale.” And I don’t even have a degree in art history…



Were the Guerilla Girls right that Jasper Johns’ art was a poor long-term investment?

The Guerrilla Girls Talk Art, Activism and New Book | HYPEBEAST
Guerilla Girls poster from the Guerilla Girls Talk Back collection (1989). Source: Tate

Short answer: Probably not…yet?

Jasper Johns. False Start I. 1962 | MoMA
False Start I by Jasper Johns (1962). Source: MoMA

Medium answer: The specific Jasper Johns painting in question (False Start) sold for $17.05 million in 1988. It was most recently sold in 2006 for $80 million. Since that time, the blue-chip art market has seen over 300% appreciation (Artprice100 Index). Although the true price of this painting won’t be known until the next auction, we can conservatively estimate a 1,000% return in less than 35 years.

Artprice’s index of the price of works by “blue-chip” artists. Source

On my recent trip to the Cantor Arts Center, I came across a packet explaining some research by Jennie Waldow. Ms. Waldow is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History and a student curator at the Cantor. For this particular project, Art/Object: Contemporary Works between Mediums, Ms. Waldow explores objects that defy easy classification into mediums. This includes posters, documents, and invitations to exhibits that were not created primarily for art. For example, Ms. Waldow notes that some artists’ intense artistic sensibilities carry over into all their work, even mundane things such as invitations to exhibits, elevating otherwise disposable pieces of paper into art. Other artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, created an original poster design for the Whitney Exhibition that clearly had great artistic merit. Finally, there are written certifications for installation projects that could otherwise easily be copied and thus are integral components of these works of art (reminds one of NFTs in art…)

Artwork Title: Poster Design for the Whitney Exhibition - Artist Name: Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence. Poster Design for the Whitney Exhibition. 1974. Source

In any case, Ms. Waldow also discussed how to classify the gorilla masks used by the Guerilla Girls (personal conclusion – probably not art?). This reminded me of some of the groups’ posters, including the one at the top of the article that I first saw at the Tate Modern a few years ago. As some background, the Guerilla Girls are an anonymous activist group who highlight discrimination in the art world. Soon after the group was founded in 1985, the Guerilla Grils started producing posters inspired by flyposting to highlight the systemic inclusion of women and artists of color from museums, galleries, and exhibitions.

Guerrilla Girls | Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? |  Whitney Museum of American Art
Guerilla Girls. Do women have to be naked to get into the Met? (1989). Source

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls launched the Guerilla Girls Talk Back collection of posters. As explained above, one of these posters singled out the recent sale of a Jasper Johns painting for over $17 million, setting a record for most expensive artwork by a living artist. The group then listed a variety of other artists whose works could have been purchased for the same price. I was curious to see how much the works of these 67 other artists would be worth today. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to find good auction information – there is a database available at, but it both doesn’t include private sales and is not easily searchable. However, this website did put together a great article examining the value of artwork by male and female artists. The overall conclusion is that works by female artists are still valued less than work by male artists.

Median prices for female vs. male artists by region. Source

This trend holds true both around the world (above) and across a variety of mediums (below). We certainly have a long way to go before there is greater parity between sales prices of male and female artists. As a final note, Jasper Johns continues to hold the record for most expensive artwork by a living artist; his Flag was sold in 2010 for $110 million.




List of artists in the Guerilla Girl poster.

  • Bernice Abbott
  • Anni Albers
  • Sofonisba Anguissola
  • Diane Arbus
  • Vanessa Bell
  • Isabel Bishop
  • Rosa Bonheur
  • Elizabeth Bougereau
  • Margaret Bourke-White
  • Romaine Brooks
  • Julia Margaret Cameron
  • Emily Carr
  • Rosalba Carriera
  • Mary Cassatt
  • Constance Marie Charpentier
  • Imogen Cunningham
  • Sonia Delaunay
  • Elaine de Kooning
  • Lavinia Fontana
  • Meta Warwick Fuller
  • Artemesia Gentileschi
  • Marguérite Gérard
  • Natalia Goncharova
  • Kate Greenaway
  • Barbara Hepworth
  • Eva Hesse
  • Hannah Hoch
  • Anna Huntington
  • May Howard Jackson
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Angelica Kauffmann
  • Hilma af Klint
  • Käthe Kollwitz
  • Lee Krasner
  • Dorothea Lange
  • Marie Laurencin
  • Edmonia Lewis
  • Judith Leyster
  • Barbara Longhi
  • Dora Maar
  • Lee Miller
  • Lisette Model
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker
  • Tina Modotti
  • Berthe Morisot
  • Grandma Moses
  • Gabriele Münter
  • Alice Neel
  • Louise Nevelson
  • Georgia O’Keefe
  • Meret Oppenheim
  • Sarah Peale
  • Ljubova Popova
  • Olga Rosanova
  • Nellie Mae Rowe
  • Rachel Ruysch
  • Kay Sage
  • Augusta Savage
  • Vavara Stepenova
  • Florine Stettheimer
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp
  • Alma Thomas
  • Marietta Robusti Tintoretto
  • Suzanne Valadon
  • Remedios Varo
  • Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun
  • Laura Wheeling Waring

What material is this sculpture made of?

Viktoria by Deborah Butterfield. Source: My own photo! Sorry about cutting off the legs – see below for better examples on how exquisitely these sculptures are balanced.

Short answer: Bronze!

Last weekend, I visited the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford for the first time since I’d been chased off for climbing on the OY/YO statue. During my visit, I walked by the sculpture of the horse above. Although it was certainly made by an artist with an excellent eye for equine form, I definitely didn’t give the piece much thought. My friend then pointed out the sculpture was actually wrought from bronze!

Deborah Kass: OY/YO | Cantor Arts Center Exhibitions
OY/YO by Deborah Kass. Not pictured: a person sitting inside the O. Perhaps EH/HE is coming next?

We’ve all seen examples of wood painted to look like bronze and laminate painted to look like wood, but I’d never seen bronze look so much like wood. Perhaps those experienced in working with bronze will not be so impressed – but even if I can envision how the casting was done, the patination is truly beyond me. I wasn’t able to find more information specifically on patination to make bronze look like wood – but if anyone knows – I’d love to learn!

Lost wax bronze casting. Briefly: A) A model is provided by the artist. B) Molds are made of plaster/silicone C) Molten wax is poured into the mold D) Excess wax is poured away leaving a thin wax layer E) Wax copy removed from mold F) Copy is “chased” to remove imperfection G) Copy is “sprued” together to allow casting material to flow/ air to be introduced H) Copy is surrounded by ceramic shell mold of sand-like stucco I) Copy is fired in the kiln to harden the shell and wax is lost J) Bronze is cast into the negative space left by the wax K) Shell is hammered away and sprues removed L) Metal “chasing” to remove imperfections. Source: [2]

Moreover, on second look, the form is quite impressive – there’s just enough abstraction that the viewer has to engage their imagination- yet not so much that the artist’s undeniably deep knowledge of horses doesn’t shine through. Looking more into Deborah Butterfield (b. 1949), her work has focused on driftwood horses for the better part of 40 years. She even cites being born on the same day as the 75th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby as influencing her choice of subject matter.

I seek that fleeting moment of… perfection [in my sculptures]. It’s like life, you might have a fabulous day, but you still have to get up the next morning and do it again.

Deborah Butterfield

For comparison, another prominent sculptor of driftwood horses was Heather Jansch (1948-2021). She was a British sculptor that initially focused on abstract art. She settled into driftwood horses later – with her website also stating she “collaborated over several years with skilled mould-makers at a fine art foundry, at last finding a seminal new method of casting highly complex forms in bronze. The resulting casts brought a new permanence and gravitas to the work.” Not particularly informative. In any case, Jansch’s works are also very impressive – if much less abstract than Butterfield’s.

File:The Eden Horse by Heather Jansch 2002.jpg
Eden Horse by Heather Jansch. Source: [4]

Three other artists came up a few times when looking up driftwood horses: Rita Dee Hudson, James Doran Webb, and Matt Torrens. Mr. Torrens has a cute (if uninformative) video of one of these sculptures coming together.

As a bonus fact, there was also a historical horse named “Driftwood” that sired numerous rodeo and ranch horses and is in the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame. As a bonus from the Cantor Arts Center, I leave you to decipher this text from a truly bizarre exhibit by Ian Cheng at the intersection of art, AI, cognitive science.

“Have you ever gotten high from reading?”


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