Controversies at MAG
Controversies at MAG
The Memorial Art Gallery has not been immune to controversy. Here are a few stories from the Gallery’s archives…look for more in our Timeline of Art in Rochester – part of the Gallery’s centennial celebration.
1919: Furor over George Bellows exhibition
On December 16, 1919 the Gallery exhibited a solo show by George Bellows. The exhibit became a test for Gallery director George Herdle.
Included in the exhibition were three monumental scale paintings, based on Bellows’ War series of lithographs, which depicted events during the German occupation of Belgium during World War I. The paintings, Murder of Edith Cavell (now at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, MA, pictured), Return of the Useless and Massacre at Dinant, were disturbing to local war-weary sensibilities.
Former Mayor James G. Cutler wrote to Rush Rhees demanding that the 3 paintings be removed from the exhibition. Gertrude Herdle remembered that Rhees “came to our father and said, ‘I just really have one thing to ask of you. What is your opinion of Bellows as a painter?’ And my father said, ‘I think he’s one of the great figures of contemporary American art.’ And [Rhees] said, ‘That’s all I want to know.’ He said, ‘Just forget about this business. I’ll take care of the man.’ And he did.” (from Oral history interview with Gertrude Herdle Moore and Isabel Herdle, 1979 July 27, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).
Shortly thereafter James Sibley Watson nominated Cutler to fill a vacancy on the Board of Managers. However the minutes of June 12th, 1919 record “his inability to accept membership on the Board.”
1945: Hubbub about a Fish
“I never thought a dead fish would cause so much trouble,” said long-time MAG curator Isabel C. Herdle. The year was 1945, and the fish in question was really a painting by Leon Salter (known as Zoute). When it received the Jurors’ Award at that year’s Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition, it touched off a furor rarely equaled in Gallery history. “Every time I think of the fish in the Memorial Art Gallery,” wrote one irate citizen to the newspaper,” I dread the coming of Friday.” Emotions ran so high—and so many people flocked see the avant-garde shocker— that city policemen were called in to supplement the Gallery’s security staff. Unperturbed, MAG officials purchased the work (shown at left) for the Gallery’s collection. One editorial suggested that Rochesterians would not have been so shocked had they understood more about modern art, so later that year, Gertrude Herdle Moore and her sister mounted an exhibition, “The A.B.C.’s of Modern Art,” featuring works loaned from prominent museums, dealers and collectors, to educate the community.
1979: The Dinner Party
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