Work in Progress

Unlocking mysteries on canvas

As she catalogs her mother's works, the daughter of Baltimore artist Amalie Rothschild is making discoveries far beyond paintings and sculpture

April 20, 2008|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

When distinguished Baltimore artist and museum board member Amalie Rothschild died in 2001, at the age of 85, she left behind more than 1,200 paintings, sculptures and drawings in her Pikesville studio.

Soon after her death, the artist's daughter and namesake, filmmaker-photographer Amalie Rothschild, decided to honor her mother's achievement with a coffee-table book documenting her best work, to be published later this year.

Rothschild moved the contents of the Pikesville studio to a storage facility and began compiling a detailed list of titles and dates. But she soon realized that hundreds of pieces remained unaccounted for.

"My mother kept all her records on 3-by-5-inch index cards in a little recipe box," Rothschild says. "No addresses, no phone numbers. So I've been going through all her scrapbooks, all her exhibition lists and every piece of documentary evidence I've been able to find in order to track these things down."

Rothschild, who lives in Italy part of the year, hired two professional art researchers in Baltimore to help her identify and locate artworks that were sold during her mother's lifetime so that they could be included in the book, as well as in a complete catalog of her mother's output that she is also preparing.

But as the project proceeded, Rothschild turned up dozens of artworks that she hadn't even known existed. People she contacted because records indicated they had purchased one piece would show up with two or three. Even more startling, some of the works seemed to hold secrets that Rothschild never suspected when her mother was alive.

"This has really been more like a detective story, or a treasure hunt," she says.

Now Rothschild is appealing to anyone who may have acquired her mother's work in the past or who has knowledge of works that are still missing to help her find out more. Here, she discusses what she is learning:

IN HER OWN WORDS --Interestingly, the first thing that stood out was how many of her works were self-portraits. There's probably 10 percent of her output that is self-portraiture, though you probably wouldn't recognize them as portraits because they're mostly abstract works in her own personal symbolic language.

She had a very distinctive look -- straight red hair cut in a pageboy with bangs, and also a very prominent hooked nose, which she was quite self-conscious about for much of her life, especially when she was younger. Later, she came to see it as part of who she was, and she embraced it.

This preoccupation with her nose appears in a lot of her work, where it is often abstracted as a triangle. For example, she frequently used a sundial motif in these works, with the nose being the gnomen -- the part of the sundial that casts the shadow that tells the time. She also had a way of showing a kind of half circle that represented the top of her head along with a kind of Egyptian head-dress shape that represented her hair.

HIDDEN PORTRAITS --The titles for many of her works were drawn from mythology and ancient Egyptian themes. As I worked with the database, I also began to find, in many of these seemingly abstract works, hidden portraits of my mother and father.

"For example, one title that she used repeatedly in her works was AM-N-RA, which sounds like Amen-Ra, the Egyptian sun god. But I began to see that the AM in the title could also stand for `Amalie,' while the RA was also `Randy,' my father's name.

It took me a long time to understand all this while I was compiling the database because you had to see the works as a whole with their titles to recognize what she was doing. But these were actually double portraits of my parents.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS --For instance, there's a painting from 1967 which has a round, abstract red geometric shape -- the feminine form -- and then on the other side, on a black background, there's a triangle and circular shape in grays and whites and blacks, which is the male form.

There's also a steel-and-gold-leaf sculpture on a wooden base with the same title from 1974, which is again a female and male form; an earlier drawing on paper of another abstracted male and female figure; and still another lovely drawing, again male and female, called AMARA -- that's `Amalie and Randy.'

Until I saw these works compiled in the database I didn't begin to understand what they were. I had seen them individually, but I had never talked to her about them. She didn't write about her work other than in the few pieces of correspondence I've been able to find. She left her work to speak for itself. I've learned so much about her art since her death that I have all these questions now that, of course, I'll never be able to ask her. And I really feel very sad about that.

Anyone with information about works by Amalie Rothschild can e-mail rothschild_artworks@live.com.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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