Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.
Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Guest blogger Maurine Collins Miller is a Smith College student, class of 2013, majoring in Art History and minoring in Spanish. She is a Student Museum Educator at the Smith College Museum of Art.
Designing and giving a tour at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) is both exciting and unpredictable. So when I was presented with a group of sixth graders who had been studying Mexican culture, I decided to focus the tour around the SCMA’s Diego Rivera works. Rivera is generally interesting to kids since he is such a famous artist with a very aesthetically approachable style. For this particular tour, the Museum’s collection spanned beyond the paintings typically associated with Rivera; the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs is home to an impressive collection of works on paper by the Mexican artist. With some advanced planning, we were able to view a selection of these prints and drawings depicting a variety of daily life scenes and portraits. With a reasonable amount of knowledge on Rivera, I felt confident that I could answer almost any question and build off of what the kids already knew. As a tour guide, however, you can never fully prepare for what the kids will ask about the pieces.
Much to my surprise, the students were more interested in the monetary value of Rivera’s work than what they looked like. Why and how art is valued is fascinating -- I don’t blame them for inquiring as to the value of the pieces. Unfortunately, I was prepared to talk about culture and why Rivera might have made some stylistic choices. I formulated an explanation “on the fly” to direct the discussion away from the monetary issue: when artworks are acquired by or donated to a museum, the purpose is not to put a price tag on them. Since museums build their collections based on what they’d like to show and conserve forever, accessioning works into a collection almost negates any monetary value. Their “worth” is not about money.
Sixth graders, however, are persistent. Thus, when they continued asking me about how much all of the Diego Rivera works on paper are collectively worth, “even if I was just guessing,” I explained that value is more than a monetary concept. Value also means how a work enhances a collection and, particularly in a teaching museum like SCMA, can be compared with other pieces for educational purposes. Value and price are not mutually exclusive.
I was eventually able to re-route the discussion back to Mexican culture, and the students finally settled into appreciating how amazing the SCMA and the Cunningham Center are. After all, how special is being in a room with only fifteen people and ten impressive works on paper—not behind glass or framed-- from such a phenomenal artist? Now that is a valuable experience.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Guest blogger Petru Bester is a Smith College student, class of 2015, majoring in Art History and minoring in Anthropology. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
Honoré Victorin Daumier, a French caricaturist, began producing prints in 1830 and created over 4,000 lithographs before his death in 1879. Within this plethora of lithographs Daumier produced a series entitled Les Baigneurs,which provides humorous commentary on bourgeois bathers in the nineteenth-century. Before private restrooms were commonplace, various members of society would convene in large bath houses where one could exercise, soak, and relax with friends. Daumier’s political and social satires explore various contemporary issues through both comical and aesthetically interesting images. His characters are exaggerated and often stand in stark contrast to one another.
Les Baigneurs, No. 21,depicts two women about to enjoy the luxuries of their bath house. The figure on the left, tall and lanky, prepares to toast to the short and stocky figure on the right. Daumier magnifies the differences between the two women in their contrasting facial features. The tall figure’s linear physique is reflected in her long pointed nose which protrudes from her angular face which sits precariously on a pencil-like neck. The short figure’s round body is echoed in her equally round face with a rounded nose and full lips.
The inviting pool appears on their left and a bucket resting on the wooden counter behind them holds various bottles of libations. (Although Daumier’s objective is to stimulate thought about social change, I can’t help but feel envious of the bathers and can only hope my summer involves friends, a pool, and a cold beverage!) Daumier frames the image in text with both a title above and a caption below. The text verifies his intentions by poking fun at the two self-indulging women: one says to the other, “Seeing us (swim) one would swear we were two fish… a carp and an eel.”
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Before the invention of the camera in the 1820s and the even more recent explosion of digital photography and the Internet in the 1990s, printmaking was the only means of reproducing and disseminating images in large quantities. While many printmakers throughout history created original compositions and were famous in their own right, some teamed up with painters to reproduce their paintings in great numbers. For both the painter and the printmaker it was a mutually beneficial partnership which increased the reputations of both artists through the broad distribution of these prints after paintings.
Mezzotint, a printmaking technique invented by the German amateur artist Lugwig von Siegen in 1642, created unprecedented capabilities for translating paintings into prints. Its name comes from the Italian mezzo-tinto,meaning “half-tone” Mezzotint is the first intagliotechnique which could create a range of shades between black and white without the exclusive use of lines, such as the cross-hatching of engraving and etching. Mezzotint is also unique in that the artist creates the image from dark to light. The metal printing plates are first worked with an instrument called a “rocker” to create the darkest tone. The mezzotint-engraver subsequently scrapes particular areas which will print in shades of gray or, finally, the brightest white. (Click to see videos of a mezzotint-engraver performing these firstand secondstages in the process.) Mezzotints are characterized by their velvety blacks and incredibly rich tones, which make mezzotint an ideal print medium for meticulously recreating the soft manner and texture of paintings. However, for this reason, mezzotint (unlike engraving and etching) was rarely used by artists to create original compositions.
Mezzotint reached its peak in popularity during the 18th and early 19th-centuries, mainly in Britain. In the 18th-century, prints after paintings by such famous British painters as Sir Joshua Reynolds (above) and Joseph Wright of Derby (below) circulated throughout Europe, increasing the visibility and reputations of these artists. The mezzotint technique brilliantly captures and translates the elegant, flowing clothing of Reynolds’ British nobility portraits as well as the dramatic chiaroscuro(light-dark) contrast of Wright’s scenes which depict the Age of Enlightenment. Mezzotint-engravers were often known for their unique skill in transcribing the work of particular painters, such as British mezzotint-engraver William Pether’s reputation for recreating Joseph Wright of Derby’s paintings.
By the early nineteenth century, mezzotint was appropriated by a new generation of British painter-printmakers, such as J.M.W. Turner and John Martin (both shown below), who were both more devoted to depicting landscapes than figures. Unlike their predecessors, Turner and Martin were painters andmezzotint-engravers who used this print medium for original expression. Turner was particularly successful for his work in both painting and printmaking. His collection of seventy landscape mezzotints called Liber Studiorum(Book of Studies) was very widely circulated. Both Turner and Martin exploited mezzotint’s capabilities to create expressive landscapes, full of drama and motion.
Mezzotint fell out of style by the middle of the 19th-century, perhaps in favor of other printmaking techniques, because of the invention of photography, or other unknown reasons. Regardless, this idiosyncratic technique, which beautifully transcribes the softness, expressiveness, and motion inherent to painting, serves as a reminder to us today of the importance of and skill behind creating reproductions before the age of photography.