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, October 25, 2012
My nine-year-old daughter loves Halloween. She loves the thrill of being frightened under safe conditions and, of course, the free candy. Walking past ghouls and monsters, she pinches my hand in gleeful but nervous anticipation. She is not the only one; the love of the uncanny and creepy is innate and a way of dealing with the darker side of life for many of us. Fellow Halloween-lovers can see the creatures that live within the SCMA vaults in the current Cunningham Corridor installation Monsters.
I’m personally not a big fan of horror movies, but I love a good ghost story. We all have a relationship to the monsters we create in our subconscious or the ones we find in newspaper headlines. The obsession with modern day monsters, like serial killers, has only grown and has even made it to the mainstream, as TV shows like Dexterdemonstrate. Monsters have always been part of us. They are familiar and the ‘other’ at the same time. Throughout history and across all cultures monsters have found their place. They frequent our dreams and nightmares, and surface in our stories and visual arts. In ancient Greek myths, many fantastical beings were brought to life to embody the darker, internal struggles of the hero while infusing the tale with complexity and wonder.
Early Christianity, with its apocalyptic worldview, introduced a new visual vocabulary of monstrosities. In the course of their devout labors, monastic scribes would be ‘visited’ by grotesque and ribald creatures who were then inserted into the margins of their illuminated manuscripts. While some of these monsters appear to be light-hearted or trivial marginalia, other manifestations came to be directly equated with Satan, Hell, and the seven deadly sins. Meanwhile, in everyday life, disfiguring diseases and birth defects were taken as evidence of the sufferers’ depravity, making them seem like monsters themselves.
Non-western art was just as replete with monstrosities. Whether in early Japanese woodblock prints, Persian Mughal court painting, Inuit or African art, artists illustrated their own myths and folktales with colorful and complex demons and monsters.
The Japanese horror and anime genre has grown significantly in popularity in the West over the last twenty years. Originally an oral tradition, pre-air-conditioning Japan loved the ‘cold chills’ that came with the telling of horror or ghost stories on hot summer nights. Its roots can be found in ancient Japanese folklore which gave birth to innumerable yokaiand or mononoke(strange apparitions, i.e., monsters) rivaling our western fascination with monsters.
In contrast with the interpretation of monsters in the West, which relies heavily on the Christian doctrine of Good versus Evil, the Japanese yokaihave a deep connection to nature and depend on the Taoist principles of Yin-Yang (“shadow and light”). Japanese monsters are fluid and can fluctuate between being interpreted as good, bad, funny, or evil, or sometimes all of the above. They are there to remind us of the transmutability of all things uncertain and boundless. Yokairepresent the imperceptible things that surround us that are given form by the boundless fears, anxieties, and contradictions in our lives.
Today’s more secularized monsters, such as those terrorizing audiences of Japanese anime or Hollywood horror films, retain much of their former potency. The descent into the dark underbelly of human consciousness is still not a happy journey. Our fascination with monsters has hardly waned, and artists continue to invent wonderful new abominations that both fascinate and repulse us.
Monstersis on view on the second floor of the Smith College Museum of Art until February 3, 2013.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Romare Bearden was a master of the art of synthesis. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden grew up in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 30s. He created artworks which brilliantly fused his vast array of interests and influences: Cubism, jazz, folk art, Renaissance painting, African sculpture, Social Realism, Dutch painting, classic literature, and many others. Despite the composite nature of his work, it is remarkably and distinctly his own. Part artist and part art historian, Bearden was not only a renowned painter and collagist, but he also uncovered and published scholarship on previously unknown and undervalued Afro-American artists, forging an increased sense of respect and appreciation throughout the 20th-century.
Bearden’s Untitledwatercolor drawing, which entered our collection this year, was produced during a transitional moment in the artist’s career. Between 1945 and 1950, Bearden briefly broke away from his subjective paintings of his Southern youth in order to visually interpret classic works of literature like the Bible, Homer’s Iliad,and Garcia Lorca’s Lament for a Bullfighter.The watercolor drawings Bearden produced during these years were his most abstract works to date. Their fragmented treatment of space was particularly influential to his famous collages, which he began in the 1960s.
In the process of researching Untitled(ca. 1947), I was struck by its stylistic similarity to Bearden’s so-called “Iliadvariations” watercolor series of sixteen works exhibited in 1948. While Bearden’s preceding biblical drawings depict distinguishable narrative moments, the Iliadwatercolors are called “variations” because they lack specificity, including only vague references to warriors and the city of Troy. The watercolors often share the same bright palette with black lines delineating the forms, evoking the open, shimmering shapes of stained glass, as seen in this workor this workknown to be from the series.
The static figures posed in shallow space in Untitledand in the Iliadwatercolors seem to recall classical figures on ancient Greek vase paintings chronicling the Trojan War. Here, the figure on the left is greatly stylized, much like the figure of Achilles on this sixth-century vase by Exekias,with the legs shown from the side and the torso simultaneously twisted to be seen from the front. It would come as no surprise that Bearden was influenced by the work of classical vase painters, given his broad art historical knowledge and referential nature. What is surprising, however, is Bearden’s ability to veil this mythical tale beneath so many layers of visual and narrative abstraction that without a title or exact date, it now proves difficult to concretely define its relationship to the Iliadvariations. It makes one wonder, is this actually a work from the series exhibited in 1948 or simply a contemporary drawing which is only related stylistically?
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Guest blogger Kendyll Gross was a 2012 participant in the Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies at Smith College. She also served as the 2012 Brown SIAMS Fellow with a month-long internship in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
After choosing to concentrate on photojournalism, a young W. Eugene Smith remarked, “My station in life is to capture the action of life; the life of the world, its humor, its tragedy. In other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real.” Humanism and social responsibility are strong themes found within Smith’s body of work. He often lived among his subjects for weeks, completely immersing himself within their everyday life. Smith passionately committed himself to capturing intimate scenes that revealed the essence of his subjects and hoped that his images would help to stir the emotions and conscience of his viewer.
The "Spanish Village" series concluded a European trip that had begun in Great Britain. On May 2, 1950, Smith crossed the Spanish border with an assistant and an interpreter. Lifewanted Smith to report on problems with the food supply in Franco’s Spain. However, Smith was determined to do something with a much more political angle; the timing of the photo-story coincided with the United States’ discussion of allying themselves with Spain although the country was under fascist rule. Smith wanted to highlight the poverty and fear within Spain brought on by Francisco Franco. It took him two months of wandering all over Spain to find the village of Deleitosa, a rural town suffering from severe economic difficulties caused by the burdens of the Franco regime. An article by Gomez de la Serna in the daily paper ABCconvinced him that this was where he should look for the reality of life in Spain.
The dramatic lighting in Spanish Wakecomplements the somber subject matter. The photograph shows an elderly man upon his deathbed surrounded by six women covered in veils and headscarves. Among these women are his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. In Spanish Wake,Smith makes compelling use of what is called chiaroscurolighting, which dates back to Renaissance paintings. It pertains to depicting stark contrasts between light and shadow to emphasize space and depth as well as a sense of drama. The scene’s intense lighting creates a dominant mood of mourning and sadness. The deceased man’s face seems to radiate its own glow among the darkness, creating a halo effect while the distressed, pale faces of the women are clear and poignant among the setting’s shadows. The expressive contrast between light and dark intensifies the already tragic scene and immediately pulls the viewer into the emotional turmoil of the photograph.
Although Smith sought to create “a true picture, unposed and real,” he was known to manipulate the negatives of his images. Two of the women from Spanish Wake,the wife (see detail above) and the daughter, were looking almost directly at Smith when he took the image, but Smith solved this problem in the final print. He printed their eyes almost totally black then with a fine-tipped brush applied bleach to create new whites. The result was to redirect the pupils of the two women’s eyes downward and to the side. Had Smith decided to leave the photograph as it was, the mood of the image would have changed drastically. This manipulation of the women’s eyes makes the scene more accessible as it appears the viewer is peering into an undisturbed and confidential moment. While Spanish Wakeitself may not be completely honest, it channels Smith’s desire for uninhibited photography that captures the emotional reality of a situation.