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, January 19, 2012
Uikyo-e is a form of woodblock printmaking that flourished between in Japan the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The word Uikyo-e means “pictures of the floating world.” Traditionally, these prints depict a world of sumptuous colors, elegant women, and dazzling theatrical illusions.
The “floating world” of Ukiyo-e refers to the pleasure quarters of Edo. Edo, a modest fishing village, became the capital of Japan under the warlord government called the Tokugawa shogunate that held power from 1603 until 1868. The village was transformed into a vibrant metropolis known for its entertainment culture, featuring music, Kabuki and puppet theater, geishas, and woodblock prints.
Edo flourished. Within a little over a century of this new government rule, it became the largest city in the world. When the Meiji Restoration abolished the shogunate in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo, meaning “eastern capital.” Thus, Japanese printmaking and its tradition of beauty and elegance is tied up in the history and rise of the city we now know as Tokyo. Ukiyo-e is an art of ethereal and ephemeral beauty and pleasure, but it is also very much an urban tradition – both a product of this urban expansion and its visual record.
The Japanese print scholar Sandy Kita points out that Ukiyo-e presents a paradox in its name and its history. “Ukiyo” means “floating world,” and “-e” means “pictures, paintings or illustrations.” But the word ukiyo, as a common noun, precedes the pleasure quarters of Tokugawa Japan by seven or eight centuries, carrying a rather different definition: “the present” or “here and now.” Therefore, Ukiyo-e refers simultaneously to pictures of the floating world and pictures of the here and now, pictures of the illusory and pictures of the real. This print of fireworks over the water nicely encompasses this blend of the ephemerality of the here and now and the almost fantastical beauty of reality:
This second translation of Ukiyo-e as “the here and now” might help explain the preponderance of landscape prints in the Ukiyo-e tradition, particularly those by nineteenth century artists Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. These artists are most famous for their series’ of Edo landscapes – for example, Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido and Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji – which exhibit a documentary style that seems far removed from the Floating World of fantasy and illusion.
These landscape prints are more realism than fancy. Occasionally, however, they combine realism with legend or myth, as in this print of the New Year’s Eve Foxfires from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo:
The centrality of Ukiyo-e in Japanese culture began to wane in the 1850s, when Japan opened up trade with the west and photography, a newly minted technology, gained currency in Japan. At the same time, artists like Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas were becoming fascinated by Japanese prints, incorporating the aesthetic and sensibility of ukiyo-e into their paintings and prints. It is easy to imagine how ukiyo-e, with its view of reality as ephemeral and subjective, appealed to these Impressionist artists.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
This past semester, I had the great privilege to take the class The Print and Visual Communication in Early Modern Italy with the Visiting Kennedy Professor of Renaissance Studies Michael Bury. I think I can speak for the entire class and say that we are so grateful that Professor Bury shared his knowledge and enthusiasm with us last semester; we were all sad to see him return to Scotland! Before taking the class, I had never heard of Albrecht Dürer or seen any of his unbelievably magnificent woodcuts and engravings. Furthermore, I had no experience whatsoever with writing exhibition labels or helping to curate an art show, despite my interest in museum studies. Over the course of the semester, I had the wonderful opportunity to not only learn about the fascinating world of Renaissance printmaking, but also to apply my new knowledge to writing the labels for our exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art entitled Albrecht Dürer: Genius and Fame. The fact that I had the opportunity to focus entirely on three prints from the exhibit, Dürer’s Crucifixion and Christ Shown to the People and Goltizus’s pastiche Circumcision, allowed me to develop a holistic understanding of each. It was amazing that I began the assignment looking closely at the real, authentic impressions in the Cunningham Center and finished the semester presenting the prints and my labels to my friends and family in an official Smith Museum gallery.
I learned so much from my extended analysis of my three prints, as well as my experiences in helping to curate the exhibition. In writing the labels, I was able to apply my new knowledge about Renaissance printmaking techniques, history and culture. However, I also learned how to look closely at every single detail in the prints and was amazed by the fact that each time I looked at them, I saw something new; they are open to endless interpretation and never ceased to capture my curiosity. Furthermore, I also experienced how challenging it is to write exhibition labels, but also how rewarding it is to communicate the most important points about a work of art in only 150 words! The assignment caused me to reflect on the role of labels in exhibitions and the importance of placing yourself in the visitors’ position when deciding what information to include.
Finally, the opportunity to help decide where to place the prints in the exhibition gallery and witnessing the curator’s process gave me a unique window into the world of museum exhibitions. I learned a lot about how to arrange an effective exhibit taking into many different factors and opinions, and I was proud to observe the successful final result. The whole experience reminded me of how lucky we are as Smith students to have amazing resources like the Cunningham Center and the Smith College Museum of Art that provide us with invaluable learning opportunities.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
A recent and favorite discovery of mine in the Cunningham Center’s collection is this complete collection of American travel stereographs of Egypt made during the early twentieth century.
A stereographis a pair of photographs—two of the same image—mounted side by side on a rectangular card, like this:
Stereograph. American, 1904. Bequest of Henry L. Seaver. Photograph by Amanda Shubert.
You view them through a stereoscope, an elaborate pair of glasses with magnifying lenses. There is a slot behind the lenses where the stereograph fits.
Stereoscope viewer. French, 1855. Purchased. SC 1950:85. Photograph by Amanda Shubert.
You look through the viewfinder, and the lenses trick your eye into combining the two photographs into one three-dimensional image of astonishing depth. The images merge, and then they kind of “pop”—suddenly you are seeing in 3D. It’s almost like looking through the small end of a telescope, at a tiny but perfectly clear scene way in the distance.
Stereoscopic photographs, or stereographs, were invented in 1849 by Sir David Brewster and unveiled in 1851 at London’s Great Exhibition, the first ever World’s Fair. Series of collectable travel stereographs like this one were undertaken by publishers who employed photographers to make them on site. The photographers worked both with the publisher and with the author of the accompanying text, an expert in the field, who gave the photographers a list of locations with detailed maps, plans and instructions. The author then wrote commentary for each image printed on the reverse side of the stereograph.
You might see this series of travel stereographs as the Victorian equivalent of a television travel documentary: providing a panoramic view of the major Egyptian tourist sites, and the typological version of a voice-over commentary. The production of stereoscopes fed off of the Victorian appetite for travel, democratizing travel for the growing middle class prevented from elaborate vacations by domestic or professional responsibilities or financial restraints.