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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, November 21, 2013

    Martin Parr: British Food

    Martin Parr, British (1952 - ). Untitled [Turkey and Lamp] from the Food series, 1995. C-print on Kodak Professional paper. Gift of Janet Borden, class of 1973. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2002:28

    “If you go to the supermarket and buy a package of food and look at the photo on the front, the food never looks like that inside, does it? That is a fundamental lie we are sold every day.”

                                                                                                                  -- Martin Parr [source]

    The advent of digital cameras has made it easier for anyone to become a photographer, and one particularly ubiquitous subject for popular photography is food. It’s not uncommon to snap pictures of your dinner and post it to Facebook, and the photo-sharing site Instagram is famous for the mouth-watering pictures that users share. Some even go so far as to call such appealing presentation of meals ‘food porn.’

    In the mid-1990s, long before everyone had a food blog, Martin Parr shot British Foods,a series of meals, side-dishes and sweets with a decidedly different vibe.

    Martin Parr, British (1952 - ). Untitled (British Food), from the Food series, 1995. C-print on Kodak Professional paper. Gift of Janet Borden, class of 1973. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2005:50

    Parr’s first exposure to photography came through his grandfather, a hobbyist who gave him his first camera. Inspired by early pioneers of color photography such as William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, Parr became known for the bright colors in his works, an effect he creates by using flash in the daylight, and by using amateur film.


    Martin Parr, British (1952 - ). Untitled [Lemon Meringue Pie] from the Food series, 1995. C-print on Kodak Professional paper. Gift of Cristina Enriquez-Bocobo, class of 1985, and Cody J. Smith. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:11-3

    At times, Martin Parr’s British Food seems to recall the photographic vocabulary of high-end cookbooks, a result of his close-cropped images, saturated colors and careful presentation. A cheery red-and-white gingham tablecloth, or a decorative plate with images of leaves, wouldn’t be out of place in Martha Stewart Living.

    Unlike professional food photographers, though, Martin Parr is not trying to make his food look appealing. His photographs lack the glamour of a magazine spread, where every element is planned to make you desire a bite. There’s no glamour here; His bread is simple, plain, white and untoasted.  The butter on top is not smooth and creamy, but a thin off-white spread.


    Martin Parr, British (1952 - ). Untitled (frosted cookie) from the Food Series, 1995. C-print on Kodak Professional paper. Gift of Janet Borden, class of 1973. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2006:69

    On the whole, in fact, the images are decidedly unappetizing. Under Parr’s camera lens, the gooey icing on a cookie becomes a viscous white blob encasing stale, discolored sprinkles. His halved lemon is a leftover piece of decaying produce wrapped in plastic. Mushy peas, a British staple, are an unctuous mass of chunky green sludge.


    Martin Parr, British (1952 - ). Untitled [Lemons] from the Food series, 1995. C-print on Kodak Professional paper. Gift of Cristina Enriquez-Bocobo, class of 1985, and Cody J. Smith. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:11-1

    Martin Parr, British (1952 - ). Untitled [Mushy Peas] from the Food series, 1995. C-print on Kodak Professional paper. Gift of Cristina Enriquez-Bocobo, class of 1985, and Cody J. Smith. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:11-2

    British cuisine is famously derided, and Parr’s photographs do it no justice. Parr believes that his photographs illustrate visual truths in the world around us, stripped of false pretensions. As he puts it, “Part of the role of photography is to exaggerate, and that is an aspect that I have to puncture. I do that by showing the world as I really find it.”

    It’s disingenuous to call Martin Parr’s photographs unfiltered or unexaggerated reality. A negative portrayal is not always a truer depiction of the world around us, and I can honestly say that my peas have never looked as bad as Parr makes them look.

    That said, I have pulled a brown lemon out of my fridge before. A carved turkey looks like what it is, a dead bird carcass on the table. When we snap photographs of our meals to share online, we don’t share these imperfect images, in part because we’re creating our own fantasy of ourselves enjoying the life seen in magazines. It has become another way to create an online persona of ourselves as happier, fitter and more exciting than we really are. Martin Parr takes this glossy magazine perfection and punctures it, and thus reminds us that our food, along with ourselves, is not always so glamorous.


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  • Thursday, November 14, 2013

    In Space

    Guest blogger Petru Bester is a Smith College student, class of 2015, with a major in Art History. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    Existence envelopes every living creature on earth; its contemplation however is a uniquely human experience. Scholars, philosophers, writers, and artists have concerned themselves with the principles of love, life, and death for millennia. Painter and print maker Edvard Munch was no exception. A Norwegian artist active in the latter half of the 19th century most famous for his painting The Scream, Munch exploited these concepts in hopes of understanding and displaying the human condition to his audience.


    Edvard Munch, Norwegian 1863-1944. Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895. Lithograph with crayon, tusche, and needle on paper. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1969:75.

    To Munch the human condition was tragic. Experiencing the “traumas of life” at an early age Munch declared that: “Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.” Plagued by illness himself, Munch as a child witnessed his mother and older sister succumb to tuberculosis. After their deaths Munch’s father suffered through periods of mental illness. As an adult Munch found little success in his relationships with others especially those he had with women. Being a member of such anti-bourgeois clubs like the Kristiania Boheme, Munch took to a life style of drinking and sexual liberation. In doing so Munch lost or strained most of his relationships and was often abandoned by his lovers.

    Munch’s body of work went through several phases of experimentation but most pieces adhered to his lost sense of self and melancholic understanding of life. In the mid 1890s Munch started producing prints; up to this point he was mostly a painter. The woodcut prints made during this time simplified Munch’s motifs and limited his color palette. These pared down images are strikingly powerful and exemplify Munch’s commentary on human emotions and interactions.

    The print Meeting in Space from 1899 caught my attention as I browsed through the museum’s print database. Made from one block of wood cut like a jigsaw into three main pieces, the print is unremarkable at first. The two human figures in green and red stand out in stark contrast to the black background. Its minimalism turns into something of beauty after a moment and as a viewer I felt overwhelmed by a sense of anxiety. The figures (one female and one male) seem to be weightless and effortlessly float toward one another, meeting awkwardly in the center of the frame, while their ridge bodies in comparison seem to disconnect the two from each other. The print speaks to Munch’s feeling toward women and the relations of love he experienced within his own life.


    Edvard Munch, Norwegian 1863-1944.Meeting in Space, 1899. Woodcut printed in red, green and black from one block cut into three pieces on China paper. Gift of Selma Erving, class of 1927. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1972:50-71 

    To him women were cruel and used their bodies to manipulate and destroy men, and Munch represents this by the positioning and coloring of the female figure. Her figure in cool green is overtly sexualized, putting her body on display. She props her head on her left arm and rests her right on her hip. Her long hair flows behind her as she faces the viewer.


                                      Detail of woman resting head on arm in Meeting in Space

    The male, seen as a “victim”, is passionate and loving, as displayed through his respective positioning and coloring. He  is in warm red and faces away from the viewer in a more closed position. An obvious sexual and emotional tension is created between the two.  The carved sperm surrounding the couple amplifies the sexuality of the piece.


                                      Detail of male head turned away in Meeting in Space

    Beyond the tension presented in this print, Munch makes known to the viewer his thoughts of human purpose and the state of the living. Rejecting Christianity as a part of the Bohemia movement, Munch did not view the afterlife as a sanctuary for the dead. Death was final and the natural end stage to our lives. In life we have no purpose or God to adhere to; instead we merely float in space. This for me holds much resonance during this New England fall. The leaves that were once cool green burn with red and orange for our viewing pleasure before they die, detach, and rot. The print has takes on a poetic quality that leaves me questioning my own human relationships and condition of life.   


  • Thursday, November 7, 2013

    Cupid and Psyche

    Bartolomeo Pinelli, Italian (1781 - 1835). Cupid and Psyche (recto), n.d. Pen and dark brown ink over pencil on white paper. Gift of Agnes Mongan, (AM) class of 1929, (LHD) class of 1941. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1951:116.

    The most compelling works of art aren’t always the finished masterpieces. Sometimes I find myself drawn to the art that was never meant for display, those sketches and studies created by an artist to practice his craft or to plan for later, more polished projects. One such work recently caught my eye as I was browsing through the Cunningham Center collection: a drawing of Cupid and Psyche by Bartolomeo Pinelli, an early 19th century Italian artist.

                                Detail of faces from Cupid and Psyche (recto), n.d. SC 1951:116

    Even if you didn’t know the title of the piece, there are clues in the image that identify this particularly amorous couple. “Cupid” might bring to mind those fat, winged babies on Valentine’s Day cards, but in Classical Greece he was often depicted as a young man with angelic wings, and the artist chose to draw on that tradition here. His beloved wife was Psyche, often graced with butterfly wings.

    What really draws me to this piece isn’t the subject, however, but that it is so clearly not a finalized work. It has a certain liveliness and energy that is difficult to translate into a polished piece. When you look closely, you can see that there are lines of graphite throughout the page, and so it appears that Pinelli spent some time tinkering before he committed to a final design in ink.

                                Detail of arm from Cupid and Psyche (recto), n.d. SC 1951:116

    You can see this experimentation in Cupid’s limbs. Pinelli started with a high right arm, still present in ghostly graphite, before drawing a lower version and executing it in ink. He plays around with different positions for Cupid’s legs, never liking any single one enough to ink it over – he even scribbles over one failed foot!

                                Detail of legs from Cupid and Psyche (recto), n.d. SC 1951:116

    It’s not until we turn the page over to see the verso (back) side of the drawing that we can see Pinelli’s final vision. The ink from the recto (front) side bled through slightly, and Pinelli has traced over and re-imagined the same couple in lighter, clearer lines.

    Bartolomeo Pinelli, Italian (1781 - 1835). Cupid and Psyche (verso), n.d. Pen and brown ink over pencil on white paper. Gift of Agnes Mongan, (AM) class of 1929, (LHD) class of 1941. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1951:116.

    Both figures have lost their wings, and now the young man possesses two fully realized legs. The emotion is the same, but the artist has resolved many of the compositional problems with which he had struggled in his first draft.

    Comparison detail of faces from Cupid and Psyche, verso (left) and recto (right), n.d. SC 1951:116

    These sketches by early masters can have a powerful effect on how we view art. Sometimes, when we look at a finished portrait or a superb landscape, it seems like the art sprung flawless straight from the pen of the artist, no practice necessary. We forget the hours of experimentation it often takes to perfect composition, line and color, and the many ideas discarded along the way. Drawings such as Cupid and Psyche reveal a moment in this artistic process, frozen on a page for us to see.