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.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
These 19th century Japanese stencils in our collection prove that, contrary to what one might expect, the tools used to create an artwork can be just as beautiful and impressive as the finished works themselves. Unlike in Western traditions, stencil-making (or katagami) was a renowned art form in Japan. Stencils were most often used for the decoration of kimonos and other textiles.
After Japan’s 200-year long period of cultural isolation ended in the mid-19th century, Westerners were fascinated by the arts of Japan, most notably ukiyo-ewoodblock prints. However, tourists were also interested in Japanese textile stencils as art objects themselves for their high level of technical mastery and aesthetics. Artist Blanche Ostertag wrote in 1899 for Brush and Pencilmagazine: “What possibilities of color arrangements are suggested by some of these designs! Cotton dresses would be an endless joy were they adorned with any of these stencils, and our silk fabrics, both for household and personal adornment, might become doubly attractive.” The appeal of Japanese stencils lay in the sophisticated integration of the organic with the geometric, using images of birds, flowers, and vegetation as the basis for their designs. In the stencil below, the rhythmic arrangement of flowers and outlines of birds arranged on diagonal axes set against a background of vertical lines creates a sense of stylized motion.
This high regard for the art of Japanese stencil-making historically coincided with the Arts and Crafts movement which was a late-19th century design reform movement in Europe and America. Such artists responded to increased industrial production by creating hand-made furniture, wall-paper, and ceramics. British Arts and Crafts wall-paper designer George R. Rigby (who made stencils himself) remarked in 1900 that “Japanese stencilling is, to my mind, the only thoroughly successful and considerable use of the craft.”
The process by which the stencils are created is remarkable and is the primary reason why 19th-century Westerners and Japanese alike regarded these objects as artworks themselves. An artist would draw and cut a design by hand, using anywhere from two to six sheets of extremely thin washipaper for one stencil. The sheets were then adhered together with a brown glue made from persimmon, which makes the stencil waterproof and durable. The sheets are often glued with a matrix of raw silk threads between the layers for further reinforcement. Without these threads, the complex designs which often employ lines no thicker than a pencil mark, would not withstand more than one printing. Luckily, the silk threads are so thin, in fact, that they do not show up in the printing. This painstaking process is made even more complicated by creating a brand new stencil each time a different color is to be printed.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
The obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is an objectification of my existence.
– Ana Mendieta
I have always been enchanted by the work of late Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, and the more I get to know her work, the more mysterious, unsettling, and wonderful it seems. Perhaps her most famous series, the Siluetaswere sculptural performances (which she called “earth-body works”) in which Mendieta would imprint or outline her silhouette into or onto natural elements, such as sand, earth, snow, trees, grass, ice, or rocks. These works are now known only through the hundreds of documentary photographs taken by the artist. Her performances of the 1970s showcase the inherent contradictions which make her work so captivating; they are simultaneously performative and static, expressive and stoic, beautiful and haunting, autobiographic and universal.
Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba in 1948 and came to the United States in 1961, living in exile in the Midwestern United States for much of her life. First receiving a graduate degree in painting from the University of Iowa, Mendieta subsequently earned a second MFA through their famous Intermedia department, where she learned to create her own fusion of the emerging media which were to define the art of the 1970s – performance, land art, and photography. While she did not physically return to Cuba until her visit eighteen years later, her work was always inspired by the heritage of her lost homeland and the feeling of being uprooted or, in her words, “cast out of the womb.” The subtle act of imposing her body on the earth is an effort to physically and spiritually reconnect with history and nature.
Mendieta traveled to Mexico every summer between 1973 and 1980, where she made hundreds of Siluetas,either in private or in the presence of a very intimate audience. The works are imbued with symbolism drawn from indigenous religions, such as Santeria – a Cuban hybrid of Catholicism, West African, and Caribbean spiritual beliefs, archetypal nature imagery, and Mexican funerary decorations. Mendieta believed she had more in common with indigenous artists than with her contemporaries, proclaiming “[My work] has very little to do with most earth art. I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones.”
The true power of the Siluetaslies in what Mendieta chooses not to show us. Apart from a few early works, such as the first in the series Imagen de Yagul(above), the artist’s physical body is not present, but is suggested by her silhouette created from her body or a plywood cut-out used in later works. While these photographs preserve the immediate and timeless memory of the earth-body works, they were in fact methodically planned, quickly executed, and ephemeral. The pieces produced in Mexico were often created within protected cultural sites – such as Zapotec graves and abandoned church complexes – and were left to deteriorate and return to the earth.
In 1985, Ana Mendieta fell to her death from a window in her thirty-fourth floor New York apartment, where she lived with her husband Carl Andre, the famous Minimalist sculptor. Whether her death was the result of a suicide or murder is still a mystery. While many like to claim that the visceral and morbid nature of Mendieta’s art foreshadowed her own tragic and untimely death, there is so much more to her work than a conveniently romantic tale of a troubled artist who died too young. She states: “My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe.” In the photographs, her physical and spiritual presence is felt long after the works disappear, but the Siluetasare not mere autobiography. Mendieta expresses powerful universal truths by employing themes of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, which resonate across all histories and cultures.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Currently on view at SCMA, Juxtapositonsis the collaborative work of On Display: Museums, Collections, and Exhibitions,a first-year seminar taught by Barbara Kellum, Department of Art. The course explored many different kinds of museums and collections, their missions, and the logic of their displays. By bringing together objects from SCMA storage, the Archives, and the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs with works in the galleries, Juxtapositionsasks intriguing questions about what is usually on view in art museums—and what is not.
In Juxtapositions,Smith students find unusual and exciting connections between works of different media and periods. For example, a mid-20th century 3-speed bicycle is paired with Loren MacIver’s 1959 abstract painting Subway Lights,and an Occupy Wall Street poster is shown alongside a 19th-century French bronze sculpture, to name a few. Kellum’s students selected their juxtapositions and wrote an accompanying text for each pairing that highlights the works’ surprising similarities and differences.
Isabella Galdone ’16 juxtaposed this Edvard Munch woodcut and Thomas Eakins painting, currently on view together in the third floor Chace Gallery:
Galdone’s juxtaposition wall label:
What does melancholy look like? For both Thomas Eakins and Edvard Munch, it took the form of a woman in black. When Eakins painted Edith Mahon, a family friend, she had recently experienced a painful divorce, and it is the emotional devastation that it brought her that Eakins chooses to portray. Less is known about Eva Kittelson, Munch’s model, but it may be that her eerie, chilling image was a mirror of Munch’s past experience with mental illness. The juxtaposition of these two works is fascinating because, although they are executed in very different styles and media, they evoke the same feeling in the viewer.
The image of Edith Mahon, pallid and exhausted in her black dress, with sagging eyelids and carefully tightened lips, coupled with the solitary, angular frame and mask-like countenance of Munch’s anonymous Woman creates a powerful two-part portrait of human suffering. The important elements that these two pieces share are accentuated by their juxtaposition. The black dresses that both women wear suggest that their identity and image is enveloped in and merged with the melancholy they express. The convergence of these two figures only highlights their solitude and the existential angst that it signifies. It is the raw aloneness of these women that draws the viewer in so powerfully to their individual worlds to empathize with them. Mrs. Edith Mahonand Woman in Blackare works of art that give universal form to individual anguish. Seeing them side-by-side reveals that they are significant for the same reason: they take negative human experience and turn it into something of beauty and artistic value.