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, August 9, 2012
Japan and Photography in the 19th-Century
When American Commodore Matthew C. Perry landed in Yokohama, Japan in 1854, the country had been in a state of isolation for over 200 years. Wary of the influences of Western civilizations, the island nation sought to preserve its culture and autonomy by shutting out the rest of the world, beginning in 1635. This era of Japanese history is known as the Edo or Tokugawa Period, when Japan was a feudal society, ruled by daimyo(lords), shoguns(generals), and samurai(aristocratic warriors). In 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and a traditional monarchy was reinstated, beginning the period known as the Meiji Restoration, after the ruling Emperor Meiji. After re-opening its gates to the world, Japan was in a state of rapid modernization and Westernization, which were considered synonymous at times.
Photography, a modern invention, was introduced to Japan in the 1850s. (The first datable photographs taken in Japan were shot in 1854 by daguerreotypist Eliphalet Brown, Jr., who accompanied Commodore Perry on his expedition.) Originally met with widespread hostility and resistance, it was not until the 1860s that photography grew in popularity. The Japanese word for “photograph” is shashin,meaning “reproducing reality” – a translation that is only partially true. There was a significant Western market for tourist photographs of Japan, particularly since no foreigners were previously able to enter the country for hundreds of years. These photographs were often contrived, exoticized images of feudal Japan, sold as both landscapes and studio portraits of “native types.” However realistic or not they actually were, these photographs are fascinating documents of an antiquated, romantic view into a culture that was changing at breakneck speed.
The most well-known and influential photographer in 19th-century Japan was actually not Japanese at all. Felice Beato was an Italian-British photographer who worked in Japan from 1863 until 1884. His photographic albums are unique visual documents of the last years of the country’s feudal period, 1865-68. His work was hugely influential to all subsequent 19th-century Japanese photography, particularly with his albumen prints which were hand-colored by Japanese artists. Many of these artists were formerly employed by coloring woodblocks for the production of ukiyo-eprints; Beato photographed one such painter from his studio (see below). (Click hereto see Amanda Shubert’s discussion of this popular art form, which photography supplanted in popularity in the second half of the 19th-century.) Beato’s work is closely related to the ukiyo-etradition in production and aesthetics; his studio portraits of geisha and tradespeople are quite unlike the picturesque and sentimentalized commercial photographs of his time.
Baron Raimund von Stillfried
Felice Beato’s legacy was carried on by his contemporary competitor, Baron Raimund von Stillfried, an Austrian nobleman. From 1871 until 1885, Stillfried lived and worked in Yokohama, the largest city for exporting photographs, where Beato also had his studio. He was the first European photographer to use Japanese apprentices. Stillfried’s most famous photographic album, Views and Costumes of Japan,includes the last depictions of samurai warriors taken before they were no longer allowed by law to wear their topknot hairstyle or carry swords, symbols of their aristocratic status which was dismantled with demise of the Tokugawa shogunate.
One of Stillfried’s Japanese apprentices was Kusakabe Kimbei, who became a commercial photographer with his own studio in Yokohama. His and Stillfried’s photographs are instilled with a psychological sense of their subjects that is lacking in the work of Beato. While he worked in relative obscurity during his lifetime, Kimbei is now one of the most renowned Japanese photographers of the 19th-century. Pictured below are works by Kimbei which the Smith College Museum of Art acquired recently.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
A couple of years ago I ventured out on a small personal pilgrimage to visit the hometown and gravesite of an artist whom I consider to be one of Belgium’s best; James Ensor (1860-1949).
Since I’m originally from the Netherlands, I’m quite familiar with the neighboring country of Belgium, however I had never been to the seaside town of Oostende. I was very excited to discover Ensor’s old stomping grounds.
Ensor spent most of his life in Oostende with the exception of two years where he studied at the Academie Royal des Beaux-Arts in Brussels only to return completely disillusioned, referring to the Academy as the” establishment of the near blind.” It was in Oostende where he was inspired to create his unique artistic vision.
Oostende is one of many interesting but forgotten Northern seaside places which used to draw a rather sophisticated crowd in the 19th-century.
Its glorious past lingers only faintly in the large, now dilapidated, buildings which immediately bring on a rather melancholic feeling, especially on a dreary fall day.
While known for its seasonal lively carnival crowds, a spectacle often displayed in Ensor’s art, historically, it is a rather dark place. Coveted because of its strategic location, it was frequently destroyed by invading armies. It was also the site of the bloodiest battle of the Eighty Years War and it is rumored that human bones are still to be found in its dunes. Ensor was clearly intrigued by these battles, as he drew quite a few of them. The Smith College Museum of Art owns a small etching called La Bataille des Èperons d'Or(The Battle of the Golden Spurs) from 1895 – a darkly comical, cartoonish rendition of a famous Flemish battle which took place in 1302.
For many years, Ensor fought his own personal battles with the local arts establishment, until finally the tide turned in his favor. During his early years, his work was mostly rejected and he was regarded to be eccentric and quite a loner. Later in life, after he had turned into an old, dignified, and white-bearded man, he was often seen wandering the broad boulevard.
Society finally caught up with him and his art and he came to enjoy the fruits of his labor during his lifetime – an outcome not often enjoyed by such a recalcitrant visionary artist.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Richard Diebenkorn. Untitled #25,1981. Gouache and crayon on two sheets of heavyweight glossy white paper. Gift of The Pokross Art Collection, donated in accordance with the wishes of Muriel Kohn Pokross, class of 1934 by her children, Joan Pokross Curhan, class of 1959, William R. Pokross and David R. Pokross Jr. in loving memory of their parents, Muriel Kohn Pokross, class of 1934 and David R. Pokross. SC 2012:1-6
Richard Diebenkorn grew up in San Francisco and attended Stanford University and the California School of Fine Arts, where he studied with the artist David Park. Together, Diebenkorn and Park were two founders of the Bay Area Figurative School, choosing figuration over abstraction, the prevailing style of the time. Unlike Park, however, Diebenkorn embraced abstraction in the mid-60s, when he embarked on the series of works for which he is best known: more than 140 monumental paintings that he titled Ocean Parkafter the Santa Monica neighborhood where his studio was located. With their linear planes and luminous, broadly-brushed glazes, the Ocean Parkpaintings dispensed of figures but resembled landscapes.
Untitled #25comes from a series of drawings Diebenkorn executed during a hiatus in the Ocean Parkseries. Made in 1981 and 1982, they are based on playing card figures such as clubs and spades, shapes that had fascinated Diebenkorn since childhood.
Diebenkorn embarked on the playing card drawings after his mother, Dorothy Diebenkorn, became severely ill during the early 1980s. Finding it difficult to maintain the intense concentration required for the Ocean Parkpaintings, he turned to the new medium as a temporary diversion. Ultimately, the project occupied a steady year and a half of work. Untitled #25was one of fifty sheets exhibited at the Knoedler Gallery in New York City in 1982.
Like the Ocean Parkpaintings, #25gives the sense of something seem outside a window, perhaps an abstracted landscape. The loops of the club could be abstract forms, but the recognizable shape also ties this drawing back to the representational sphere. In doing so, it links Diebenkorn’s early figurative work with his later abstract work.
Untitled #25is currently on view in Shared Inspiration: The Muriel K. and David R. Pokross Collectionuntil July 29. If you cannot make it before then and would like to see this or other works from our vast collection, the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs is open on weekdays by appointment. Call 413-585-2764 or e-mail email@example.com schedule a visit.