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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, August 2, 2012

    Visiting James Ensor

    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.

    James Ensor, Belgian, 1860 - 1949. La Bataille des Èperons d'Or.1895. Etching on paper. Purchased. SC 1949:23. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    Detail of La Bataille des Èperons d'Or.

    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

    Diebenkorn's Untitled #25

    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 ccenter@smith.eduto schedule a visit.


  • Friday, July 20, 2012

    The Great Wall

    Nevelson, Louise. American 1899—1988. The Great Wall,1970. Intaglio series, assemblage of wood grained lead foil relief elements bonded to heavy rag paper. Gift of Louise Nevelson. SC 1973:27-2. Photograph by Julie Warchol.

    Known for her large-scale wall assemblages, or “environments,” made entirely of wood boxes and debris usually painted a uniform black, Louise Nevelson’s work relentlessly defies categorization of both style and media. She was interested in African and pre-Columbian art, as well as Cubism for its treatment of space and form, but refused to be affiliated with any modern movements or “-isms.” Similarly, her unconventional explorations of diverse media – sculpture, painting, printmaking, and even tapestry – reflect her singular, noncompliant artistic practice. Blurring these boundaries with the utmost confidence, Nevelson began making prints in the early 1950s which informed and reflected upon her sculptures. It was not until the 1970s, however, that she created a union of sculpture and printmaking.

    The Great Wallperfectly exemplifies this cross-media relationship. It is a part of the “Walls” series of six lead intaglio relief prints in which Nevelson integrated wood relief sculptures directly into the printmaking process. Built specifically for the prints, the relief sculptures were used to emboss, or physically imprint, the surface of the lead foil. Nevelson then arranged the lead foil pieces on paper to create the finished print that we see above. In the “Walls” series, Nevelson truly heightens and embraces the sculptural possibilities of her prints.

    Detail from The Great Wall.Photograph by Julie Warchol.

    Nevelson’s The Great Wallhighlights her obsession with the shifting subtleties of light, shadow, and surface texture. Reminiscent of her sculpture environments, each “cell” within the towering composition contains a microcosm of embossed organic shapes which protrude, capturing the impression of the wood grain from the original reliefs. With time, the surface will continue to evolve as the lead oxidizes, creating a unique patina. These mutable qualities lend an enigmatic aesthetic to her work that corresponds to the mystical nature of the artist herself. In her insistence on expanding the limits of printmaking and sculpture, Louise Nevelson exposes the amorphous space created at their intersection: “My total conscious search in life has been for a new seeing, a new image, a new insight. This search not only includes the object, but the in-between place. The dawns and the dusks. The objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and sea…”