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, November 1, 2011
The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.
Marcantonio Raimondi. Italian, circa 1470/1482 - 1527/1534. Or: Agostino Musi, called Veneziano. Italian, 1490-1540. Probably after Giulio Romano, Italian, circa 1499-1546, or Raphael Sanzio, Italian, 1483-1520. Lo Stregozzo(B. XIV, 426) or La Carcasse,n.d. Engraving on paper laid down on a second sheet of paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred H. Barr Jr. in memory of Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy. SC 1969:25. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.
With the approach of Halloween, and the days getting shorter and darker, I got inspired to investigate the story behind one of the more grotesque and interesting Italian prints in our collection. This large print treats a highly unusual subject for Italian art, one you would normally find in the work of German or Dutch Renaissance artists like Baldung Grien or Hieronymus Bosch in darker and colder Northern European regions.
The print reveals an impossible parade of grotesque figures, with an old woman at the center with open mouth and wild flowing hair seated on a skeletal creature. The witch in question is squeezing the life out of little children while strapping young attendants noisily lead the way through a marsh like environment, disturbing the geese or ducks out of their nesting ground. You can almost feel and hear the impact of this unholy procession.
The subject of the work is quite mysterious. However, it conjures up images of Nordic sagas of the “Wild Horde” or possibly harkens back to portrayals of the cannibalistic Roman god Saturn as in the one by Virgil Solis seen below:
Virgil Solis, German, (1514-1562) Saturn, n.d. from Illustrated Bartsch.
The history of the Smith print is far from straightforward. It has been named La Carcasse("The Carcass")or Ill Stregozzo("The Witches' Procession"), both titles emphasizing different parts of the composition. Scholars are also not quite sure of the identities of the artist and printmaker for this print. Most commonly it is ascribed to Agostino Veniziano Musi or Marcantonio Raimondi after a work by Raphael.
While trying to make sense of this art historical mystery I came across a wonderful drawing by an unknown Italian artist commonly called the Master of the Victoria and Albert Museum Diableries from about the same period as the print in question. The drawing is loosely titled A Witches Sabbathand shows definite similarities to La Carcasse. While more chaotic in composition, all the pivotal elements of La Carcasseappear. The carcass, with its devilish horned head, seems to be an amalgamation of various creatures in the Veneziano/Raimondi print, and the prominent headless buttocks is clearly a direct derivative. However, the central female figure is now replaced by various androgynous figures and at least one (fallen) angel.
Anonymous Italian artist/Bandinelli Bacci (1500-1560), also known as the Master of the Victoria and Albert Museum Diableries. Florentine School. A Witches' Sabbath,mid 16th century. Drawing. Repository: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom.
It is almost as though the printmaker decided to clean up the composition of the drawing and create a more orderly display, while simultaneously trying to maintain the wild energy within the work.
Another smaller print in our collection has a more established relationship to La Carcasse.There seems to be little doubt among scholars that Albrecht Dürer’s A Witch Riding to the Sabbathwas used as a model for the murderous hag that rides the skeleton.
Albrecht Dürer. German (1471 - 1528). A Witch Riding to the Sabbath,ca. 1500-1501. Engraving printed in black on paper. Gift of Mary Bates Field, class of 1904. SC 1959:70. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.
While the Dürer’s witch rides backwards on a goat, an animal often equated to the devil, the witch in the Italian print rides an unidentifiable large carcass, a clear symbol of death. These “wild women” represent another interesting example of an inherent fear of the power of women. These mature witches are naked, they are wild, they are in charge, and they have the power of life and death. It seems obvious that in a patriarchal society this image was one of many nightmares…
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The works of art that remain inexhaustibly interesting draw us not by their meanings but by their ambiguities - their refusal to submit to a single interpretation. And no artist was more attuned to this complexity than the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Jan Duetecum, after Pieter Bruegel the elder. Duetecum: Flemish, ca.1558-ca.1593; Bruegel: Flemish, ca. 1525-1569. The Fair on Saint George's Day (The Kermis of St. George), n.d. Etching and engraving on paper. Purchased with the gift of Priscilla Cunningham, class of 1958. SC 1973:12-1. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.
This print after Bruegel depicts a kermis—the peasant celebration surrounding a Catholic religious feast—in all its carnival excess. Men and women cavort together, overrun by animals and children; there is music, a sword dance, and a fight; a stage is erected on beer barrels in front of a church; adults gather to play children’s games.
Seen by the upper classes as a license for debauchery, kermises were much in contention in the Netherlands throughout the sixteenth century. Peasant revelry was associated with pagan bacchanalia - its drunken feasts were thought to undermine the sanctity of the Last Supper, while its disorderly dancing invoked the idolatry of the dancers around the golden calf.
Does this print reinforce the disapproval of the upper classes, or challenge it? Is Bruegel satirizing these peasants and their drunken sport, or is he honoring the exuberance and spontaneity of their celebration? Looking for answers in the print’s iconography only reveals contradictions. While dances, feasts and games may be allegories of vice and folly, they also represent merriment and community. The flag in the right foreground reads “Let the Farmers Have Their Fair” - we could read this as a protest in favor of the kermis, or as a condescending dismissal of the peasants’ fun.
Bruegel turns the subject of the kermis and its usual didactic message about good Christian behavior on its head. The two pairs of spectators who frame the composition in the foreground of the print draw our attention not only to the follies of the peasants but to how we see them, and the complex relationship between judgment and sympathy.
Monday, October 17, 2011
I first saw Eduardo Hernández Santos’s El Murophotographs in 2008 during a studio visit with photographer and Hampshire College faculty member Jackie Hayden. Jackie and her husband, printmaker Steve Daiber, had been visiting and working in Cuba since 2001 as part of Hampshire College’s study abroad program, and they had been assisting Cuban artists by introducing their work to U.S. audiences since 2004. At the time, Steve and Jackie were working on publishing a book on El Murothrough Steve’s imprint, Red Trillium Press. The pictures completely knocked me out.
Eduardo Hernández Santos. Cuban, born 1966. Triptych from El Muro(The Wall),2005 (printed 2008). Gelatin silver prints with applied presstype. Purchased with funds from the Dorius-Spofford Fund for the Study of Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression
Hernández Santos began El Muroin 2005, when he discovered that a block of the Malecón, the five-mile sea wall extending from Old to Central Havana, had been claimed as a place where gay and transgendered Cubans congregated on a nightly basis. He photographed at El Muro (the wall) over the next year, engaging in discussions with his subjects, many of whom had no other public social outlet to express this part of their identities. Although Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of current Cuban president Raul Castro and Director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, is a vocal supporter of gay rights in Cuba, there is a strong sense that even minor gains (like being able to gather safely in public) may soon disappear. The late-night revelers, caught in the flash of Hernández Santos’s camera, display themselves fully, making the most of their current (albeit limited) freedom.
El Muro consists of a series of ten photographic triptychs. Most of the triptychs includes two images of the wall itself shown alongside portraits of people at the wall. On the left-hand image, the artist has spelled out fragments from “La isla en peso (The Island Burden)” a poem by the well-known gay Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979). Piñera’s poem charts, in scathing language, what he saw as the often repressive, violent, and insular nature of Cuban culture, and he portrayed his native land as doomed and malignant. [La maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes (the damned circumstance of water everywhere)]. Hernández Santos’s project strives to represent, in his words “the inner essence of a people who struggle to define and defend their right to be themselves, to have a space of their own.”
Eduardo Hernández Santos. Cuban, born 1966. Triptych from El Muro(The Wall),2005 (printed 2008). Gelatin silver prints with applied presstype. Purchased with funds from the Dorius-Spofford Fund for the Study of Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression.
The prints Jackie and Steve showed me were made in 2006 with expired photo paper and chemistry in the artist’s bedroom/darkroom (black and white photography supplies are difficult to obtain in Cuba). The circumstances under which the photographs were printed are important to the meaning of the work: the economic realities of making art in Cuba often require a make-shift ingenuity to successfully realize projects that would be easier accomplished outside the country. The use of expired materials also contributes to the grainy texture of Hernández Santos’s images and the relative lack of contrast, which heightens the sense of people emerging from the darkness. The artist printed three more editions (also on expired paper, but with fresh chemistry), one of which was acquired by SCMA in 2010.
El Murowill be on view at SCMA from September 2 -November 20 which will coincide with a residency by the artist at Hampshire College (dates TBA).