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.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
I began working at the Cunningham Center as a student assistant when I entered Smith College as an Ada Comstock Scholar in the autumn of 2009. I had recently researched the photographic artist Julia Margaret Cameron, who was the aunt of Julia Stephen and the great-aunt of her daughter, Virginia Woolf. As a non-traditional student, I was impressed by Cameron's life because she began her career during her middle-aged years. She produced an enormous body of photographic art that included significant portraits of Victorian authors, artists, and scientists such as Alfred Tennyson, William Holman Hunt, and Charles Darwin. She created studies of women depicted as biblical and classical literary figures, along with images for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King- often developing her own soft focus and dramatic lighting techniques that were advanced for the time. Her passion for gathering a community of creative intellectuals on the Isle of Wight, near London, was a precedent for the Bloomsbury Group in which her great-niece, Virginia Woolf would one day take part. When I decided to complete my college education at nearly 50 years of age, Julia Margaret Cameron became my inspiration.
The Cunningham Center houses over 16,000 works on paper that includes over 5,000 photographs by artists such as Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Doisneau and hundreds of others – including Julia Margaret Cameron. When students begin their assistant positions here, the first thing that they are taught to do is to handle the objects in the collection correctly in order to prepare them for viewing by individuals, students, professors, and classes from local schools and colleges. Curator Aprile Gallant and Manager Henriette Kets de Vries carefully emphasize that these objects are to be used – not merely stored – in the Cunningham Center. That means that when you visit here by appointment, we have placed up to 15 objects of your choice on the tables in the study room for your own private viewing – you may not touch, but your use of a magnifying glass is encouraged! You may take your time to browse the objects, research the files, ask the staff questions, and even choose to make another appointment to view more objects. It is an unusually rare and fortunate opportunity in a museum environment to work so closely with museum objects and many people are unaware of its availability.
My experience as a student assistant at the Cunningham Center has been extraordinary. I have been privileged to work with some of the most fascinating objects in the museum and to do so with an opportunity to research and study them, as well. In my first few days here, I tentatively asked – did the Cunningham Center own any of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs? Yes, they did, I was told. Could I see them, I wondered? Yes, I was assured, of course I could. This left me so overwhelmed with emotion that I went home that afternoon and telephoned my favorite family and friends (who had all been subjected to many conversations with me regarding all things Julia Margaret Cameron) and told them this news. I was going to actually see several of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs at the Cunningham Center! When I returned the next day, I reverently brought Mother Mary (Mary Hilliers)out from its storage location and set it on the table in the study room. I was so moved that I found my eyes quickly filling up with tears and I smiled in embarrassment when Aprile and Henriette found me there. I said I was sorry to be so silly. They smiled back and said that it was perfectly okay, as long as I didn’t get tears on the photograph. We laughed together and I composed myself. Aprile said that one of Julia Cameron’s photographs would be on view in our Nixon Gallery soon and Henriette asked me if I would like to write the label for it. I said yes, but by then I was undone. So, I resumed my crying with much happiness, making sure that I didn’t spill any tears on my beloved Julia’s photograph.
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.