Now everyone is an insider!
In order to provide an open forum for ALL of the museum’s collection and activities, the Paper + People blog is being renamed SCMA Insider. With its expanded focus, SCMA Insider will act as a go-to place for sharing information on the diverse collections and many voices and visions that shape SCMA.
If you want to contribute to the blog, please contact the Brown Post-Baccalaureate Curatorial Fellow, Shanice Bailey, at email@example.com.
Thursday, September 7, 2017
Guest blogger Zoe Dong is a Smith College student, class of 2018J, with a major in studio art. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. This is the second of a three-post series on contemporary works by Black women in the Center's collection.
Kara Walker was born in 1969 in California, the daughter of a painter father. She received her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994 and then skyrocketed to national attention the same year when she debuted a mural called Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. Just a few years after at the age of 27, she became one of the youngest people in history to receive a MacArthur genius grant. Working in stylized, cartoonish, delicately cut-paper silhouettes (an art form she has described as “sort of forgotten and small, female and domestic”), Walker’s work explores the violences of the history of slavery in the American antebellum South as she creates elaborate scenes of outlined slaves and masters, oppressors and the oppressed.
Her art has been lauded by many as being fearless in its discussion of sexual violence, exploitation and pain suffered by slaves, but has also been criticized, notably by prominent African-American artist Betye Saar. Saar called Walker’s work "revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves...[and] basically for the amusement and investment of the White art establishment" in 1999. Walker’s 2010 work The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos also stirred discussion and made national news when the library it was displayed at, the Newark Public Library, was so offended by its portrayal of oral sex that they covered the piece with a cloth that visitors had to lift to view. Whether one finds her work enlightening or degrading, truthful or harmfully stereotypical, Walker stands as an important figure in contemporary American art.
Freedom, a Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times is one of the artist’s books in the collection. Made in 1997, Freedom, a Fable places Walker’s signature cut paper work into a pop-up book, telling the life story of a formerly enslaved woman.
Kara Walker. American, 1969-. Freedom, a Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times. 1997. bound book with red leather covered cardboard covers containing printed text and black cut paper. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. James A. Muspratt, through the generosity of Regina Taylor and Peter Norton. SC 1998:2
The Cunningham Center also owns several pieces from the Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) series.
Kara Walker. American, 1969-. Buzzard’s Roost Pass, from the portfolio Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005. offset lithography and screenprint on Somerset Textured paper. Purchased with the Dorothy C. Miller, class of 1925, Fund. SC 2010:64-3.
In these large-scale lithograph/screenprints, Walker has placed silhouettes of portraits of slaves over reproductions of 1866 illustrations of the Civil War from Harper’s Magazine. With these works, Walker aims to bring to the forefront the histories left out of textbooks, the stories of the Civil War that have not been glorified by mainstream white American history.
Wednesday, July 3, 2019
As a student assistant in the Cunningham Center I have the opportunity to work hands-on with the collection. I came across the Los Caprichos prints by Goya in storage and was struck by their bizarre and grotesque nature and was interested in why Goya used this specific imagery.
Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes was born March 30, 1746 in Aragon, Spain. He began studying painting at the age of 14 under Jose Luzan y Martinez and later Anton Raphael Mengs. In 1786 he became a painter for the Spanish court serving under Charles III and Charles IV. Goya suffered from an unknown illness in 1793 which caused him to lose his hearing. After this, his work became darker and more disturbing in its subject matter. In 1799 he published a series of 80 prints titled Los Caprichos. In this series, Goya explores the state of the world around him. He uses satire to comment on what he saw as the folly of mankind. I was particularly interested in Goya’s depiction of witches in Los Caprichos. While Goya himself did not believe in the existence of witches, the general public did. Therefore, Goya used images of witches in his work to reflect the evil he saw plaguing society. The perception of witches and witchcraft at this time stood in direct opposition to the values of the church. However, it was often clergy members that were depicted in these horrific scenes as Goya saw the church as a source of corruption and evil in society. He portrayed the perils of ignorance and superstition by casting individuals in the roles of witches or demons performing evil acts.
Francisco Goya, Spanish (1746-1828). Allà và eso (there they go) plate 66 from Los Caprichos 1799. Etching, aquatint and drypoint printed in black on laid paper. Purchased with the gift of Albert H. Gordon. SC 1964.34.66
The witches in Los Caprichos are identifiable by their old age and several symbols of evil and sin that are often pictured alongside them. They are in flight in many of the prints, often with a broom between their legs. Flying was seen as a symbol of lechery and sin. Similarly, cats, who have often been depicted as companions to witches, are a symbol of female seduction and also feature in many prints from this series. Owls are another symbol often found in these prints. Though they were thought to be ill-omens and symbols of darkness and ignorance in Goya’s time, they have also been traditionally associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. It is said that an owl sat on her blind side allowing her to see all and to see truth. While Goya’s inclusion of owls is certainly a reference to their association with witchcraft, they may also symbolize the truth that Goya feels he is revealing in Los Caprichos.
Francisco Goya, Spanish (1746-1828). Linda Maestra!(Pretty Teacher!) plate 68 from Los Caprichos 1799. Etching, aquatint and drypoint printed in black on laid paper. Purchased with the gift of Albert H. Gordon. SC 1964.34.68
Francisco Goya, Spanish (1746-1828). Mucho hay que chupar (there is a lot to suck) plate 45 from Los Caprichos 1799. Etching, aquatint and drypoint printed in black on laid paper. Purchased with the gift of Albert H. Gordon. SC 1964.34.45
One disturbing element found in many of the prints depicting witchcraft is the abuse and cannibalism of babies by the witches. They can be seen in plates 44, 45, 47. No scholarly work has been done to identify the meaning behind this particular use of babies. However, it is likely a commentary on the abuse of children, often by the church, who are some of the most vulnerable members of society. Another possible explanation is that at this time it was thought that unbaptized children were more susceptible to being victimized by witches and be used as sacrifices.
Francisco Goya, Spanish (1746-1828). Si amance, nos Vamos (we must be off with the dawn) plate 71 from Los Caprichos 1799. Etching, aquatint and drypoint printed in black on laid paper. Purchased with the gift of Albert H. Gordon. SC 1964.34.71
Goya created Los Caprichos using the aquatint technique which creates a strong contrast between light and dark which further emphasizes the dark and ominous nature of these prints. The aquatint plates degrade quickly and therefore only the first few editions of these prints have this striking contrast. Luckily most of the Los Caprichos prints in the SCMA collection are first editions. The darkness that shrouds the witches in Los Caprichos represents the lack of enlightenment that Goya felt plagued society. In plate 71, the witches are huddled together with their belongings wrapped in a rucksack preparing to flee because dawn is approaching -- and with the dawn comes light, and thus enlightenment.
Los Caprichos is an excellent example of an artist using their work to comment on and critique the morals of the world in which they live. Throughout these prints, Goya used the superstitions at the time to show that the real threat to society is not demons or witches but our own ignorance.