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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, June 20, 2013

    Vija Celmins: Always on the Surface

    Vija Celmins. American, born 1939. Untitled [Waves],1970. Lithograph printed in two grays on Rives BFK paper. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1976:8-1.

    Since the 1960s, Vija Celmins has been depicting the sprawling surfaces of the ocean, moon, desert floor, and night sky in remarkable detail. Her earliest works include a series of seemingly identical ocean surface images, including her 1970 lithograph Untitled [Waves]. This work is also one of Celmins’ earliest attempts at printmaking and has been called “one of the finest and scarcest American prints of the 1970s.”

    In Untitled [Waves],Celmins renders the water with no visible depth, horizon lines, or other perspectival elements. While this is not a typical picturesque image of the ocean, the careful rendering is utterly captivating. Its mesmerizing hyperrealism draws the viewer into this shallow space and allows the eye to wander indefinitely. Despite Celmins’ obsessive repetition of the same ocean surface image in many different works from this period, she attests that for her water has no personal or symbolic significance: “It really went into a kind of rigorous building, and letting the material be the material. Letting the image be more and more like an armature. In some of these, the image is almost nothing.”

    By Celmins’ own assertion, her work is first and foremost an exploration of the process of creating images and the physical properties of the medium with which she is working. In her ocean series, the works seem almost identical at first glance but are actually subtly individualized. For each work, Celmins uses just one drawing implement for the whole image; a soft 3B pencil, a hard 8H pencil, or a lithographic crayon (as in Untitled [Waves]) create different tonal qualities and marks in each of her works.

                                                          Detail of Untitled [Waves].

    Drawing from a photograph of an ocean surface rather than by direct observation, Celmins distances herself from her original object of study. Working exclusively from her own photographs, an amorphous substance like water is distilled into sculptural forms of life and shadow, both allowing her to focus on the tonal possibilities of the medium and rendering the works devoid of symbolism, narrative, and specific context. By negating specificity in her images, Celmins explores the physical process of making a drawing or print. Celmins states: “I don’t think of the ‘ocean image’ as an image or something I’m interested in. I think of it as a way of identifying a piece of work that I can always return to… to work on…to perfect… to make ‘real’…” She uses water not as a subject in its own right but merely as a means of exploring the physical creative process – as a form to describe from a cool, unaffected distance.


  • Thursday, June 13, 2013

    Curiouser and Curiouser

    Guest blogger Janna Singer-Baefsky is a Smith College student, class of 2015, with a major in Art History and concentration in Museum Studies. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    …when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it…” - Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865).

    Joe McHugh. American, 20th Century. The White Rabbit in Wonderland,ca. before 1968. Lithograph printed in color on paper. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:38-83.

    The story of Alice in Wonderlandbegan as a tale to pass the time on a long boat ride one lazy summer afternoon in 1862. English author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, pen-name Lewis Carroll, recounted the adventure to Oxford University Vice-Chancellor Henry Liddell’s three daughters – one of whom, Alice, insisted he write it down for her. In late November 1864, he handed her the finished copy as an early Christmas present and by 1865 it had been published. The book, an international best-seller among adults and children alike has imagery, symbolism, and quotations that pervade every aspect of popular culture.

    Readers of all ages developed theories to explain and understand the nonsensical conversations, whimsical scenery, and Alice’s perpetual dreamlike state. One likens her journey to an acid trip, and no piece of art better captures this idea than Joe McHugh’s psychedelic poster The White Rabbit in Wonderland,on view until September 15, 2013 in Summer of Love: Psychedelic Posters from SCMA.Printed before 1968, during a peak year in the use of mind-expanding narcotics, the poster features contrasting neon colors layered over one another and photographs of iconic Alice in Wonderland imagery. One does not need any drugs to feel the full effect of his hallucinogenic style.

                                             Detail of Joe McHugh's The White Rabbit in Wonderland.

    The photographs depict some of the most recognizable imagery from the story – the bottle labeled “DRINK ME,” the mushroom Alice eats to change size, a deck of cards scattered over a checkerboard floor, and a white rabbit. The rabbit (which looks suspiciously like my own…) stands on its hind feet in the center against an open black square suggesting the rabbit hole itself or the door that Alice falls through when she cries a flood of tears. The photographs alone form a collage of familiar iconography and there is little that is psychedelic about them. It is the overlapping neon colors and shapes that begin on the rabbit’s face and spiral out that create the hypnotic scene. The longer you stare, the more details become apparent. At the top, undulating green letters become clear and separate from the squiggly background shapes. The words form KEEP YOUR HEAD, perhaps as a tribute to the Queen of Hearts or the classic song by Jefferson Airplane, and arch over the central scene. The cork of the DRINK ME bottle is actually a mushroom. The turtle-like shape on the far left is a knight, who perhaps escaped from the chess board at the bottom.

                                               Detail of Joe McHugh's The White Rabbit in Wonderland.

    At first glance, the poster is overwhelmingly full of colors and images. As the eyes adjust to the brilliant shades of hot pink, lime green, orange, blue, purple, and red a narrative becomes clear. The rabbit is what prompts Alice’s adventure and similarly, his central placement pulls us in. The iconic pictures surrounding him in a circular fashion takes us on a journey throughout Wonderland and eventually spiral back into that endless black square. Like Alice, it is easy to become lost for several hours in a work this detailed and complex. The longer you stare at such an intricately kaleidoscopic piece you could begin to think you’ve gone mad. But, as Lewis Carroll himself once wrote: “I’ll tell you a secret. The best people are.”


  • Thursday, June 6, 2013

    Thomas Cornell's French Revolutionary Portraits

    Guest blogger Jennifer Guerin is a Smith College student, class of 2014, majoring in American Studies and History with focuses in Public History and Social Movements. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    Thomas Cornell. American, 1937-2012. Dantonfrom The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf Before the High Court of Vendôme,1964. Etching printed in black on paper. Gift of Elizabeth and John Scott. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2008:62-10.

    The SCMA’s Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs has in its collection a set of etchings that artist Thomas Cornell completed for the Northampton-based Gehenna Press, run by Leonard Baskin, in 1964. The book for which they were produced, The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf Before the High Court of Vendôme,is a French text from 1797 translated by John Anthony Scott, a professor of History at Amherst College. The works were donated to SCMA by Scott and his daughter, Elizabeth.

    François-Noel Babeuf took the name Gracchus as a reference to Roman tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi, famous for advocating land redistribution. As his choice of name suggests, Babeuf was the leader of a radical left wing faction of French revolutionaries who believed in policies such as division of lands, progressive taxation, and free and equal public education. These revolutionaries opposed the Directory and the government established by the Constitution of 1795, wanting instead to return to the more democratic-minded Constitution of 1793, and they attempted to foment a rebellion. Babeuf’s defense was given over the span of three days, and though it did not prevent his execution, it is particularly interesting because it does not attempt to deny the accusations, but instead argues that their action could not be considered conspiracy because they operated under the principle that opposition intended to remove an unjust government is always legitimate. Additionally, it is worth noting that Gehenna Press’s choice to publish a text which praised a socialist figure was a fairly radical move in Cold War America. Cornell’s twenty-one illustrations represent the major players in the trial, as well as other important figures of the Revolution. During his professional career, much of Cornell’s work focused on social justice issues, and these etchings are the predecessors of that work.

    Thomas Cornell. American, 1937-2012. Maratfrom The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf Before the High Court of Vendôme,1964. Etching printed in black on paper. Gift of Elizabeth and John Scott. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2008:62-17.

    In creating these French Revolutionary portraits, Cornell referred to previous representations of the individuals but did not hesitate to reinvent the images. For instance, his portrait of Jean-Paul Marat works to present an alternative to the idealized images of Marat, most notably Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting The Death of Marat.While in David’s painting, Marat’s physical deformities and debilitating skin condition are only hinted at by his bandaged head and the bathtub he sits in, Cornell’s Marat is clearly deformed and appears grotesque. In his portrait of Diderot, Cornell’s transformation goes in the other direction— the Diderot shown in portraits becomes an idealized figured seemingly modeled after a Roman emperor. This allows the portrait of Diderot to represent not only the inspiration that the revolutionaries drew from Enlightenment figures, but also the huge influence of Greek and Roman history.


    Thomas Cornell. American, 1937-2012. Diderotfrom The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf Before the High Court of Vendôme,1964. Etching printed in black on paper. Gift of Elizabeth and John Scott. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2008:62-11.

    Finally, Cornell’s images of Danton and Robespierre, two of the most controversial figures of the Revolution, depart from the conventional, neoclassical portrait to show two very human and conflicted figures. While Robespierre is nearly always show wearing a powdered wig, which was mocked by opponents as too aristocratic, Cornell’s image eliminates the wig, thereby making him appear more vulnerable and closer to the common people. In the portrait of Danton, Cornell’s use of light surrounds Danton with a sense of power and emotion, and his facial expression suggests an intense personal conflict.

    Thomas Cornell. American, 1937-2012. Robespierrefrom The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf Before the High Court of Vendôme,1964. Etching printed in black on paper. Gift of Elizabeth and John Scott. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2008:62-4.

    Thomas Cornell (1937-2012), professor and artist, devoted much of the early years of his artistic career to drawing and etching, though he is generally well known for his paintings. Following his undergraduate work at Amherst College (B.A. 1959) and graduate work at the Yale School of Art and Architecture (1959-1960), Cornell explored the field of bookmaking, completing illustrations for Apiary, the Smith College student press, as well as Gehenna Press. He also founded his own publishing house in 1964, Tragos Press, through which he produced a number of publications relating to the Civil War, abolition, and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Cornell was hired to establish a visual arts program at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and he would continue to teach there until he retired in June of 2012, shortly before he passed away in December.