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.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Soviet photographer Dmitri Baltermants (1912 – 1990) created unexpected beauty out the conflict, destruction, grief, and loss experienced in World War II. Born in Warsaw, Poland, Baltermants’s family moved to Russia in 1915, where his father served as an officer in the Russian tsar’s army and was killed in World War I. Growing up during the Russian Revolution in a military family meant that Baltermants was unfortunately accustomed to living amongst turmoil and conflict, and perhaps this created a predisposed ability to confront the most intense moments in war. Although he intended to teach math in a military academy, Baltermants instead found a passion in photography. He began his career as a photojournalist in 1939, the year World War II began in Western Europe.
It took another two years for war to spread to the Soviet Union. In 1941, the German-led forces launched “Operation Barbarossa,” in which 4 million Axis soldiers invaded the Soviet Union. Known to Soviets as “the Great Patriotic War” and to Germans as “the Eastern Front” (including Northern and Eastern Europe), it was the largest and most gruesome military struggle in history. While a majority of the deaths in World War II occurred on the Eastern Front, not all were in combat alone – many were due to starvation, the extremely harsh Russian winters, disease, etc. Civilian deaths in the war also reached catastrophic numbers in the Eastern Front, particularly in German-occupied areas (cities, towns, ghettos, and concentration camps). Baltermants was no stranger to these terrible conditions, having admitted that he lost many of his comrades in arms (both photographers and soliders) in these years. Yet the losses were terrible on both sides – the German military experienced 80% of its losses in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which was a leading cause of the Allies’ victory in 1945.
From 1941 until Allied victory in 1945, Baltermants, like many of his contemporary Soviet war photojournalists, “fought armed only with [a] camera.” He was wounded twice and was lucky to escape with his life. Baltermants travelled in the Red Army, fearlessly photographing battles throughout the Soviet Union and the Ukraine, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the 1944 invasion of Berlin. He captured the Soviets’ riveting and proud moments in battle, quiet moments in the downtime between the fighting, as well as devastation of military and civilian deaths. During and after the war, many of these photographs were censored by Soviet propaganda officials, unable to be shown until the Khrushchev period of the 1960s. It was not until almost 20 years later that Baltermants publicly presented such images as a dead soldier left on a muddy road outside of Smolensk, where the Soviets lost their first major battle on the Eastern Front, or women pushing a cart of their dead husbands who were victims of a 1942 Nazi massacre of Jews in Kerch, Crimea.
The same year the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the Cold War, and a year before his death in 1990, Baltermants wrote in an interview for Aperture magazine: “We photographers make magnificent shots of wars, fires, earthquakes, and murder: the grief of humanity. We would like to see photographs about joy, happiness and love, but on the same level. I realize, though, that this is difficult.”
Friday, March 8, 2013
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.
While Eric Avery was working towards his Bachelor’s Degree in Art at the University of Arizona, one of his professors encouraged him to apply for medical school, explaining that “since [he] would always be making art and since art comes from life, [he] should make [his] life interesting.” Avery chose to pursue an M.D. in Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), which he completed in 1974, and from then on his work as an artist has been intimately connected to his experiences in the medical profession.
In 1991, he turned his attention to medical education, particularly in connection with the AIDS pandemic, which he did through his professorship at UTMB and through his art. In the medical field, Avery currently specializes in HIV/AIDS patient mental health care, correctional mental health care, and transgender health. As an artist, he is primarily a printmaker, producing prints about human rights abuses, disease, death, sexuality, and the body, though he has also completed a series of what he calls “art/medicine actions” – public performances of medical knowledge in unconventional spaces.
One of Eric Avery’s more recent pieces, Paradise Lost(2011), appropriates the image of Adam and Eve from a famous print by Albrecht Dürer (above), both of which are in the SCMA collection. While Dürer portrays the couple in the Garden of Eden immediately before the fall, reaching out to take the apple from the snake, Avery instead places them in a modern landscape, afflicted with the worst diseases historically faced by humanity. Instead of facing a single evil in the form of the snake, Avery’s Adam and Eve are completely surrounded by danger. The industrial background hints at the rapid spread of diseases facilitated by urban spaces.
The animals in Dürer’s garden are also transposed into Avery’s image, in a way that seems to replace an old system of medical knowledge with a new, modern one. The bull, the rabbit, the elk, and the cat in the original image represent the four humors: phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholic, choleric. The humors were believed to influence people’s personalities, and an imbalance of the humors was thought to be the cause of both changes in behavior and physical illness. Paradise Losteplaces these symbolic animals with a multitude of other animals, such as rats, mosquitoes, and pigs, which are now recognized as reservoirs or vectors for infectious diseases.
Detail of Avery’s Paradise Lost.
Ultimately, Avery’s Paradise Losttransforms the traditional image of Adam and Eve in to a modern source of basic medical knowledge. The print itself represents some of the major ways to contract diseases in our modern world: urban environments, animals, travel (the plane), improperly prepared food (the restaurant, Pho 8), and areas of conflict (the physical divide between the figures of Adam and Eve). Surrounding the image, Avery gives a paragraph description of each of the 14 worst infections faced by mankind, describing the causes and symptoms as well as available preventative methods and treatment options. Some descriptions give recent, relatable examples, such as the description of typhoid, which cites an incident in 2005, when “after eating in a North Carolina restaurant, 300 people became ill from eating undercooked turkey.” At the bottom of the print, a broad overview of infectious diseases focuses on the importance of spreading this information like this: “understanding how infectious diseases immerge and survive in populations is important for disease prevention and control.” Perhaps to facilitate this education process, as well as to provide additional credibility, Avery also cites his medical sources within the piece.
This desire to provide information to the public and to enact positive change in the world is central to Avery’s view of his purpose as an artist. In his explanation of why he chose to work within both the medical and art worlds, he states that “If you believe that information can lead to chance, then bearing witness is the narrative function of art and serves a social purpose. If one person, after seeing one of my art actions, were motivated to change an HIV risk behavior and did not get HIV, then this would be my evidence that art can save lives.”
Monday, February 25, 2013
Student Picksis a SCMA program in which Smith students organize their own one-day art show using our collection of works on paper. This month’s student curator and guest blogger Sharon Pamela Santana ‘14 discusses her show “Details: Finding Patterns in Nature” which will be on view this Friday March 1 from 12-4 PM in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. We hope to see you here!
Have you ever stopped to absorb and contemplate your surroundings? Have you ever paid attention to the elements that make up your existence?
My Student Picks exhibition is inspired by patterns found in nature: simple, complicated, regular, and irregular. While images of very different elements such as vegetables and landscapes are included in the exhibition, they all speak to the splendor of the simple things in our environment. Viewers will find that in the end, nature comes together beautifully and even an artichoke on our plates can be an admirable work of art. I would like you to join me in the observation and appreciation of patterns in nature.
Works by artists such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston are included in Details: Finding Patterns in Natureprimarily for their sharp and contrasted attention to detail and their overall beauty. I enjoyed viewing and choosing these exquisite photographs, and I hope that viewers too will enjoy looking at them. I would like to thank the Smith College Museum of Art for the wonderful and fun opportunity to curate this Student Picks exhibition.
As viewers can take the time to view these photographs, they may reflect on the following: If you ever think your life has become uneventful, and your everyday activities lose their excitement, think again. Observe, identify, and appreciate the shapes and colors in your surroundings. You will find that there is actually so much more to your daily routines when you open your eyes and look at the world around you with intention.