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 13, 2013
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Guest blogger Maggie Kean is a Smith College student, class of 2014, majoring in Art History with a concentration in Museum Studies. She is the Student Assistant to Maggie Lind, the Associate Educator for Academic Programs.
French Impressionist Edgar Degas is regarded as one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth-century, producing an inspiring body of work thematically divergent from that of his predecessors, which earned him a posthumous reputation as the darling of the movement. A prolific draughtsman as well as painter, Degas’s vast output of drawings dynamically rendering his iconic dancers, bathing nudes, and jockeys are as distinctive as his paintings. Yet while many conceive Degas as the master of tulle and soft, luminescent flesh—daubed onto canvas in rich jewel-tones or lustily marked out with pastels—few realize that Degas was also a closet printmaker of great mastery.
Though his printmaking record indicates that his pursuit of the medium was patchy, extant works span Degas’s career from his nascent aspirations to history painting in the 1850s through to his late and most expressive works of the 1890s. His prints ranged in medium from etchings and lithographs pulled by professional printers to monotypes that he executed himself. A largely underappreciated and thus neglected form of printmaking, Degas is recognized for pioneering the monotype medium, which conflates painting with printmaking through the painterly application of ink directly onto a plate that is then pressed onto paper. While his printed subject matter did not vary much from his standard repertoire of women and horses, the works themselves reveal Degas’s virtuosity in a breadth of mastery unknown even at the time—only a handful of such prints were ever displayed during his lifetime.
The SCMA has two such prints in the works on paper collection at the Cunningham Center—a set of lithographs from 1884 entitled Program for the Soirée Artistique des Anciens Élèves du Lycée de Nantes(Program for the Evening for Former Art Students of Nantes Secondary School). One of the former students of the Lycée was a friend of Degas and asked him to create the program – a process that yielded four black chalk drawings, four etchings, and the final lithographs. Two of the drawings, which are a clear precedent to our lithographs, are among the works stolen in the famous heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. With the recent efforts of the FBI to again publicize the crime and recover the works, we thought we’d highlight the parallel works in our collection in solidarity with the Gardner (To view the Gardner drawings and more information on the theft, please visit the FBI website: http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2013/march/reward-offered-for-return-of-stolen-gardner-museum-artwork/image/hi-res).
The Programwas directed toward a broad audience, and as such, the visual language Degas utilizes is straightforward in its reference to the entertainment promised for the Soirée, with some marginal imagery symbolic of the town of Nantes. The print was clearly thrown together quickly, a somewhat compositionally ambiguous and sketchy image; in 1891, when the École des Beaux-Arts displayed one of the lithographs in an exhibition surveying contemporary lithography without Degas’s permission, he was outraged that his body of printed work should be represented by such a poor example.
Nevertheless, the Programand his opinion of it offer a glimpse into the ways in which Degas’s work reached the general public. His major works were typically displayed at the Salon for an audience comprised primarily of the bourgeoisie, artists, and academics. A colloquial document such as Programnot only enjoyed a wider viewership, but also illuminates how Degas consciously adjusted the quality of his work based on the audience he created it for.