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.
Monday, March 19, 2012
This photograph, The Open Door,is the oldest in our collection. William Henry Fox Talbot was the inventor of the negative-positive photograph, and one of the earliest practitioners (some say the inventor) of photography as we know it today. This is a plate from Talbot’s series The Pencil of Nature,the first publication to explain and illustrate the scientific and practical applications of photography.
The Open Dooris among the most celebrated images from The Pencil of Nature. Maybe this is because it seems less “scientific and practical” than pictorial or aesthetic. The photograph is a subtle play on interior and exterior. The open door gives us a glimpse into an old barn that then gives us a glimpse back outside through two shuttered windows. The outside of the barn is suffused with light, the interior opaque with shadow. The broom leaning in the doorway in the foreground offsets the windows in the background. The calculated asymmetry of the image is perfectly picturesque.
To explain the picture, Talbot invoked the seventeenth century Dutch painters who were popularly hailed as masters of realism in Talbot’s time. “A painter’s eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable,” he wrote.
The Open Doorwas hailed by the British press for its “microscopic execution that sets at naught the work of human hands.” As far as praise goes, I’m partial myself to Talbot’s mother’s description of the photograph: she called it the “soliloquy of the broom.” What would the broom be saying? Why does this picture seem so eloquent, so expressive, when all of its subjects (a broom, a barn, a hanging lantern) are mute?
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Guest blogger Karysa Norris (Dartmouth College '12) was a participant in the 2011 Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies. She also served as the 2011 Brown SIAMS Fellow, a four-week internship in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints Drawings and Photographs.
White. Why. Kidney. It roasts.
What if these were the only words left of our language? In a time when it seems new words are added to the English dictionary every day thanks to the internet and the growth of international communication it’s difficult to imagine that our language could ever dwindle down to a few disjointed, trivial phrases. For the Ubykh people of Turkey, however, this is a harsh reality – their language is extinct, only to be heard in recordings saved in anthropological databases.
Language death like that of Ubykh is the focus of Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie, a compilation of recordings of extinct and endangered languages from around the world. As a student who grew up in Hawaii before studying at Dartmouth College, I am more sensitive to language death than most; the rehabilitation of the endangered Hawaiian language has been ongoing since the fifties and Dartmouth, an institution initially chartered to educate Native American youth, has a large population of Native American students dedicated to preserving their culture and language. Still, I have not inherited these native languages, so I have had a fringe awareness of the topic at best.
The first time I wandered into the Nixon gallery to see The Last Silent Movie, I wasn’t expecting very much. I rarely find digital media pieces entertaining enough to hold my attention for very long, and I was only curious about the project because I had been told that Hiller had been inspired by a recording made at Dartmouth of the Lord’s Prayer in Wampanoag, an extinct language that is currently being revived. I sat down in the darkened room and was immediately captivated by the words flashing across the screen, translating the speech playing from the speakers. As unfamiliar sounds were translated into meaningful words in front of me, over and over I found myself thinking, “What if this was all that was left of my language? What if this was the only representation left of my culture?” Even though I had an appointment to get to I couldn’t pull away, I simply had to stay and listen to these lost languages because people were speaking and someone needed to be there to hear them. When the film ended with a speaker of Comanche, a language listed as “seriously endangered,” saying “From now on we will speak Comanche forever” in her native tongue, I was overcome with a strange mixture of hope, pity, and horror, caught between wanting to believe the truth in the words and knowing their futility.
Over the next few weeks I found myself being constantly drawn back to Hiller’s project. She also produced twenty-four etchings of sound waves from a few phrases heard in the movie, and I spent a lot of time looking at the print of the South African Kulkhassi language. The sound wave of this extinct language clearly has a rhythm, but the translation is unknown. It’s easy for me to dismiss an untranslated voice as mere sound, but this print was visible, tangible proof that Kulkhassi wasn’t just random noise, it had a structure and meaning that is now lost. I thought of Hawaiian and the native languages of the students at Dartmouth, and I realized that they too could soon become just sine waves on paper.
Language death is an issue that I have been aware of for years, but it wasn’t until I experienced The Last Silent Movie that I really understood the impact it has on people. It reminded me of something that I had almost forgotten: even if you think you know all about a subject, art can reveal it to you in new ways.
Image credits: Susan Hiller. American, b. 1952. Ubykh,plate 21 from The Last Silent Movie. Jerriais,plate 10 from The Last Silent Movie. Livonian,plate 11 from The Last Silent Movie.2007. Etching on 270 gsm Moulin de Gué (Rived de Lin) paper. Purchased with the Janet Wright Ketcham, class of 1953, Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The artists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt shared a forty-year friendship, both emotionally turbulent and deeply sympathetic, that ended with Degas’ death in 1917. Struck by Cassatt’s paintings, Degas was moved to invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1877, making her the first American artist to become an established member of their group.
Degas’ dynamic portraits of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre express the admiration he felt for her. In Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, Cassatt is caught in a moment of contemplation. Degas shows us the vitality of her attention as she looks as the art: she appears forthright and mesmerized, demanding and elegant. Unlike the woman to her left, who sits sideways on a bench and peers tentatively up at the sculpture from behind her book, Cassatt’s whole body is open to the art. And, since the perspective of the print hides her face from us, it is her body that expresses her experience in this moment—the way, say, she leans against her umbrella but also seems to float just above the ground.
This print also reminds me of the experience of going to a museum and getting side-tracked by the other visitors in a crowded gallery. Looking at people looking at art becomes part of the museum experience. In Degas’ print, the viewer is the voyeur, watching Cassatt watching; we can’t know what she’s thinking while she looks at the sculpture, but her engagement becomes a model for our own.