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, February 6, 2012
Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I, on display in the exhibition Albrecht Dürer: Genius and Fame, intrigues me. As a psychologist researching the complex relationship between creativity and emotional wellbeing, I know some worry that equating mood and artistry could distract attention from an artist’s work. However, if we retreat to 1514, the year Dürer created his iconic engraving, people who suffered the pains of depression had more pressing image problems.
At the time, health was considered to be a balance between four vital fluids or humors - blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm. The humors affected both body and mind and were the basis for individual health and personality. Melancholia was the result of excess black bile. According to art historian Erwin Panofsky, the afflicted were: “Thin and swarthy…‘awkward, miserly, spiteful, greedy, malicious, cowardly, faithless, irreverent, and drowsy.’” Add ‘surly, sad, forgetful, lazy, and sluggish,’ and it becomes clear that melancholics did not offer much for society to respect. Worst of all, physicians believed that insanity was caused by extreme excess of black bile. If you were melancholic, you were partway there.
Melancholia I excites, in part, because Dürer presented a new perspective on melancholia that challenged the prevailing stereotype. Typical images of the day included a farmer asleep by his plow or a housewife dozing at her distaff, but Durer gives us a woman with wings, signifying her superiority. She represents the intellectual power of applied geometry with the capacity to brood. Her energy, says Panofsky, “is paralyzed not by sleep but by thought.” Her struggle, and Dürer’s too, is the painful dialectic between theory and practice. Life seems futile when you have ideas you cannot actualize or problems you do not have the skills to solve.
Dürer’s Melancholia I was renowned across the European continent for more than three centuries. I wonder how its popularity might have influenced, even in subtle ways, people’s opinions about those who suffer from the symptoms of mood disorder. How an image on paper affects an image in flesh.
Albrecht Dürer. German, 1471–1528. Melancolia I, 1514. Engraving on paper. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Lent by Priscilla Joyce Engle. Photograph by Laura Weston. 1974.L1.4
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
It’s easy to see why drawing is so important to Will Barnet’s paintings. His layered textures are balanced by spare yet expressive lines that delineate the firm, almost geometric forms that make up his figures. Born in 1911 and still painting at 100, Barnet received a classical art training at the Boston Museum School, then under the direction of the painter Philip Hale.
It took Barnet two years to paint The Golden Frame,which was preceded by twelve compositional studies. This group portrait of the artist and his siblings is part of a series of paintings called My Father’s House. This body of work was conceived in 1990 when Barnet, the youngest of his siblings by 11 years, returned to his family home in Beverly to visit his sister Eva who was living in the family home alone following the death of their sister Jeanette. During his visit he observed Eva, in the throes of a fever, wandering through the house imagining the presence of their departed family members. An evocation of how memory and history surround us, Barnet’s paintings are both highly personal, yet also very inclusive. We may not know all the characters of his story, but we are given enough information to parse it all out, as well as become emotionally involved in the scene.
The surround of The Golden Frameis based on a mirror which hung in the hallway of Barnet’s family home; in it we see the reflections of the artist, his elder brother Benjamin, and his two sisters. It is clear that he struggled with the composition for some time—in each drawing the figures are arranged differently, their positioning, posture, and gazes changing, sometimes quite markedly. A group portrait is not just a collection of likenesses, but of relationships between figures, and the success of the picture hinges on the accurate representation of such qualities.
In the final painting, Barnet’s solution seems effortless and fitting; the artist, the tallest member of the group is in back with his sketchpad, surrounded by his brother and sisters (both living and dead). Looking straight ahead at the viewer, the artist’s gaze is calm, probing, and frank; recording both present circumstances and memories from the past.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Käthe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945) was a German printmaker and sculptor. The first woman admitted to the academy of arts, Kollwitz flourished during the Weimar Republic. Her fortunes changed after Hitler came into power and she petitioned against the Nazis. She lost her studio and was forced to leave the academy. Kollwitz’s commitment to social justice permeates her graphic work, particularly in her portrayals of the working class, the poor, and the effects of war.
Kollwitz’s prints are haunting, unsettling and provocative, but even as they show scenes of suffering, pain, death and loss, they are not unrelentingly grim. Empathy suffuses Kollwitz’s work, as though art were a way of identifying faces among the masses, drawing them out of anonymity. The sense of figures drawn out of darkness is also a compositional idea in Kollwitz’s prints. Often shrouded in dark, shapeless clothes, her figures come to life in their faces and hands, both communicators of feeling and experience. Take a look at this print called Battlefield,from the series The Peasant’s War:
In the dark of night, a woman holding a lamp searches for a face she recognizes among the dead. (Given Kollwitz’s frequent depictions of mothers and children, I always imagine this woman is looking for her son.) Notice the dramatic illumination of her hand and the man’s face. I love the expressive use of shadow, light and tone in this print that allows Kollwitz to picture this interaction between the living and the dead, the hand and the face. Kollwitz’s art is, in a sense, a recovery of the dead: like the woman seeking her son, she shines her lamp on the obscure, the victimized and the suffering. This act of bringing light to darkness is, I think, both an act of empathy and of political engagement. She lends dignity to the sufferers and gravitas to those willing to face difficult truths. Her lithograph Call of Deathsuggests that facing death, even facing one’s own death, can be a moment of connection.