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, February 16, 2012
Janet Fish. American, born 1938. Winsom’s Shells, 1985. Offset lithograph and screenprint printed in eleven colors on Arches Cover paper. Printed by John Hutcheson and Dwight Pogue at the Smith College Print Workshop. Gift of Janet Fish, class of 1960, through the Smith College Print Workshop. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.
When I began volunteering at the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs in August, 2011, I was totally unaware of the amazing opportunities I would be given in the coming months. As a 2011 participant in the Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies (SIAMS) at Smith College, I had been exposed to the Cunningham Center during class time and as part of the curatorial team, which conceptualized, organized, and researched the SCMA exhibition Surface Tension: Reconsidering Water as Subject, which was the culmination of the program. Given my brief exposure to the Cunningham Center, I was excited at the possibility of becoming a volunteer here after the program ended. As a person with artistic and scholarly interests, I found the prospect of being able to handle and research artworks on a daily basis incredibly invigorating. What I did not know then was that I would be given the rare and wonderful chance to act as a guest curator of an exhibition, including picking artworks and writing wall labels. I would be able to apply all that I had learned at SIAMS to my own curatorial project. While SIAMS gave me a whirlwind introduction to curatorial work, this is my first singular venture into the process.
The exhibition I have been working on is in honor of Janet Fish, one of Smith College’s most successful artist-alumnae. Fish is to be awarded a prestigious 2012 Smith College Medal, which is awarded annually to alumnae whose lives and work exemplify a devotion to a liberal arts education. Selecting the works to be displayed was the easiest part; the Museum owns three finished prints by Fish from three distinct points in her printmaking career: the 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s. The first, Cherries in Brandy (1973), is actually Fish’s first print of her professional career. The other two were both produced as part of the Smith College Print Workshop, separated by almost twenty years.
One of these works from the Print Workshop, Winsom’s Shells (1985), was particularly fascinating to me because it is accompanied by almost twenty working proofs which were produced during the printing process. As part of the Print Workshop, Fish made the print in just a few days on the Smith College campus and students were able to drop into the studio at any time to observe and ask questions. The Museum displayed these working proofs as they were produced. They serve to dissect and illuminate Fish’s use of lithography and screenprinting, as they explicitly show the order in which she printed the 11-color work, as well as insight behind purposeful and accidental changes made along the way. To me, the existence of these working proofs is incredibly instructive and exciting. I mean, how often do you get to see the working progression of a print in a museum? Seeing these proofs as evidence of Fish’s process really helped me better understand and greatly appreciate the finished print. I hope that other viewers, artists or not, will have a similar experience.
Janet Fish will be on view at the Museum from February 10 through June 3, 2012. Janet Fish will be awarded the Smith College Medal at the celebration of Rally Day on February 23.
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.