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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 12, 2015

    On Display: Wings and Women

    Guest blogger Jessica Tran is a Smith College student, class of 2018. This post grew out of an assignment for the first-year seminar “On Display: Museums, Collections, and Exhibitions” taught by Professor Barbara Kellum in Fall 2014. As the culminating project of this class, four thought-provoking juxtapositions have been put on view in Museum until February 15, 2015. The painting Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe can be seen in the seventeenth and eighteenth century European section of the galleries on the second floor.

    Joshua Reynolds, English (1723 - 1792). Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe, 1781. Oil on canvas. Gift of Dwight W. Morrow Jr., Anne Morrow Lindbergh, class of 1928 and Constance Morrow Morgan, class of 1935. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1958:4

    Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe is an oil on canvas painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, while Woman and Child with a Parasol is a work on paper by an unknown artist. Not much is known about Woman and Child with a Parasol, as both the artist and date are unknown. It portrays the silhouette of a woman carrying a child and a parasol made out of butterfly wings. Because of the unknown nature of this piece of artwork, the method in which the butterfly wings were acquired is also unknown, so there is a question as to whether or not the method in which this artwork was made was ethical or not. It is possible that someone collected butterfly wings that remained after predators have eaten them, but it is also possible that the artist capture butterflies, killed them, and used their wings to create this piece. In terms of origin, it is suggested by the dark color of the woman’s skin and the fabric that is wrapped around the woman’s head, this art piece originates and depicts a woman from an African country. The piece shows the beauty of nature in the form of the elegance of the butterfly wings themselves, as well as the beauty of the circle of life. 

    Unknown artist. Woman and Child with a Parasol, no date. Butterfly wings mounted on paper. Gift of Priscilla Paine Van der Poel, class of 1928. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1985:32-38

    Woman and Child with a Parasol is an example of assemblage, which is the creation of art by using found objects. The earliest known pieces of assemblage art made out of butterfly wings were from the series Assemblages d'Empreintes by Jean Dubuffet in 1955. Upon further research, these butterfly wing collages continue to be made in present day, primarily in the Central African Republic - thus it is likely that Woman and Child with a Parasol was made sometime during the past sixty years.

    Detail of Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe 

    Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe is a portrait piece of Mrs. Nesbitt, an eighteenth-century socialite, representing her as Circe, a sorceress who drugged men with potions and turned them into animals with her wand. Not only were Circe and Mrs. Nesbitt both perceived as beautiful women that could seduce men, this painting shows a powerful image of this woman as someone who is able to control these wild animals. These animals can be perceived as the animalistic or sinful sides of humans – or in this particular case, men. For example, in the Odyssey, Circe lured Odysseus’s crew with her beauty and her food. The men that gorged themselves on the food that was laced with her potions were then turned into pigs because of their gluttony. Thus, she may have turned an arrogant man into the leopard, a selfish man into the cat, and a foolish man into the monkey.

    Detail of Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe 

    Additionally, the animals portrayed in the painting are normally described as “wild” rather than “docile” or “tame.” However, in the painting, the leopard, cat, and monkey are much smaller in size in comparison to Circe, portraying the power difference between them. In the darkness of the painting, the monkey is hard to see, serving as a protector and scouter. The cat seems to follow the leopard, who seems to be staring at the same thing that Circe is, as if they were staring at the same target. With her wand, potion, and followers at hand, Circe seems to be ready for battle.

    By comparing these two pieces, we can see the different perspectives of women in two different societies, the European society and the African society. Firstly, each society considers different values to be important in a woman, and have different ideas for the ideal woman. For example, in the Woman and Child with a Parasol, the woman’s curves are well defined and the addition of the child shows that in their society, motherhood is emphasized and seen as a good value in a woman. By having a simple silhouette on white paper, the only focus of the piece is the silhouette and the butterfly wings. Additionally, the usage of butterfly wings may relate back to the circle of life, as we have the child representing the beginning of life, the woman representing the middle stage of life, and the butterfly wings representing the end of life.

    Detail of Woman and Child with a Parasol

    On the other hand, Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe portrays Mrs. Nesbitt as a powerful woman, painted in fashionable light clothing, with soft lighting. This gives off an ethereal and mysterious feel to the painting, making Mrs. Nesbitt seem unattainable like mist. Mrs. Nesbitt was mistress to the third Earl of Bristol in her time, and was “involved in various political intrigues, including her alleged service as a British secret agent during the French Revolution.” This beauty, elegance, and mysteriousness is valued in European culture.

    Both pieces of art intrigue the viewers in different ways. Some may view the Woman and Child with a Parasol as disturbing or unsettling, due to the nature of the materials used, but by using butterfly wings, one can see both the beauty and the cruelty of nature. Likewise, Mrs. Nesbitt as Circe shows how women can be both beautiful and cruel, just like nature. In nature, the animals with the brightest colors are often the most poisonous, and this is reflected in both pieces of art, as the more beautiful they are, the crueler they can be.


  • Tuesday, February 3, 2015

    Student Picks: WITCHES - Allure of the Dark

    Student Picks is 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 Hui Yan '17 discusses her show “Witches: Allure of the dark” which will be on view FRIDAY, February 6 from 12-4 PM in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. We hope to see you here!

    Thom O’Connor, American (b. 1937). The Witch, 1972. Aquatint and etching on paper. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Christopher A. Graf. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1972:30-11

    Witches fascinate us. They bridge reality with imagination and their existence has been a topic of debate since the 15th century. Even now, when we no longer believe in the supernatural, we are still attracted to them. Like many of my peers, as a child I anticipated a letter from Hogwarts. Curating this exhibition relieves my disappointment of never receiving the letter.

    Albrecht Dürer, German (1471 - 1528). A Witch Riding to the Sabbath, ca. 1500-1501. Engraving printed in black on paper. Gift of Mary Bates Field, class of 1904. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1959:70

    Apart from my personal interest, witches remain a popular theme in visual arts. I wish to explore the iconography of witches developed throughout time, from the heinous old lady to the wicked seductress. Imagery of witches first developed prior to the Witch Hunts in the 16th century to identify the nefarious acts that separate them from the ordinary. Later, the theme of witchcraft allowed artists to tap into their subconscious and release their imagination, as seen in Goya's famous etchings Los Caprichos. The exhibition contains a wide range of images, from Albert Durer's A Witch Riding to the Sabbath, which establishes the basic iconography, to Alison Frantz's Surrealist Attalos, which depicts the natural habitat of modern witches. Have fun exploring the Dark and the Occult!

    Odilon Redon, French (1840 – 1916). Printed by Auguste Clot, French (1858 – 1936). The Buddha, from L'Estampe Originale, 1895. Lithograph printed in black on Chine appliqué on heavy white wove paper. Purchased with the Museum Acquisition Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1956:3

    Many thanks to Maggie Kurkoski and the Cunningham Center for making this show possible and to Professor Brigitte Buettner, my STRIDE advisor.


  • Wednesday, January 28, 2015

    On Display: Cultural Cannibalism

    Guest blogger Alice Matthews is a Smith College student, class of 2018. This post grew out of an assignment for the first-year seminar “On Display: Museums, Collections, and Exhibitions” taught by Professor Barbara Kellum in Fall 2014. As the culminating project of this class, four thought-provoking juxtapositions have been put on view in Museum until February 11, 2015. This juxtaposition can be seen in the ancient art section of the galleries on the second floor.

    Enrique Chagoya, American born Mexico (1953 - ). Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists, 2001. Lithograph and woodcut with black, ochre, blue, yellow, and green ink, chine colle and collage on paper. Purchased with the Arch W. Shaw Foundation, through the courtesy of Nancy Simonds Shaw, class of 1972, administrator. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2002:9

    Enrique Chagoa’s Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists is a 92 inch long accordion-folded artist book that utilizes dynamic graphics to explore the concept of a world in which Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans defeated, conquered, and colonized the Spanish and subsequently the western world. When paired with SCMA’s collection of Mesoamerican art, specifically the Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot, this work brings up questions about the ethical implications of both the physical and psychological appropriation of culture.

    Pre-Columbian (Nayarit). Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot. Clay. Gift of Gail Binney Sterne. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2010:66-9

    Side view of Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot

    Historically, the acquisition of ancient art and artifacts has been problematic. Often cultural objects were looted from archeological digs or explorations without consent or consideration of how this theft would affect the indigenous group to which the objects belonged. Currently purchasing ancient art is made much more difficult as a result of international standards set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. In 1970 UNESCO made the decision to require museums in the United States to obtain documentation that a purchase or gift was inside its borders before 1970. Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot was donated in 2010 without much documentation. However, after extensive research it was determined that this pre-Columbian art object did in fact meet the required UNESCO criteria. Now that we legally have this object in our possession we are left to question the arbitrary nature of this rule. This cut-off date does not eliminate the possibility of this item being looted as it may have simply been stolen before 1970. How can we justify obtaining an ancient work in 1969 while we ban the collection of these items from 1971? If not 1970, then when? At what point are we willing excuse the literal theft of culture as an unavoidable reality? Chagoya attempts to answer, or at least further explore these questions.

    Detail of Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists 

    Detail of Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists 

    Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists explores the appropriation of Mesoamerican imagery and culture and how that affects the lens through which we view the history of ourselves and others. The title of this piece is German and can be translated to “The Adventure of the Cannibalistic Bioethicists” which beautifully encapsulates the topics displayed in this work. Cannibalism is used as a metaphor for how dominant western cultures have rewritten history by taking images, traditions, and ideas from other cultures and exploiting their form and aesthetic value while removing much of their function and context. The medium utilized by Chagoya is also significant to his intent. The work utilizes amate paper which was a type of paper produced by pre-Hispanic peoples in massive quantities for both in sacred and secular practices. Their libraries were filled with codices made out of this fig bark fiber but many were destroyed or stolen when the Spanish arrived, leaving very few surviving books. Chagoya is using the medium of a book printed on amate paper in order to recreate what was taken from by taking from others to create his wide array of printed images.

    Detail of Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Detail of Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists

    In the same way that Pablo Picasso used the imagery of African masks in his famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon purely for their aesthetic value, Chagoya is taking iconic American imagery, like Warhol’s soup cans and Mickey Mouse, and Christian iconography and rendering their context irrelevant. Mickey Mouse now has the face of Mao Zedong on the backdrop of a white t-shirt that also contains the Olympic emblem. Jesus is seen in profile with googly eyes as an anatomical model of the brain and vertebrae. These appropriated items lose their original meanings and the page becomes chaotic and humorously confusing. Many viewers have been perfectly comfortable seeing pre-Columbian figures holding burritos as decor in Chipotle restaurants across the county, and commodifying the image of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara by purchasing a mass produced cotton T-shirt through the free-market, but when given images that clash because they are aware of their original purpose, viewers are taken aback. Placing Chagoya's cartoon versions of Mesoamerican imagery in relation to a real piece of pre-Columbian art will hopefully spark important discussions of cultural integrity and how to appreciate interesting cultural iconography without white-washing it and claiming it as our own.

    Detail of Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Back view of Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot

    This ceramic figure has been traced to Nayarit in Western Mexico where humans have lived for as long as 7,000 years. Hernán Cortés became the first European to step foot on the shores of Nayarit and was soon followed by the infamously foul Nuño de Guzmán who subsequently became governor of Mexican provinces that included Nayarit. The Spanish control of this area was always being threatened and disrupted by the indigenous peoples who led many revolts and uprisings. The history of the constant push for independence and reclamation of what belongs to the culture that created Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot makes this juxtaposition all the more meaningful. While it is likely that this heavily adorned woman is only half of a pair of figures used for marriage celebrations and the decorative details indicate the social status of this woman, it is hard not to apply its modern context to her narrative. The ceramic woman is colored in a dark, deep red with dotted lines running down her face mimicking tears as her face expresses her fear and she holds a child behind her as if to shield it from the evil that was going to come to the shores of their homeland. Although this work was created centuries before Europeans came to the Americas, it is interesting to view this sculpture as early foreshadowing the horrors of colonization. This female figure represents what was stolen while Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists represents the fight to take her back. Now, as a museum, we are faced with the problem of expanding the value of these kinds of Mesoamerican works that are underrepresented in many United States collections, while ensuring that we maintain the integrity of these works and the people they belong to.

    Detail of Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot

    Standing Female Figure with Child and Pot and Abenteuer de Kannibalen Bioethicists are currently on display in the Ancient Art galleries, second floor, until February 11, 2015