RSS Feed

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, January 22, 2015

    Xu Wenhua 徐文华

    Guest blogger Kayla A. Gaskin is a Smith College student, class of 2017, majoring in East Asian Languages and Literatures. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    As an East Asian Languages and Literatures major in the Chinese concentration, I am interested in exploring the Cunningham Center’s collection of Chinese art. Recently, I became drawn to an artist named Xu Wenhua, whose prints are bright and reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution’s propaganda posters but possess a somewhat somber aura. The Center has five of Xu’s works – gifted by Andrew Kim and Wan Kyun Rha Kim, class of 1960. Unfortunately, this was all the information on Xu Wenhua’s work I could find. Xu himself is also a bit of mystery, entirely absent from Smith’s library resources, but I managed to retrieve some details. Xu Wenhua appears to be a Shanghainese art teacher who later on travelled to the United States for personal study. While I was glad to find at least a little insight into Xu’s background, this did not provide much perspective on his art. Therefore I have chosen to analyze two of his pieces in regards to the era of political and historical context surrounding them.

    Xu Wenhua, Chinese (b. 1941). Love Your People, 1976. Four-color photomechanical print on paper. Gift of Andrew Kim and Wan Kyun Rha Kim, class of 1960. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:40-2

    Xu’s 1976 Love Your People features a young girl – between the ages of nine to eleven – in a bright white shirt and vibrant red ascot. On the print she is placed in front of a group of older workers, who are colored in black and various shades of grey. The girl’s very pale skin and luminous attire make her pop even more so in the piece. Her expression is distant, largely unreadable and her gaze stares onwards left of the viewer, while the workers in the background appear haggard and soured. In bright red lettering at the bottom of the piece are the words “love your people” in Chinese characters.

    Detail of Love Your People

    Overall, the image evokes a dismal solemnness which does not fit the warm expression underneath it. Its detail is rather simple, whereas Xu’s 1980 Study Hard, Prepare for the Progress of the Socialist State is an explosion of pattern and color.

    Xu Wenhua, Chinese (b. 1941). Study Hard, Prepare for the Progress of the Socialist State, 1980. Four-color photomechanical print on paper. Gift of Andrew Kim and Wan Kyun Rha Kim, class of 1960. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:40-3

    This print features another young girl – this time between ages fourteen to sixteen – who sits at a desk looking at the viewer through her peripheral vision. The background is extremely bright, showcasing many blues and other contemporary pop colors. Behind her head is a group of colors in a square pattern, above her head an arrangement of radiant white triangles which fade into green and lastly, to the right of her face, are circles containing mathematical graphs. Her outfit has checker boxes, each filled with a different type of pattern, however all in the same shades of pink and maroon. Her expression seems cold, unfriendly, thoughtful yet uninterested in whatever currently holds her gaze. The slogan at the bottom yet again reads the title of the work in Chinese characters.

    Detail of Study Hard, Prepare for the Progress of the Socialist State

    The prints themselves are striking, but become more profound in regarding the country’s historical and political background at that time. The dates of their creation indicate they were made right after China’s Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966 to 1976. The revolution was a time of great upheaval, chaos and destruction. Mao Ze Dong, China’s leader at the time, ordered the demolition of anything pertaining to the Four Olds – old culture, customs, habits and ideas.

    Although the idea was to fully recreate China, the motive of the revolution was more so a strategy to secure Mao’s political position and rid him of any opponents. Mao ordered an attack on scholars, upper- class citizens and anyone else of high education or with the ability to receive one. Essentially, anyone whose opinion could potentially threaten his teachings. Homes were searched, public persecutions and humiliations took place, and families were broken up. Parents deemed class enemies, rightists or counterrevolutionaries were sent to the countryside for re-education while their children remained at home in the city.

    With this enforcement of lifestyle restrictions and destruction of past culture, art was undoubtedly constrained as well. Artists were only allowed to paint if their work supported the revolution or advertised communism. Hence the birth of Cultural Revolution propaganda posters – often images of Mao or groups of happy citizens carrying red books. This period of immense tyranny did not end until Mao Ze Dong’s death in 1976. After which a time of relaxation – in terms of censoring policies – stemming from the late 1970s to early 1980s followed as the government tried to regroup themselves. Thus in understanding this context, after a time of being forced to draw in a very specific and strict genre, why would Xu create works so similar to posters of the revolution?
    At first glance, while Xu’s work may seem a reiteration of the posters, there are many notable differences which infer a different perspective. In traditional propaganda posters, a common motif was use of the color red – some element of a work if not many were in this color. The people featured in the posters are often smiling or looking courageously determined as if ready for hard work and the fight for China’s new era. Most often posters showed citizens carrying little red books, doing farm work, marching, or Chinese youth gathered together wearing Mao’s attire – all of which emphasized harmony and agricultural labor. These posters were in bright colors, and illustrated massive crowds or smaller large groups. Likewise, if a poster did feature a single person, Mao was predominantly the main character.

    Yet while Xu’s prints do have a revolutionary slogan at the bottom, and showcase Chinese youth, the girls in his work are not smiling. In Love Your People, the background workers look neither determined, happy nor energized. They appear in shades of grey, a stark contrast to the colorful revolution posters. For while some posters were featured in black and white, the color grey remained absent and a red component was still incorporated – either as the background or an article of clothing. Furthermore, there is not a trace of tenderness or warmth in the girl’s face negating the work’s title Love Your People. Thus the work seems to make fun of the idea by juxtaposing the workers and young girl with this statement, highlighting the phrase’s superficiality and detraction from the real concerns at hand.

    The drawing style of the first painting correlates with the revolutionary posters, while the second 1980 print copies the tradition of bright color. However, the predominant color is mostly blue, not a trace of red appears in the entire work. The background is very abstract, only the girl and her study book are drawn realistically - which also differs immensely from the style utilized by propaganda posters. The girl student’s clothing – full of patterns – becomes very distracting, completely the opposite of clothing worn by Chinese youth in the posters. In the background, so much goes on around her, making it hard for the viewer to focus on her alone – despite the fact she takes up most of the center of the painting. With so much confusing, surrounding movement, it begs the question, how can she possibly study hard? The title proclaims “progress the state” but most posters with motivational messages showed people smiling, as if to claim they are happy to work for their country. Whereas the girl looks cold and uninterested. Another curious aspect is that her study book features math. Whereas the only educational books featured in propaganda posters were mainly Mao’s Little Red Book. Universities and other institutions of higher education were completely shut down during the Cultural Revolution, which makes the piece all the more ironic.

    Among Chinese literature, art, and essays there is a common theme of double entendre. In the past due to Emperor’s decrees and in the present to censorship and government restrictions, anything featuring a strongly adverse opinion or critique had to be hidden. Thus all works usually have a second, or perhaps multiple underlying meanings. Though Xu’s work may appear to be similar in function to the posters, the subtle differences tell another story. In Julia Andrew’s Post-Mao Dreaming, she mentions Zhang Hongtu, another Post-Mao era artist, stated his Mao series feels like “a cathartic purging of his early artistic and ideological education.” Therefore Xu’s prints could be interpreted as an intentional mockery of Mao’s doctrines. Love Your People, a statement on the hardship the time period caused while the abstract background of Study Hard is a mirroring of the political scramble afterwards.


  • Thursday, January 15, 2015

    The Photographic Imaginary

    Guest blogger Julie Warchol is a graduate M.A. student in Modern Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was the 2012-2013 Brown Post-Baccalaureate Curatorial Fellow.

    Samuel Bourne, British (1834 - 1912). Wooded Valley from Fulaldarn with the Srikanta Peaks in the Distance (no. 1535), 1860s. Albumen photograph. Purchased with Hillyer-Tryon-Mather Fund, with funds given in memory of Nancy Newhall (Nancy Parker, class of 1930) and in honor of Beaumont Newhall, and with funds given in honor of Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1982:38-160

    While I often think back fondly on my days as the Brown Post-Baccalaureate Curatorial Fellow at SCMA, my current experience as a graduate student has offered me the wonderful opportunity to further research, study, and write about the prints, drawings, and photographs which I have encountered in SCMA’s collection. This spring semester, I considered Caroline Sturgis Tappan’s collection of Samuel Bourne photographs from India (now in the SCMA) as my seminar paper topic for a class on Orientalism in the nineteenth-century. An American Transcendentalist artist and poet, Tappan (1818—1888) amassed an impressive collection of over one thousand photographs primarily from throughout Europe, the Near East, Egypt, Japan, and India as a tourist throughout the 1850s to the 1870s. Interestingly, however, it appears that Tappan never actually traveled to either Japan or India. Focusing specifically on her photographs from India, this fact led me to wonder: What was Tappan’s interest in India and why might she have collected photographs of a country she never visited?

    Samuel Bourne, British (1834 - 1912). Simla: General View from Jakko, 1860s. Albumen photograph. Purchased with Hillyer-Tryon-Mather Fund, with funds given in memory of Nancy Newhall (Nancy Parker, class of 1930) and in honor of Beaumont Newhall, and with funds given in honor of Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1982:38-312.

    Tappan was a close lifelong friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803—1882), who greatly influenced her Transcendentalist attitudes toward spirituality and nature. Emerson, who avidly read and revered ancient Hindu scriptures, seems to have shared his copy of the Bhagvat-Geeta (translated into English by Sir Charles Wilkins in 1785) with Tappan in 1845. After a visit to his home in Concord in 1845, she writes to Emerson from her summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts:

    “I hope I shall see you soon. I knew when you were going to Boston I would be there to see you if you liked to have me—but will you not also come out here some day soon—In my boat I can row away to the woods & tell you how the birds sing there. It is what the country people call ‘rather lonesome’ here, but I endeavor to think of the Bagvat [sic]—do I?” [1]

    In this short but telling passage, Tappan romanticizes and quite directly associates the Bhagvat-Geeta both with Emerson himself and her solitary experiences in nature. One among the many topics discussed in the Bhagvat-Geeta is the Hindu belief in nature’s sacrality, which no doubt appealed to both Emerson’s and Tappan’s Transcendentalist beliefs. Literary scholar Kathleen Lawrence has shown that throughout their letters, Tappan and Emerson associate one another with moments of divine communion with nature due to their frequent private walks together in the Concord pine woods around Emerson’s home and Walden Pond. [2] Mere weeks after her visit to Concord when she read the Bhagvat-Geeta, Tappan relished in the opportunity to be alone in the Berkshire Mountains, that distinctive Western Massachusetts landscape which she calls “the solitude of the mountains.” In this instance, this mountainous landscape afforded her the much-welcomed opportunity to further contemplate the Hindu Bhagvat-Geeta, Emerson, and nature itself.

    Samuel Bourne, British (1834 - 1912). Specimen of the Edible Pine, 1860s. Albumen photograph. Purchased with Hillyer-Tryon-Mather Fund, with funds given in memory of Nancy Newhall (Nancy Parker, class of 1930) and in honor of Beaumont Newhall, and with funds given in honor of Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1982:38-335

    Collected some twenty-five years after she read the Bhagvat-Geeta, virtually all of Tappan’s photographs of India are the work of Samuel Bourne (1834—1912), the British photographer whose 1860s albumen photographs famously display the Indian landscape in the “picturesque” style common to British eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landscape painting. However breathtaking Bourne’s landscape photographs may be, they were rarely bought by Europeans who traveled to India. European tourists preferred Bourne’s photographs which depicted common tourist sites, such as India’s major cities and temple ruins. As she never traveled to India, however, Tappan most likely acquired these photographs through Bourne’s distributors in London or Paris and was attracted to his landscape photographs for personal and aesthetic reasons. While Tappan, as an educated member of upper class Boston society and an artist herself, was certainly well-versed in the picturesque aesthetic, I believe this only partially explains her interest in Bourne’s landscape photographs.

    Samuel Bourne, British (1834 - 1912). Simla Snow Scene (no. 1758), 1860s. Albumen photograph. Purchased with Hillyer-Tryon-Mather Fund, with funds given in memory of Nancy Newhall (Nancy Parker, class of 1930) and in honor of Beaumont Newhall, and with funds given in honor of Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1982:38-373

    Given the personal associations Tappan formed between the ancient Hindu Bhagvat-Geeta, Emerson, and nature in her 1845 letter mentioned above, it is notable that a large percentage of her Bourne photographs are his images of northern India’s Himalayan Mountains and pine forests. Curiously, these depictions show some superficial geographical resemblances to elements of the Massachusetts landscape which Tappan repeatedly romanticizes in her letters to Emerson dating from the 1840s to the 1870s—most particularly the Berkshire Mountains and Concord’s famous pine woods. In one of several such letters, Tappan writes to Emerson from Rome: “Do you not think I remember the Concord pine woods because I am here among the Italian cypresses[?] Mere cypresses will never wave to every breeze as the pine trees wave.” [3] For Tappan, pine trees and mountains were symbolic of her Massachusetts homeland, particularly during her years abroad.

    Importantly for this consideration of Tappan’s interest in Indian landscape photographs, the picturesque aesthetic which Bourne and other photographers throughout the British Empire employed was a visual strategy for homogenizing foreign landscapes, in effect making them appear rather similar to the homelands of European and Anglo-American tourists. [4] For instance, in Bourne’s Simla Snow Scene (shown above), Tappan might see an exotic India through its unfamiliar-looking houses and fences, but could have imaginatively projected herself into the role of those tiny figures to mentally relive her numerous prior experiences walking through such snow-covered pine forests in Concord, Massachusetts. Similarly, when viewing Bourne’s Mountain with Lake (shown below), she might have been reminded of both her walks to the similarly tree-enclosed Walden Pond with Emerson or even her solitary experience in Lenox when she rowed out onto a lake amidst the forests and Berkshire mountains to contemplate the Bhagvat-Geeta and nature’s sacrality in 1845. While Tappan may have been physically located in Europe when she acquired these photographs in the late 1860s or early 1870s, her Bourne landscape photographs offered her the opportunity for such romanticized and imaginary aesthetic experiences of both Massachusetts and India, the land she had temporarily left and another to which she would never travel.

    Samuel Bourne, British (1834 - 1912). Mountain with Lake, 1860s. Albumen photograph. Purchased with Hillyer-Tryon-Mather Fund, with funds given in memory of Nancy Newhall (Nancy Parker, class of 1930) and in honor of Beaumont Newhall, and with funds given in honor of Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1982:38-296


    [1] Eleanor M. Tilton, ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 8 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 27, n. 86.
    [2] For more on Tappan and Emerson’s relationship, see Kathleen Lawrence, “The ‘Dry-Lighted Soul’ Ignites: Emerson and His Soul-Mate Caroline Sturgis As Seen in Her Houghton Manuscripts,” in Harvard Library Bulletin 16, no. 3 (Fall 2005).
    [3] Sturgis-Tappan Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA (autograph letter: Tappan to Emerson, May 23, 1857).
    [4] Jeffrey Auerbach, “The Picturesque and the Homogenisation of Empire,” in The British Art Journal 5:1 (Spring/Summer 2004): 47-54.


    Abel Journeyman - 05/02/2015

    Great Information

    Julie: I love the blog about photographic imaginary. It's giving an insight to the concept of learning through Photographic memory.

    Photographic memory is an ability to recall the past events. Just as a photograph freezes a moment in time, the implication for people thought to have photographic memory is that they can take mental snapshots and then recall these snapshots without error.

    I have read another article which described the concept of getting Photographic memory.

    Abel Journeyman - 28/01/2015

    Photographic Memory

    Congratulations Julie, a brilliant post, well written and thoughtful.
    Gives an impressive insight into the concept of learning through photographic memory..

    Add New

  • Wednesday, January 7, 2015


    Guest blogger Saraphina Masters is a Smith College student, class of 2017, majoring in Classical Studies and Art History. She is the 2013-2015 STRIDE Scholar in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    Allegory is defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica as “a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative.” In the visual arts, allegory can be used to add additional layers of meaning to the existing depiction.

    Hans Thomas. German, 1839 – 1924. Reminder, 1912. Drypoint on ivory wove paper. Gift of Lessing J Rosenwald. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1951:41

    Allegory in art can range broadly in terms of complexity, meaning, and appearance. It can be simply executed, such as the use of colors that are associated with particular emotions (for example: black to signify death or grief). Equally, allegory can be incredibly complicated, with an artist depicting an entire scene full of subtle details that the viewer must decipher individually and then combine to read the greater meaning. Allegory relies heavily on the observers’ interpretations of the meaning that is being set forth. An artist may depict a dove perched in a tree in the background of a work and depend upon the viewer to notice it and associate it with its colloquial meaning of peace. A picture may seem to be about one particular subject, but when an allegorical detail is made clear, the whole meaning can change or be enhanced.

    Elihu Vedder. American, 1836 – 1923. Sorrow, n.d. Crayon and chalk drawing on two layered sheets of gray wove paper. Gift of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1955:12

    For example, Sorrow, a drawing by the American artist Elihu Vedder (above), shows a sad looking woman with her face framed by a wreath of leaves. From both the title and the appearance, it is clear that there is a theme of grief here. However this theory can be supported by the allegorical meaning of the plant, which appears to be acanthus leaves. Acanthus leaves were very common in the Greco-Roman artistic tradition and symbolically represent enduring life. Moreover, they were often present at funerals. Thus, knowledge of the type of plant, which makes up a frame that might too quickly be dismissed, can in fact make the meaning of the work of art clearer or more powerful.

    Hubert François Bourguignon Gravelot. French, 1699 – 1773. Allegorical Figure for a Title Page, n.d. Black chalk on off white antique laid paper. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1969:58-8

    Ancient Greece is one particular origin point for the allegorical tradition. The ancient Greek society had a fascinating proclivity for assigning corporeal forms and personalities to abstract concepts. They used figures to represent a massive range of subjects, from emotional and political concepts to phases of life and even celestial events. A few examples of this are the allegorical figures of Democracy, Poverty, Love, Rumor, Youth, Fear, and many more. Once these ideas were given human shape, they could then be active participants in mythological stories as well as be depicted in art. This tradition carried over into the Roman world. The Romans, like the Greeks, depicted many of the same concepts as well as new ones. A common allegorical figure was Rome herself. Usually called Roma and always portrayed as a woman, she was the entirety of the city encapsulated into one figure. This was an artistically and politically useful tool, as the use of allegory makes a large or intangible concept much more understandable and accessible for the viewer. This increased appreciation of art and even loyalty to a place and society. This custom extended many places conquered by the Romans and gave birth to the allegory of Britannia, the personification of Britain during the time of her Roman occupation.

    Chinese. Allegory of Painting, c.1800-1825. Oil on glass. Gift of Dorothy Spring, Class of 1918. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1970:20-2

    In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Christian tradition took over and rather than representing deified aspect of pagan life, artists used allegorical representations of high moral concepts and religious virtues. Faith, Hope, Justice, Temperance, and more were all depicted as human forms. During the same time period, secular art also made use of allegorical figures. The Seven Liberal Arts were often represented as individuals. Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Music were frequently depicted in art as scholarly people. They were often accompanied with signal accessories that hinted to their identity. Geometry or Arithmetic may hold a pen or stylus with which they will solve math problems, Grammar most likely has books nearby, and Music consistently has an instrument at hand. Above you can see an allegorical painting of the personification of Painting herself. A relatively obvious example of allegory, you can see the creation of a painting, as well as a paintbrush and the female figure holding a pot of paint. 

    Johann Gottlieb Prestel. German, 1739-1808 (possibly by Katharina Prestel. German, 1747-1794). Truth Attacking Envy, 1781. Chiaroscuro woodcut with gold leaf on paper. Purchased with the Hillyer-Mather-Tryon Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1991:19

    The woodcut above features more abstract example of allegory. A female figure assaulting a male figure does not immediately lend itself to easy identification. However, the viewer can dissect the image by looking for meaning in different aspect of it. Firstly, the figures are on a cloud in a heavenly environment. This may mean that the theme is related to high morality or mental concepts. Secondly, there is clearly a theme of conflict and opposition between the two concepts these figures are meant to embody. The female figure is positioned higher than the male, with her arm raised in a strong and imposing gesture. This may indicate that she is the morally superior figure and the ugly, suffering male figure she is suppressing is likely a vice or sin. The title of the print, Truth Attacking Envy, supports these inferences made from the image’s allegorical markers. Interpreting allegory in art is something akin to detective work; requiring attention to detail, fact-based hypothesizing, and a healthy dose of curiosity.