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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.

  • 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


  • 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..

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