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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
This post is part of a series about the growth of the print, drawing and photograph collection at Smith College. Contemporary Inuit Art is on view in the Works on Paper gallery (2nd floor) until April 2015.
Tivi Etook (Inuit (1928 - ). A Story about Ekeagualuk, 1974. Stonecut on white paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Houston (Alice Watson, class of 1959). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1979:35-15
The Cape Dorset printing workshop emerged from an unusual seed: a pack of cigarettes. In 1957 a Canadian artist, James Houston, lived on Baffin Island in Cape Dorset, the Canadian Eastern Arctic. To the Inuit group that lives there, Baffin Island is Kingnit, and they are the Kingnimuit. The Kingnit men and those from other Inuit groups in the area have a long tradition of carving miniature sculpture, often with intricate designs etched into the surface. They used the materials at hand - stone, ivory, bone – culled from the environment around them to make art.
Oshaweetok (Inuit, 1923-2005). Hawk, 1955. Green stone. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Houston (Alice Watson, class of 1959). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1988:52-7
That year, Houston was spending time with his friend Oshaweetok, an artist famous around Cape Dorset for his sophisticated stone carvings, such as this Hawk carved from green stone (above).
Oshaweetok, also known as Osuitok Ipeelee, was examining the illustration on a pack of Player's cigarettes, an image of a sailor's head. As he studied each detail, he turned to Houston and said: "It must be very boring for someone to sit and paint each on like that."
Houston was surprised. As he put it, "I just assumed he knew [about the process of printing], but I don't know why."
Peter Aliknak (Inuit, 1928–1998). Sorcerer's Contest, 1966. Stonecut printed in black on ivory paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Houston (Alice Watson, class of 1959). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1979:35-12
Houston's language skills were not up to the task of explaining the art form, so he decided to show it instead. Oshaweetok had a small ivory carving nearby. Houston borrowed it, and then grabbed some ink and a few sheets of onionskin paper. He spread the ink over the pattern on the carving, and lay the toilet paper down on top. The ink transferred, and left the incised design on the paper. The germ of a prints workshop was planted that night, and grew into a thriving cooperative that is still in operation.
Helen Kalvak (Inuit, 1901–1984). Fate of a Caribou, 1967. Stonecut on ivory paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Houston (Alice Watson, class of 1959). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1979:35-11
The Cunningham Center has a great collection of Inuit drawings and prints, thanks to a close connection: James Houston married Alice Watson, a Smith College graduate of the class of 1959.
Kananginak Pootoogook (Inuit, 1935–2010). Eider Duck, 1962. Engraving on ivory wove paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Houston (Alice Watson, class of 1959). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1979:35-9
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Guest blogger Janna Singer-Baefsky is a Smith College student, class of 2015, majoring in Art History with a Museums Concentration. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
Moyra Davey. Canadian (1958 - ). Untitled from 16 Photographs from Paris, 2009. Folded digital c-print with paper and cellophane tape, postage, and ink. Purchased with the Dorothy C. Miller, class of 1925, Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2010:19-4
When I was eleven, my parents took our family to Paris. The excitement was palpable; other than the occasional trip to Toronto to visit family, I had never flown this far before. I did not know what to expect. Would it be the romanticized world of baguettes, cheese, and art that I had dreamed about or would my imagination let me down? From the moment I stepped off the plane, Paris did not disappoint. She was everything I had dreamed about and more. This was a city alive – everyone was going somewhere, doing something. Paris was the first city I fell in love with. When we boarded the plane to go home, it was pouring rain. It was a sign that Paris was going to miss me as much as I was going to miss her – I promised myself I would go back.
About ten years later, I boarded a plane in Heathrow. Destination: Charles de Gaulle Airport. My best friend from high school was studying in Paris while I was studying in Oxford. It would be a reunion with both my loves.
I began my first day in the Louvre and ended it in the Musée d’Orsay café, sipping a small cup of coffee. When I look at Moyra Davey’sUntitled from 16 Photographs from Paris, I am brought right back to that moment. I can smell the faint mixture of cigarettes and floral perfumes. I can hear the conversations of couples, tourists, and school children. I can taste the rich, bitter, perfectly brewed cup of coffee.
The composition is simple and elegant, much like the city. The cup and spoon are in focus and everything else – the open sugar packet, the table top – are blurred into the background. To me, it is a metaphor for the singular moment of consumption, when all the troubles and stress of the day also fade into the background as one stops to enjoy a simple cup of coffee. This photograph captures what is, perhaps, the most beautiful thing about Paris. It is an environment conducive to pausing, reflecting, and enjoying life’s most basic pleasures.
I now make a habit of enjoying a cup of tea or coffee every day to give myself a necessary moment to pause. It is something I had forgotten to do for many years until I was reminded by an afternoon in a café and an unassuming photograph. I have fallen in and out of love with many cities over the years, but I’ll always have Paris.