Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 16,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other works on paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection: exhibitions, class visits, monthly Student Picks exhibitions, as well as research on and personal encounters with individual artworks. Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
Nusra Latif Qureshi, Pakistani (1973 - ). Tropic of Capricorn, 2002. Siyah-qalam, gouache, liquid gold, and gold leaf on wasli paper. Purchased with the Janice Carlson Oresman, class of 1955, Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:4
The tradition of Mughal miniatures first appeared in South Asia in the mid-16th century, under the patronage of Emperor Akbar. In the spirit of cultural tolerance, this Muslim ruler commissioned his court artists to produce manuscripts illustrating Hindu epics, historical narratives and personal biographies; these works blended the local Jain manuscript tradition with Safavid (Persian) miniatures. The result was opulent, precise, rich in color and in detail. We have some examples in the Smith Museum collection, such as this portrait of Emperor Akbar painted after his death.
Unknown artist. Mughal Emperor Akbar, 17th century. Opaque water base colors and gold on paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Kenneth Galbraith (Catherine Atwater, class of 1934). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1981:27-9
This rich tradition still lives on, although only a few practice it. Nusra Latif Qureshi is a leading figure in the contemporary miniature scene, having studied the art at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan.
Three Songs of Desire reveals Qureshi’s mastery of the miniature style, in the beautifully rendered figure of a woman. The colors are as deep and saturated as the portrait of Emperor Akbar. She even painted the work on wasli, the delicate handmade paper created for traditional miniatures.
Nusra Latif Qureshi, Pakistani (1973 - ). Three Songs of Devotion, 2002. Gouache on wasli paper with tan-colored paper frame. Purchased with the Janice Carlson Oresman, class of 1955, Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:5
That said, her work is decidedly untraditional. As a woman engaging with an art form dominated by men, she plays with those images and motifs gone unquestioned in miniature art for centuries. Often, she draws focus back to female figures in her work, something you can see clearly in Three Songs of Devotion. The man and woman embrace, a typical romantic intimacy, but the man is blotted out in black, a silhouette. All detail and individualism belongs to the woman, who sits straight and barely supported by her lover.
Detail of couple from Three Songs of Devotion
In this piece, Qureshi has also stripped out the typical opulence of a Mughal miniature, and replaced that environment with flat plains of color. Layered above the main scene are lines of white, forming new images entirely.
Detail of birds from Three Songs of Devotion
These untraditional additions actually have their basis in a different era of Indian art. Starting in the late 18th century, the British East India Company began to expand further into South Asia, and with it came an influx of British employees. With this migration was a demand for art that recorded these unfamiliar settings and Indian artists were hired to paint local monuments, flora and fauna. Watercolor was the medium of choice, as this type of paint is quick to dry, and easy to carry around. Eventually, Indian artists began to produce these works in large numbers to sell as souvenirs to foreign travelers.
Detail of a putto (cupid) from Three Songs of Devotion
The style became known as ‘Company painting,’ and these realistic, detailed watercolors have their echoes in Qureshi's works. In Three Songs of Devotion, ghostly white outlines form birds that overlap each other and the larger image, flanked by the winged putti (or cupids) so often seen in European Renaissance art.
Nusra Latif Qureshi, Pakistani (1973 - ). Of Birds and Fourteen Year Olds, November 2003. Gouache on paperboard. Purchased with the Richard and Rebecca Evans (Rebecca Morris, class of 1932) Foundation Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2004:6
Qureshi's drawing Of Birds and Fourteen Year Olds likewise references these Company paintings; she even renders a crane’s body with watery brushstrokes, reminiscent of the preferred medium for these early ornithological souvenirs.
Detail of bird in Of Birds and Fourteen Year Olds
A major part in Of Birds and Fourteen Year Olds is the ghostly outline of a group sitting and standing together, posed for a photograph. Qureshi has taken what seems to be a colonialist photograph from the early 20th century and recreated it here, although she has omitted many details.
Detail from Of Birds and Fourteen Year Olds
The light color makes the figures difficult to see against the white background. I wonder if they are the fourteen-year-olds referenced in the title, but I can’t tell from the image alone. Indeed, they are faceless, their identity obscured, an omission made more powerful by the text floating above them: “But the poor orientals have a collective identity…”
Detail from Of Birds and Fourteen Year Olds
Qureshi is telling a story of erasure, both present and past. Her art speaks to a history some would prefer to forget, and racist attitudes that still pervade.
There are purists who prefer the unadulterated miniature style. In her own way, however, Nusra Latif Qureshi carries on the spirit of experimentation foraged in the artists’ studio of Emperor Akbar, creating a hybrid art that weds the complex cultural interactions that still influence South Asia today.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Guest blogger Jennifer Guerin is a Smith College student, class of 2014, majoring in American Studies and History with focuses in Public History and Social Movements. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Thomas Cooper, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-4
I've been fascinated with silhouette portraiture for a large portion of my life. As a kid, I went to Disneyland with my family fairly regularly, and one of the Main Street shops had an artist that made cut-out silhouettes. Somewhere in the depths of my closet I have several silhouettes done of me, or of me and a friend. Younger me was interested in the speed with which the silhouettes were made, and now as a student of art and culture, I'm particularly interested in how that short time frame of creation interacts with our subconscious ideas about what art is, as I personally find that many people automatically see art as a time consuming process by necessity.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Martin Van Buren, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-9
Silhouette portraiture is an artistic style which involves representing the profile or shadow of an object as a solid shape, without any internal detail; it became popular in the 1800s, though there are certainly examples prior to that period. Though the style was sometimes used in painting, silhouettes were most often cut out from black paper or heavier black card. Because a skilled silhouette artist could produce a number of portraits fairly quickly, it seems to have been a reasonably reliable form for artists looking to make a living in a more commercial way. Additionally, because artists could do a lot of sittings and make a lot of portraits in short periods of time, they did not necessarily need to charge particularly high prices, which also allowed a larger sector of society to have access to this type of art.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). John Tyler, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-5
The Cunningham Center owns a particularly interesting set of silhouettes, done by an artist named William Henry Brown. Brown was a popular silhouette maker in the 1800s, and was thus able to get a number of famous Americans to sit for him. In 1845, he created the Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens, which featured prints of 26 of his silhouettes, which were attached to lithographed backgrounds before a print of the entire image was produced for the book. The prints were accompanied by short biographies of these people and a printed copy of some sort of correspondence to provide an example of their handwriting.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Henry Alexander Wise, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-12
Some of these figures are still well known today, such as former Presidents Van Buren, Tyler, Quincy Adams, and Jackson, while others have faded somewhat in the historical memory, such as Samuel Southard (a U.S. Senator, Secretary of the Navy, and the tenth Governor of New Jersey) or Henry Wise (a United States Congressman and governor of Virginia, who would go on to be a general in the Confederate States Army). While many silhouette portraits traditionally depict the profile of the figure from the shoulders up, Brown’s silhouettes are full body, which is an interesting choice for depicting these highly respected people, as full body images can be decidedly less flattering (take, for instance, Dixon Hall Lewis, who is partially known for having weighed somewhere in the area of 500 lbs., and is clearly shown as such in Brown’s portrait).
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Dixon Hall Lewis, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-15
The choice to do full body silhouettes is, however, potentially helpful for distinguishing the different figures from each other, since silhouettes are necessarily missing so many other details that could clearly identify their subjects.
The history behind the specific prints owned by the museum is somewhat unclear. The confusion stems from the fact that Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens was reprinted in the 1930s, and the reprint does not appear discernibly different from the original printing. Neilson Library owns a copy of the 1930s printing which is missing all its plates, so I thought, briefly, that perhaps the museum has the prints from the book in the library. However, the museum file on the prints includes donor information, so we know that the prints were donated specifically to the museum whereas the book in the library was purchased with money from a fund named for President Seeyle, which leaves us with more questions and no answers. If necessary, we might be able to pin down the date of these prints by analyzing the age of the paper they are printed on. For now, however, they remain a mystery.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
A recent New York Times article described the latest trend in diets. It was called “The Mirror Fast.” This diet was not prescribing the usual avoidance of certain foods or some exercise regime, but instead suggested a diet of one’s own mirror reflection. While the author of this new diet, who did not look at her own reflection for a year, recommended it mostly to women who might suffer from societally induced body image distortion, we might propose something along these lines as a more general solution for our society which has come to exhibit over the past couple decades an arguably unprecedented degree of self-obsessive disorders. Just the same, narcissism is not a new thing. Just read from Shakespeare or the classics and you come across many a picture perfect narcissist.
Pop artist Andy Warhol predicted in 1968 that a time would come when everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Fast forward to 2013 and we find ourselves living in a culture where we advertise the most intimate details of our lives through tweets and Facebook while recording our selfies with our iPhone cameras―a brave new generation, hunched over, umbilically connected to our devices waiting for our “friends” to virtually “like” us.
Of course much has already been written on the rise of what seems to be an increasingly self-absorbed and exhibitionistic society that promotes and publicizes the “I” perhaps at the expense of the “We.”
Lauren Greenfield, American (1966-). Showgirl Anne-Margaret in her dressing room at the Stardust Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. She tapes a note that says, "I approve of myself" and pictures of models she admires to her mirror for inspiration, 1998. Dye destruction print. Gift of Susan and Peter MacGill. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:72-25.
The emergence of these books and articles about the rise of narcissism could however also be a sign of a rising awareness urging for some societal recalibration. Historically humanity has reached similar realizations and often societal limits were created to reign in these excesses. In ancient Greece societal myths like the famous story of the youth Narcissus, who pined away after falling in love with his own reflection, warned of the detrimental consequences of such vices as self-love, vanity, and pride. In the early Middle Ages, basic moral edicts were cast as the cardinal (or Seven) deadly sins. While the early Christian theologians did not always agree on the number or order of mortal sins, Pride and (or Vainglory) was ultimately regarded as the worst: the origin of all evil, the one that started it all…
Government and church implemented sumptuary laws that have functioned over the ages as a sort of “fashion police,” restricting the type and number of luxury goods a person could buy or wear. Such laws were instituted by the Greeks, and after them the Romans, continuing on in various forms not only throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but even into to puritanical New England, where flashy lace collars were just not done.
Abraham Bosse (French, 1602-1676). Le Courtisan suivant le dernier édit, ca. 1633 (print not part of the Smith College Museum of Art collection).
[above] Louis XIII (quite the dandy himself) imposed on the 6th of February 1620, laws that ordered the population to wear simpler clothes with less ornament. The courtier in this print is taking of his elaborate clothing and replaces it with simpler garb.
We feature a newly acquired series of wonderful moralizing prints in our collection that addresses this concern with the subject aptly titled: The cycle of the Vicissitudes of human life. These prints were rendered as a warning to the good and wealthy Flemish folk of the 16th century, demonstrating in strong symbolic visual language that one phase of the human condition could lead to the next. It all starts with Lady Prosperity whose actions lead to Pride, who births the child Envy with its snakes for hair, which in turn will lead to War, who will give birth to Poverty dressed in rags, which will lead to Humility, out of which will come Peace and finally go back to Prosperity which will deliver etc…..
Karel van Mallery, Flemish (1571 - 1635); after Maarten de Vos, Flemish (1532 - 1603). Wealth Brings Forth Pride from The Cycle of the Vicissitudes of Human Life, 1581-1635. Engraving printed in black on paper. Purchased with the gift of Catherine Blanton Freedberg, class of 1964, in honor of Suzannah Fabing, Director of the Smith College Museum of Art, 1991-2005. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2013:40-2.
Detail of baby Pride from Wealth Brings Forth Pride, looking in her mirror
The prints were based on another series of prints by the well-known Haarlem artist Maarten van Heemskerck who drew his inspiration from a religious procession celebrating the Feast of the Circumcision in Antwerp in 1561.
Maarten van Heemskerk (Dutch, 1498-1574). The Cycle of Human Vicissitudes, 1561. Depicted is Pride holding her mirror. (not part of Smith College Museum of Art collection).
While it may be hard to imagine such a colorful parade with its elaborate didactic scenes processing through the streets of present day Antwerp, it does say something about the popular awareness of such complex concerns.
During the Middle Ages the creation of art in the West had been more a communal undertaking. Artists were for the most part born into the profession. Art in those days was funded by the church or the nobility. Individualized and secular art was rare and these medieval artists were, as a rule, not appreciated for the originality of their work, but rather for its excellence in craftsmanship and technical skill. This all changed in the late Renaissance with the resurgence of individualism and humanism and the concomitant changes in the status of the artist. This was a time when self-portraits and aggrandizing portraits of the “average” person became quite popular. Artists also started to sign their name to their work and some even “hid” images of themselves in their own compositions.
Hendrik Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617). Circumcision, 1594. Engraving (detail). (print not part of the Smith College Museum of Art collection).
However in Northern Europe no self-respecting portrait was complete without some reminder of things to come. This often came in the form of a skull or an hourglass or putti blowing bubbles or a flower losing a petal or two; all symbols of the fragility of life and the vulnerability of times of prosperity. These visual reminders of death were placed as evidence of the sitter’s modesty and morality.
Jacob Matham, Dutch (Matham 1571 - 1631); after Paul Morelsen. Portrait of the artist Abraham Bloemaert, 1610. Engraving on paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Rose (Clarice Goldstein, class of 1927). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1973:9-6
Detail from Portrait of the artist Abraham Bloemaert
Hendrik Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617). Quis Evadet?, ca. 1594. (not part of the Smith College Museum of Art collection)
While it’s clear that narcissism is not a new phenomenon, what does seem to be new is the status it has gained in our western society; narcissism has become our new religion. We now carry our narcissism with pride. While we imagine ourselves a society of individuals, social media suggests a miscarried longing for a lost communal spirit. We clearly still need acknowledgement from others, yet we find ourselves stuck staring at our own reflection in the mirror.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Spanish (1746 - 1828). Haste la muerte. (Till Death), Plate 55 from Los Caprichos, 1799. Etching and aquatint printed in black on laid paper. Purchased with the gift of Albert H. Gordon. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1964:34-55
I guess what history and art teaches us is that we all could use a symbolic hourglass or two on our bedside table or an occasional mirror fast. It won’t change our longing for feeling special but might make for a better and maybe healthier worldview.