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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, May 21, 2014

    The Clamorous Owl

    Leonard Baskin. American, 1922-2000. The Owl, 1962. Bronze. Anonymous gift. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:36

    Outside of Wright Hall stands an unsettling sculpture. As a student at Smith, I often passed by this bird of prey going from Neilson Library to the Campus Center.

    Leonard Baskin. American, 1922-2000. The Owl, 1962. Bronze. Anonymous gift. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:36

    Its wings are slightly outstretched, as if it’s about to take flight, and its huge talons emphasize its deadly power. The sculptor did not create a smooth surface, but left it mottled and textured. Its gaze is direct, even aggressive, and even now it leaves me slightly unsettled as I walk by.

    A plaque identifies this bird of prey with lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

              The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots,

              and wonders 

              at our quaint spirits (2.3.6-7)

    Named The Owl, this piece was the creation of Leonard Baskin, who taught at Smith College between the years of 1953 and 1974. Baskin was a prolific artist who not only produced sculpture, but also hundreds of drawings, prints and artist books, many through his printing studio Gehenna Press.

    Leonard Baskin. American, 1922-2000. Frightened Boy and His Dog, 1954. Woodcut printed in black and red on paper. Date and source of acquisition unknown. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1973:54

    Looking into the Cunningham Center collection, I realized that owls, and similar raptors, crop up again and again in Baskin’s art.  As the artist put it himself in 1963, "Owls obsess me. They're predators, always in control and always mysterious. Late one midsummer night I watched one for two hours. He was after the thousands of moths who were drawn to a light by my window. He grabbed at them with his claws, never missing a one, and their wings fell off all over his breast. He was beady-eyed and, in a horrible way, marvelous."

    Leonard Baskin. American, 1922-2000. The Tormented One, 1954. Woodcut printed in black and red on paper. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1954:57

    Baskin’s obsession with these destructive, meticulous creatures began long before he cast the sculpture near Wright. We have an artist’s proof of one work from 1960, two years earlier than the sculpture The Owl, and going by the same name.

     

    Leonard Baskin. American, 1922-2000. The Owl, 1960. Woodcut printed in green on paper. Gift of Priscilla Paine Van der Poel, class of 1928. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:83

    Printed in green, the work highlights the bird’s wings with large swaths of white, while most of its body is wrought in tight lines nearly lost in the background. In a way, these lines evoke in two dimensions the same textured surfaces Baskin later incorporates into his sculpture. Likewise, in both works, he emphasizes qualities that make this bird a predator: here, we see the talons and beak depicted as sharp points of white against the green. I can imagine those claws snatching at moth after moth outside Baskin’s window, a deadly hunter coolly ripping apart his prey. The Owl’s eyes are left dark, inscrutable and mysterious.

     

    Detail of The Owl

    In Baskin's own words, he was “foremost and fundamentally a sculptor.” Still, as his prints of owls show, many of the dynamic qualities that make Baskin’s sculpture powerful are also present in his woodcut prints. Both reveal a fascination with texture and form, and a deep appreciation for these powerful, mysterious predators.

    Leonard Baskin. American, 1922-2000. The Owl that Calls Upon the Night Speaks the Unbeliever's Fright, 1959. Wood engraving printed in black on paper. Gift of Mary Miller Schwartz, class of 1966, Cornelia Ann Miller and Winter N. Miller, class of 1995, in memory of their mother and grandmother Ruth Weinstein Miller, class of 1935. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1992:27-2

    From The Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake (1757–1827)

              Every wolf’s and lion’s howl   

              Raises from hell a human soul.                  20

              The wild deer, wand’ring here and there,      

              Keeps the human soul from care.     

              The lamb misus’d breeds public strife,          

              And yet forgives the butcher’s knife. 

              The bat that flits at close of eve                  25

              Has left the brain that won’t believe.  

              The owl that calls upon the night  

              Speaks the unbeliever’s fright.

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  • Wednesday, May 7, 2014

    Keїta’s Legacy

    Guest blogger Petru Bester is a Smith College student, class of 2015, with a major in Art History. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    Seydou Keїta, Malian (1921 - 2001). Malian Woman, 1949 – 1951. Vintage gelatin silver print with hand tinting. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 2013:50-2

    This semester, Dr. Amanda Gilvin, the Five College Mello Postdoctoral Fellow in African Art and Architecture for both Mount Holyoke and Smith College helped put together a temporary African art exhibition entitled Transformations in African Art, currently on view on the 3rd floor of the Museum.

    Involving her ARH 280 African Art Survey students, Professor Gilvin made the exhibition an interactive learning experience. She states that by working in conjunction with museum staff members:

    […] students learned about artworks in the SCMA collection, and just as importantly, they learned how to teach others about art in a museum gallery. Each student conducted independent research on an artwork and wrote a didactic label for the exhibition. Essential for art historical work, the skills needed to conduct research and write concisely will prove useful for all of the students, regardless of what career paths that they choose.The exhibition was also a fun opportunity for students to closely engage with an artwork in person.

    As a student in Amanda’s class, I was fortunate enough to be assigned Seydou Keїta’s Malian Woman (shown above), just one of many gorgeous objects on display.

    Building on the rich African tradition of portrait photography, Seydou Keїta, worked through the mid to late 20th century documenting Bamako society in Mali at a time of considerable social and political change. Resting in northwest Africa, the Republic of Mali has a long and complex history of extensive empires and colonial rule. What was then known as the Mali Federation gained independence from the French on June 20th, 1960. In August of the same year Senegal withdrew from the federation leaving the Sudanese Republic to form its own nation state, the Republic of Mali in September. The Pan-Africanist Modibo Keїta was the country’s first elected president.

    1961 airmail stamp featuring Modibo Keїta (not owned by SCMA)

    Born in 1921, Modibo Keїta’s relative, Seydou Keїta began his love affair with photography at a young age in 1935. In 1948 he opened a studio in the capital of Mail, Bamako. He worked from this studio until 1962 when he became the newly installed government’s official photographer. A successful coup d’état by Moussa Traoré in 1968 removed Modibo Keїta from power. Despite their relationship, however, Traore and his people kept Seydou on as their photographer. Modibo Keїta was imprisoned until his death in 1977. Seydou subsequently retired the same year.

    Both Modibo and Seydou remain cultural icons in Mali. In 1992 the Traoré regime was overthrown and Modibo Keїta’s legacy was revived: a monument to him was erected in Bamako on June 6th, 1999. Seydou’s memory far surpasses that of Modibo as his photographs still circulate around the world and are displayed within prominent museums and gallery spaces. The Smith College Museum of Art, in their recent effort to expand and solidify their African art collection, acquired Malian Woman, a rare hand tinted print from Seydou’s studio years.

     

    Seydou Keїta, Malian (1921 - 2001). Malian Woman, 1949 – 1951. Vintage gelatin silver print with hand tinting. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 2013:50-2

    Seydou Keїta, throughout his successful career, produced an assortment of graphically intricate portraits of both individual and group sitters. This particular photograph displays Keїta’s ability to juxtapose decoratively patterned textiles. Here the floral background contrasts with the sitter’s geometric dress creating dynamic movement both within and between the textiles.

    Detail of Malian Woman

    The woman’s red tinted fingernails, earrings and headscarf serve to enhance the dimensionality of the print. Keїta is able to create formal images that somehow also maintain a sense of remarkable intimacy with his subjects. Speaking to his own ability Seydou Keїta quotes: “It’s easy to take a photo, but what really made a difference was that I always knew how to find the right position, and I was never wrong. Their head slightly turned, a serious face, the position of the hands . . . I was capable of making someone look really good.”

    Detail of Malian Woman

    The mastery shown by Keїta is only one of the many reasons his work is so well acclaimed both within and beyond Africa. Affectionately called the “Father of African photography”, Keїta was not just innovative and instrumental in the technical and aesthetic development of portrait photography but he also, consciously or not, commented on the West’s conception of a fetishized exotic African identity. His work serves to debunk the ever popular “ethnographic” black-and-white images of naked, primitive Africans. Keїta directly opposes these images with portraits of hip, cosmopolitan Malian citizens. This acquisition, and thankfully its display, is therefore an invaluable one. Keїta’s legacy lives on, modestly hanging from a wall in a SCMA gallery.

    The exhibition “Transformations in African Art," and Malian Woman will be on view on the 3rd floor of the Museum until May 26, 2014, when the 2nd and 3rd floor galleries close for re-installation

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  • Tuesday, April 29, 2014

    Homage to Quevedo

    José Luis Cuevas, Mexican (1934 - ). El Viaje, from the Homage to Quevedo Suite, 1969. Lithograph printed in color on Arches wove paper. Gift of Donna Kargman Donaghy, class of 1959, and Walter E. Donaghy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1982:24-1

    José Luis Cuevas was born in Mexico City around 1933 above a paper factory that his grandfather managed. In his words, “perhaps because I was born in a paper mill and pencil factory, paper has always had a great fascination for me." Cuevas is considered a self-taught artist; while he did take some lessons at Escuela Nacional de Pintura y Escultura "La Esmeralda," Mexico City's famous art school, he left, either because he disagreed with the school's teaching methods, or perhaps due to a life-threatening bout with rheumatic fever that forced him to stay at home and recover.

    José Luis Cuevas, Mexican (1934 - ). Lo Feo de Este Mundo I, from the Homage to Quevedo Suite, 1969. Lithograph printed in color on Arches wove paper. Gift of Donna Kargman Donaghy, class of 1959, and Walter E. Donaghy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1982:24-3

    His older brother, in training to become a psychiatrist, worked at a public mental institution and as a teenager Cuevas would follow him to work and sketch the patients. He began to produce works that depicted the shunned sectors of society -- the mentally ill, the impoverished, the prostitutes -- those 'undesirables' he once saw from his childhood apartment window.

    José Luis Cuevas, Mexican (1934 - ). Lo Feo de Este Mundo II, from the Homage to Quevedo Suite, 1969. Lithograph printed in color on Arches wove paper. Gift of Donna Kargman Donaghy, class of 1959, and Walter E. Donaghy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1982:24-4

    As early as 1953, Cuevas’ art had caught the eye of José Gómez Sicre, the Cuban-born director of the Visual Arts Section of the Pan American Union (PAU). The PAU sought to strengthen the ties between the countries of the Americas, and also to prevent the spread of communism in the region. Gómez Sicre was on the lookout for up-and-coming young Mexican artists, particularly those who presented an alternative to Muralism, the entrenched Mexican style at the time.

    Muralism emerged after the 1910 Revolution, when José Vasconcelos, the Education Minister, commissioned artists to create wall murals that would promote the social and political messages of the Revolution for a mostly illiterate population. Diego Rivera was one Mexican artist who embraced this movement, and produced murals such as Market Scene below.

    Diego Rivera, Mexican (1886 - 1957). Market Scene, 1930. Water based paint on plaster fresco mounted on cement. Gift of Mrs. Dwight W. Morrow (Elizabeth Cutter, class of 1896). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1938:13-1

    Throughout the early 20th century, Muralism had dominated Mexican art. Many young artists became disenchanted, even stifled, by its straightforward vision of their nation. Cuevas’ complex, uncomfortable images were a strong departure from Muralism, and Gómez Sicre decided to take the young artist under his wing.

    By July 1954, Gómez Sicre had brought Cuevas to Washington D.C. and organized a show of his works (Cuevas was only twenty-one at the time).  All pieces were priced between $15-$40. The show sold out completely and launched Cuevas into the international arts scene. With Gómez Sicre’s help, he grew into a leading figure among the Ruptura (Rupture) artists -- a group of young Mexican artists who broke away from the Muralism tradition and its politics.

    José Luis Cuevas, Mexican (1934 - ). El Santo de la Guerra, from the Homage to Quevedo Suite, 1969. Lithograph printed in color on Arches wove paper. Gift of Donna Kargman Donaghy, class of 1959, and Walter E. Donaghy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1982:24-2

    Cuevas had long had an interest in European literature, and Gómez Sicre encouraged his young protégée to embrace these great works in his art. As Cuevas illustrated the works of Kafka and other European writers, he perhaps hoped to show that the Ruptura group and other Latin American artists could hold their own with these established masters.

    José Luis Cuevas, Mexican (1934 - ). Lo Feo de Este Mundo III, from the Homage to Quevedo Suite, 1969. Lithograph printed in color on Arches wove paper. Gift of Donna Kargman Donaghy, class of 1959, and Walter E. Donaghy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1982:24-5

    The Cunningham Center holds one of Cuevas’ literary portfolios, Homage to Quevedo. This suite of prints was inspired by the poetry of Francisco Gómez de Quevedo, a Spanish writer who worked in the seventeenth century. The resulting works are cryptic, complex and utterly engrossing.

    José Luis Cuevas, Mexican (1934 - ). Condicion Humana II, from the Homage to Quevedo Suite, 1969. Lithograph printed in color on Arches wove paper. Gift of Donna Kargman Donaghy, class of 1959, and Walter E. Donaghy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1982:24-7

    Unlike his earliest portraits, these later works flesh out entire scenes, with figures interacting with each other within dimly-lit settings. They appear as self-sustained narratives in their own right, although what exactly is happening remains enigmatic.

    José Luis Cuevas, Mexican (1934 - ). La Vida, from the Homage to Quevedo Suite, 1969. Lithograph printed in color on Arches wove paper. Gift of Donna Kargman Donaghy, class of 1959, and Walter E. Donaghy. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.  SC 1982:24-8

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