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.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
It’s easy to see why drawing is so important to Will Barnet’s paintings. His layered textures are balanced by spare yet expressive lines that delineate the firm, almost geometric forms that make up his figures. Born in 1911 and still painting at 100, Barnet received a classical art training at the Boston Museum School, then under the direction of the painter Philip Hale.
It took Barnet two years to paint The Golden Frame,which was preceded by twelve compositional studies. This group portrait of the artist and his siblings is part of a series of paintings called My Father’s House. This body of work was conceived in 1990 when Barnet, the youngest of his siblings by 11 years, returned to his family home in Beverly to visit his sister Eva who was living in the family home alone following the death of their sister Jeanette. During his visit he observed Eva, in the throes of a fever, wandering through the house imagining the presence of their departed family members. An evocation of how memory and history surround us, Barnet’s paintings are both highly personal, yet also very inclusive. We may not know all the characters of his story, but we are given enough information to parse it all out, as well as become emotionally involved in the scene.
The surround of The Golden Frameis based on a mirror which hung in the hallway of Barnet’s family home; in it we see the reflections of the artist, his elder brother Benjamin, and his two sisters. It is clear that he struggled with the composition for some time—in each drawing the figures are arranged differently, their positioning, posture, and gazes changing, sometimes quite markedly. A group portrait is not just a collection of likenesses, but of relationships between figures, and the success of the picture hinges on the accurate representation of such qualities.
In the final painting, Barnet’s solution seems effortless and fitting; the artist, the tallest member of the group is in back with his sketchpad, surrounded by his brother and sisters (both living and dead). Looking straight ahead at the viewer, the artist’s gaze is calm, probing, and frank; recording both present circumstances and memories from the past.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Käthe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945) was a German printmaker and sculptor. The first woman admitted to the academy of arts, Kollwitz flourished during the Weimar Republic. Her fortunes changed after Hitler came into power and she petitioned against the Nazis. She lost her studio and was forced to leave the academy. Kollwitz’s commitment to social justice permeates her graphic work, particularly in her portrayals of the working class, the poor, and the effects of war.
Kollwitz’s prints are haunting, unsettling and provocative, but even as they show scenes of suffering, pain, death and loss, they are not unrelentingly grim. Empathy suffuses Kollwitz’s work, as though art were a way of identifying faces among the masses, drawing them out of anonymity. The sense of figures drawn out of darkness is also a compositional idea in Kollwitz’s prints. Often shrouded in dark, shapeless clothes, her figures come to life in their faces and hands, both communicators of feeling and experience. Take a look at this print called Battlefield,from the series The Peasant’s War:
In the dark of night, a woman holding a lamp searches for a face she recognizes among the dead. (Given Kollwitz’s frequent depictions of mothers and children, I always imagine this woman is looking for her son.) Notice the dramatic illumination of her hand and the man’s face. I love the expressive use of shadow, light and tone in this print that allows Kollwitz to picture this interaction between the living and the dead, the hand and the face. Kollwitz’s art is, in a sense, a recovery of the dead: like the woman seeking her son, she shines her lamp on the obscure, the victimized and the suffering. This act of bringing light to darkness is, I think, both an act of empathy and of political engagement. She lends dignity to the sufferers and gravitas to those willing to face difficult truths. Her lithograph Call of Deathsuggests that facing death, even facing one’s own death, can be a moment of connection.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Uikyo-e is a form of woodblock printmaking that flourished between in Japan the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The word Uikyo-e means “pictures of the floating world.” Traditionally, these prints depict a world of sumptuous colors, elegant women, and dazzling theatrical illusions.
The “floating world” of Ukiyo-e refers to the pleasure quarters of Edo. Edo, a modest fishing village, became the capital of Japan under the warlord government called the Tokugawa shogunate that held power from 1603 until 1868. The village was transformed into a vibrant metropolis known for its entertainment culture, featuring music, Kabuki and puppet theater, geishas, and woodblock prints.
Edo flourished. Within a little over a century of this new government rule, it became the largest city in the world. When the Meiji Restoration abolished the shogunate in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo, meaning “eastern capital.” Thus, Japanese printmaking and its tradition of beauty and elegance is tied up in the history and rise of the city we now know as Tokyo. Ukiyo-e is an art of ethereal and ephemeral beauty and pleasure, but it is also very much an urban tradition – both a product of this urban expansion and its visual record.
The Japanese print scholar Sandy Kita points out that Ukiyo-e presents a paradox in its name and its history. “Ukiyo” means “floating world,” and “-e” means “pictures, paintings or illustrations.” But the word ukiyo, as a common noun, precedes the pleasure quarters of Tokugawa Japan by seven or eight centuries, carrying a rather different definition: “the present” or “here and now.” Therefore, Ukiyo-e refers simultaneously to pictures of the floating world and pictures of the here and now, pictures of the illusory and pictures of the real. This print of fireworks over the water nicely encompasses this blend of the ephemerality of the here and now and the almost fantastical beauty of reality:
This second translation of Ukiyo-e as “the here and now” might help explain the preponderance of landscape prints in the Ukiyo-e tradition, particularly those by nineteenth century artists Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. These artists are most famous for their series’ of Edo landscapes – for example, Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido and Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji – which exhibit a documentary style that seems far removed from the Floating World of fantasy and illusion.
These landscape prints are more realism than fancy. Occasionally, however, they combine realism with legend or myth, as in this print of the New Year’s Eve Foxfires from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo:
The centrality of Ukiyo-e in Japanese culture began to wane in the 1850s, when Japan opened up trade with the west and photography, a newly minted technology, gained currency in Japan. At the same time, artists like Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas were becoming fascinated by Japanese prints, incorporating the aesthetic and sensibility of ukiyo-e into their paintings and prints. It is easy to imagine how ukiyo-e, with its view of reality as ephemeral and subjective, appealed to these Impressionist artists.