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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.

  • Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Bruegel and the Art of Ambiguity

    The works of art that remain inexhaustibly interesting draw us not by their meanings but by their ambiguities - their refusal to submit to a single interpretation.  And no artist was more attuned to this complexity than the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

    Jan Duetecum, after Pieter Bruegel the elder.  Duetecum: Flemish, ca.1558-ca.1593; Bruegel: Flemish, ca. 1525-1569. The Fair on Saint George's Day (The Kermis of St. George), n.d. Etching and engraving on paper. Purchased with the gift of Priscilla Cunningham, class of 1958. SC 1973:12-1. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    This print after Bruegel depicts a kermis—the peasant celebration surrounding a Catholic religious feast—in all its carnival excess.  Men and women cavort together, overrun by animals and children; there is music, a sword dance, and a fight; a stage is erected on beer barrels in front of a church; adults gather to play children’s games. 

    Seen by the upper classes as a license for debauchery, kermises were much in contention in the Netherlands throughout the sixteenth century.  Peasant revelry was associated with pagan bacchanalia - its drunken feasts were thought to undermine the sanctity of the Last Supper, while its disorderly dancing invoked the idolatry of the dancers around the golden calf.

    Does this print reinforce the disapproval of the upper classes, or challenge it?  Is Bruegel satirizing these peasants and their drunken sport, or is he honoring the exuberance and spontaneity of their celebration?  Looking for answers in the print’s iconography only reveals contradictions.  While dances, feasts and games may be allegories of vice and folly, they also represent merriment and community.  The flag in the right foreground reads “Let the Farmers Have Their Fair” - we could read this as a protest in favor of the kermis, or as a condescending dismissal of the peasants’ fun. 

    Bruegel turns the subject of the kermis and its usual didactic message about good Christian behavior on its head.  The two pairs of spectators who frame the composition in the foreground of the print draw our attention not only to the follies of the peasants but to how we see them, and the complex relationship between judgment and sympathy.



    Laurence Smith - 12/03/2013


    In the two details that have been picked out in Bruegel and the Art of Ambiguity above show men pointing. They may be pointing to the whole scene of folly but the man with his mouth open is pointing directly to the backside and head between legs of boys tumbling the other observer to the revels is pointing to a bowles-player who is also pointing at his ball. In another drawing called The Feast of Fools Bruegel makes a direct link between the wooden balls and the numbskulls of the players. Bruegel was a quiet, serious artist but he was also known for a sense of humour by scaring his apprentices with strange noises. He was also known to dress up as a peasant to attend country weddings. So I think he was happy for the time for recreation and play acting - he includes so many details - but by also including the critics he gives a truer picture and the print a wider market.

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  • Monday, October 17, 2011

    El Muro (The Wall)

    I first saw Eduardo Hernández Santos’s El Murophotographs in 2008 during a studio visit with photographer and Hampshire College faculty member Jackie Hayden. Jackie and her husband, printmaker Steve Daiber, had been visiting and working in Cuba since 2001 as part of Hampshire College’s study abroad program, and they had been assisting Cuban artists by introducing their work to U.S. audiences since 2004. At the time, Steve and Jackie were working on publishing a book on El Murothrough Steve’s imprint, Red Trillium Press. The pictures completely knocked me out.

    Eduardo Hernández Santos. Cuban, born 1966. Triptych from El Muro(The Wall),2005 (printed 2008). Gelatin silver prints with applied presstype. Purchased with funds from the Dorius-Spofford Fund for the Study of Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression

    Hernández Santos began El Muroin 2005, when he discovered that a block of the Malecón, the five-mile sea wall extending from Old to Central Havana, had been claimed as a place where gay and transgendered Cubans congregated on a nightly basis. He photographed at El Muro (the wall) over the next year, engaging in discussions with his subjects, many of whom had no other public social outlet to express this part of their identities. Although Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of current Cuban president Raul Castro and Director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, is a vocal supporter of gay rights in Cuba, there is a strong sense that even minor gains (like being able to gather safely in public) may soon disappear. The late-night revelers, caught in the flash of Hernández Santos’s camera, display themselves fully, making the most of their current (albeit limited) freedom.

    El Muro consists of a series of ten photographic triptychs. Most of the triptychs includes two images of the wall itself shown alongside portraits of people at the wall. On the left-hand image, the artist has spelled out fragments from “La isla en peso (The Island Burden)” a poem by the well-known gay Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979). Piñera’s poem charts, in scathing language, what he saw as the often repressive, violent, and insular nature of Cuban culture, and he portrayed his native land as doomed and malignant. [La maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes (the damned circumstance of water everywhere)]. Hernández Santos’s project strives to represent, in his words “the inner essence of a people who struggle to define and defend their right to be themselves, to have a space of their own.”

    Eduardo Hernández Santos. Cuban, born 1966. Triptych from El Muro(The Wall),2005 (printed 2008). Gelatin silver prints with applied presstype. Purchased with funds from the Dorius-Spofford Fund for the Study of Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression.

    The prints Jackie and Steve showed me were made in 2006 with expired photo paper and chemistry in the artist’s bedroom/darkroom (black and white photography supplies are difficult to obtain in Cuba). The circumstances under which the photographs were printed are important to the meaning of the work: the economic realities of making art in Cuba often require a make-shift ingenuity to successfully realize projects that would be easier accomplished outside the country. The use of expired materials also contributes to the grainy texture of Hernández Santos’s images and the relative lack of contrast, which heightens the sense of people emerging from the darkness. The artist printed three more editions (also on expired paper, but with fresh chemistry), one of which was acquired by SCMA in 2010.

    El Murowill be on view at SCMA from September 2 -November 20 which will coincide with a residency by the artist at Hampshire College (dates TBA).


  • Monday, October 10, 2011

    What about this drawing intrigues you?

    What about this drawing intrigues you?

    Help SCMA improve our interpretive labels!

    The goal of interpretive labels is to give visitors information about works of art. The problem, of course, is that not everyone is interested in the same thing.

    What do YOU want to know? Here’s your chance to share your ideas and help us create more effective and interesting labels.

    What questions do you have about this drawing?

    What is the first thing you notice?

    What words come to mind when looking at this drawing?

    What function do you imagine this drawing may have had?

    Please record your questions, comments, ideas, or observations in the comments section. You can use the questions we’ve provided or formulate your own: all observations are welcome.

    Your feedback will also help us in planning an exhibition of French and Italian drawings scheduled to be on view during the Fall of 2012.

    We will post some test labels based on your comments and ideas, and hope you will check Paper + People to see (and rate!) our labels for clarity, interest, and effectiveness.

    An installation featuring this drawing will be on view on the Museum’s second floor until November.