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Now everyone is an insider!

In order to provide an open forum for ALL of the museum’s collection and activities, the Paper + People blog is being renamed SCMA Insider. With its expanded focus, SCMA Insider will act as a go-to place for sharing information on the diverse collections and many voices and visions that shape SCMA.

If you want to contribute to the blog, please contact the Brown Post-Baccalaureate Curatorial Fellow, Shanice Bailey, at sbailey@smith.edu.

  • Tuesday, June 12, 2018

    Your Move: Kay Sage’s Surrealist Assemblages

    Guest blogger Renee Klann is a Smith College student, class of 2019. She was the 2015-2017 STRIDE Scholar in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    Kay Sage was an American Surrealist artist. After growing up in both the U.S. and Italy, she moved to France and met the Surrealists. Their movement, which drew on dreams and the subconscious, inspired Sage. In the late 1930s and early 1940s she developed a personal Surrealist style based on mysterious architectural forms in somber-colored settings. Although the forms are painted realistically, they convey an impression or feeling rather than actual objects.

     

     Kay Sage, American, 1898-1963. Cooling the Stars, 1957. Oil on canvas. Promised gift from a Private Collection, Houston. SC TR 7808.4

    In the late 1950s Sage developed cataracts, which made her eyesight too poor to paint. Rather than giving up on making art, Sage created assemblages and wrote poetry. In a letter to Marcel Duhamel, she said “I’ll have a show . . . of objects I’ve managed to make to replace paintings.” Her 17 small three-dimensional objects were shown at the Catherine Viviano gallery in November 1961.

    Sage almost never explained the meaning of her work, and the assemblages were no exception to this rule. The only clues to their meaning are their titles and the lines of Sage’s poem “Your Move” that they were paired with.

     

    Your Move

    These are games without issue

    some have been played

    and are therefore static

    others will be

    and can still be played

    there are no rules

    no one can win or lose

    they are arbitrary

    and irrelevant

    but there is no reason why

    anything should mean more

    than its own statement

    two and two

    do not necessarily make four

     

    If that is a scientist at my door

    please tell him

    to go away

     

    The lines “there is no reason why / anything should mean more / than its own statement” reflect Sage’s reluctance to offer explanations of her work. For her, a painting or assemblage spoke for itself, and she did not want to put precise meanings on her dreamlike images. The poem also suggests that Sage was probably influenced by Surrealist games such as Exquisite Corpse, in which each player added part of a drawing or a sentence without seeing the other players’ contributions to create an unexpected final product.

    Some of the assemblages included in the exhibition were Sourir D’hiver (Winter Smile), a piece of crinkled foil mounted in a wood frame with a magnifying glass; Your Move, which resembles a chess board with bullet cartridges instead of chess pieces; and Nuclear Tension, made of a spring and a ball bearing inside a glass tube.

     Kay Sage, American, 1898-1963. Tides Will Be High From Now On, 1961. 98 blue and clear glass beads, wood box with four stones, four convex lenses on wood ground. Promised gift from a Private Collection, Houston. SC TR 7808.5

     

    Tides Will Be High From Now On combines ninety-eight blue and clear glass beads with four stones resting on glass lenses, all in a wood box. The corresponding line of the poem is “there are no rules.” This piece can be seen as a game without rules because the beads are free to move in unpredictable patterns in response to a ‘player’s’ movements.

    The show Your Move was Sage’s last before she committed suicide in 1963. The objects she made in her final years demonstrate how even in the face of obstacles, Sage continued to make art that was true to her Surrealist vision.

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  • Friday, June 1, 2018

    Toulouse-Lautrec and Parisian Nightlife

    Guest blogger Raphaela Tayvah was a Smith College student, class of 2016, with a major in Art History and a Museums Concentrator. She was a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    Nightclub singers and performers were a favorite subject for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Born to a wealthy, artistically inclined family in 1864, Toulouse-Lautrec is known for his vibrant, theatrical depictions of turn of the century Parisian life and the characters that made it so vivid. Many of these characters were the singers and dancers of nightclubs such as the Moulin Rouge. Toulouse-Lautrec worked in a variety of media, experimenting in everything from watercolors and stained glass to prints and posters. The last of these are what he is probably best known for. These prints and posters were not only revolutionary in respect to their technique but they also formed an important early bridge between so-called high art and the commodity. They were often used to advertise events at what were thought of as low-brow establishments. In doing so, Toulouse-Lautrec’s works exemplify the early shift of art from an elitist context to one more accessible to the general public.

    The women depicted in Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints and posters were not only icons of this world of flashy nightlife, but also all had their own distinct personas. Three of these, Yvette Guilbert, Mary Belfort, and Louise Weber (more commonly known as La Goulue), can be seen in the collection at the Cunningham Center.

    Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French (1864 - 1901). Yvette Guilbert, ca. 1913. Crayon lithograph printed in black with scraper on ochre wove paper. Purchased. SC 1958:72

    The first of these depicts Yvette Guilbert, a singer from an impoverished background who eventually made her way to the stage at the Moulin Rouge. She was a favorite subject of Toulouse-Lautrec. He did many portraits and caricatures of her throughout his career, even dedicating his second album of sketches to Guilbert. This print expresses the more nuanced aspects of the singer. With the gestural lines and lack of color, this print distinguishes itself from much of Toulouse-Lautrec’s more flashy, theatrical work.

    Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French (1864 - 1901). May Belfort, ca. 1895 Crayon, brush and spatter lithograph printed in olive green, red, black and yellow on wove paper on fabric. Purchased. SC 1958:82

    Toulouse-Lautrec’s May Belfort shows another depiction of a Parisian nightclub singer. Belfort was an Englishwoman who moved to Paris to pursue her career as a performer. She is often depicted with a black cat, seen here curled up in her arms. Throughout Toulouse-Lautrec’s work he often highlights specific characteristics or objects associated with his subjects. This practice allowed him to establish personas around these people, which was especially useful when creating promotional posters.

     

    Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French (1864 - 1901). La Goulue, ca. 1894. Brush, crayon and spatter lithograph printed in dark olive green with scraper on ochre wove paper. Purchased. SC 1958:78

    The third and final of Toulouse-Lautrec’s women under discussion here is La Goulue. This gestural work depicts one of the Moulin Rouge’s best known performers. A dancer and part-time prostitute, Louise Weber earned the nickname “La Goulue” due to her gluttonous  personality. Roughly six feet tall, she was known for her impressive appetite. Weber was a common subject for Toulouse-Lautrec, and he did numerous promotional posters of the dancer. The lack of color in this particular print combined with strong lines manages to convey her vibrant, flirtatious persona without overwhelming the viewer and turning her into too much of a caricature.

    The three of these prints show different facets of Toulouse-Lautrec’s nightclub performers. Each of the women he chose to portray give a sense of his ability to capture personality in slightly abstracted depictions of the human form. In addition, these prints serve as an excellent reminder that much of the work that is associated with Toulouse-Lautrec’s name today were created with the intention of function as advertisements for various night clubs. In doing so, he began to bridge the gap between high art and functional object. 

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  • Wednesday, May 16, 2018

    TALK BACK| Dania González and Ana Mendieta

    Guest blogger Zarah Ferrari ’18 is the first Brown Kennedy Museum Research Fellow in Art History. This fellowship, offered jointly by the Department of Art and the Smith College Museum of Art, provides a one-year fellowship to a Smith junior or senior art history major or minor. Fellows engage in sustained object-based research and contribute to public scholarship about objects in the SCMA collection. Zarah will deliver a gallery talk on her installation on Thursday, May 17 at 4pm on the lower level of the Museum. 

    At the beginning of my Brown-Kennedy Fellowship, I was hesitant about curating an exhibition for the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) as the culmination of my research project. Despite being an Art History major, this spring semester of my senior year was my first introduction into museum courses. At Mount Holyoke, I am taking a course called “Museumized: History, Ethics, and Work”, which addresses the complicated questions curators face when working and creating within the museum context. Throughout the semester the class worked together to create an exhibition, which we presented last week in the Carson Gallery at the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art (MHCAM). This course was highly informative, but as I only worked in the education team for the class, I lacked  the knowledge of how curators brainstormed ideas for exhibitions, worked through iterations, or settled on a final project.

    [Final exhibition design]

    I quickly realized that creating an exhibition within a museum is similar to an academic research project that entails asking a lot of questions that will likely not be answered. It is the pursuit of these curiosities that yields the greatest outcome, one that is likely dissimilar from the original hypothesis. I began with sketching as many potential exhibition ideas until it resulted in something that intrigued the imagination and conjured curiosities.

    Initially, I wanted to create an exhibition with five or six of the pieces I had been researching throughout the semester. All of the works I had chosen were performance art or  publicly engaged, so I fantasized about creating an installation that sparked viewer participation, such as installing interactive iPads or putting some works on the floor for people to lay down next to. My supervisor Aprile Gallant, the Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, welcomed my wild ideas, but assisted me in making them more realistic for the platform and time allotment given.

    The ‘Talk Back’ wall in the lower level of the SCMA was ideal for the interactive focus of my exhibition, as it was the one gallery space visitors most engaged with within the museum. I pared down my elaborate ideas, coupling Dania González’s Retencion, a recent gift from New York-based artist Nina Yankowitz, with Ana Mendieta’s Imagen de Yagul, a work already in the SCMA collection. With just two works versus six, it gave the art space to ‘breathe’ and allowed for more direct comparison between the two images.  The two pieces complemented each other in a beautiful way that suggested synchronistic time despite being created decades apart. González was inspired by the same “Land Art” movement Mendieta was a part of, and it caused me to wonder if Mendieta would relate to González’s work in the same way. When I asked González how she felt about the pairing, she felt overjoyed and privileged to be compared with such an artistic master like Mendieta, for whom she feels “great admiration.”  (Spanish to English translation)

    [My first time seeing the works together. We ended up swapping them so that Mendieta’s body leaned towards Gonzalez’s]

    While I will save an in-depth analysis of the exhibition for a separate post, when I see González embracing the earth of her destroyed home in the work Retencion, I project my own feelings of home onto it. Her embrace is intimate, yet there is a tenseness visible in her body, in her brow, the quarter turn of her hips, or the way she digs her arms into the mound. To me this may communicate her  knowing that this moment of deep intimacy is temporal, the last physical moment with her home before she is ripped away and left with only memories. In Ana Mendieta’s Imagen de Yagul,  I also see her returning temporarily to an indigenous land she can never truly be a part of. Temporality may be glimpsed in these images through the torn flowers in Imagen de Yagul, the collapsing mound in Retencion, or even in the idea that each photograph captures a moment of a performance that is long past.

    This lens of the pain and intimacies of returning home led me to the final question I wanted viewers to respond to on small slips of paper when viewing my exhibition: Where does your body feel at home? This particular question was chosen after consultation with Gina Hall, SCMA’s Associate Educator for School and Family Programs, Aprile, and many friends. It works because it is a question everyone wanted the answer to, from both themselves and others. I have always wanted my body to feel at home with itself, but it never quite has. Were there other people who felt the same way? If not, where was that place for them? The question is nostalgic, causing the viewer to simultaneously recall home and acknowledge that they are not there. I wanted people to feel at once present and displaced.

    [An anonymous visitor one day after the opening of the exhibition] 

    To instigate further veiwer engagement, I knew I wanted to incorporate mirrors into the gallery space design. I wanted viewers to be self reflective and acknowledge their viewing as a part of the composition to the works themselves. All forms of engagement are welcome within the exhibit, and maybe some people will even take a selfie! (I know I did). It took about an hour to write the question in chalk, as being a lefty means a lot of smudges and mistakes. A few days later I mounted the mirrors, just four of the ten I had initially purchased due to the amount of responses that had accumulated throughout the week.

    [SCMA preparators Nik Asikis and Anna Hamel installing the two works of art] 

    Writing the wall label was one of the more challenging aspects of this project. As an Art History major, I am used to writing that is exclusively seen by my professors, and am significantly less practiced in writing for a larger audience. Art historical writing is exceedingly formal and inaccessible, as was my first try at writing a label. Through the help of the SCMA staff, to whom I am immensely grateful, I was able to understand how to make my language more legible for audiences of all ages. In order to grow as a writer I have had to learn to let go, work with other opinions, and edit many drafts.

    If I ever have the opportunity to embark on another project like this one in the future, the support I have received from the SCMA staff this year has made me confident that I now have the tools to do so.

    [Mirror selfie among visitor responses to the exhibition]