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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.

  • Friday, August 12, 2016

    Aaron Siskind and Abstract Expressionist Photography

    Guest blogger Catherine Bradley is a Smith College student, class of 2017. She is a Student Assistant this summer in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    The Abstract Expressionist movement emerged in the 1940s, amidst the chaos and aftermath of World War II. During this global crisis, American artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and Jackson Pollock broke away from typical art conventions and opted to focus on movement, improvisation, and spontaneity in their works. After World War II, many European artists fled to America, further influencing the new style characterized by bold, black strokes and an emphasis on inner emotion and expression.

    Barnett Newman. American, 1905—1970. Untitled, 1948. Brush and black ink on heavy cream wove paper. Gift of Philip C. Johnson. SC 1952:105.

    Willem de Kooning. American, 1904—1997.Women, ca. 1950. Graphite on cream wove paper. Gift of Mrs. Richard L. Selle (Carol Ann Osuchowski, class of 1954). SC 1969:46.

    But during the initial boom, Abstract Expressionism was largely limited to drawing and painting. Photographers of the day were largely focusing on documentary subjects. As a member of the New York Photo League in the 1930s and the head of the group’s “Feature Series,” Aaron Siskind created series such as The Harlem Document, Portrait of a Tenement, and St. Joseph’s House: The Catholic Worker Movement. These photographic essays sought to portray the social, economic, and political conditions of its subjects, keeping in line with the League’s mission to link social commentary with art.

    Aaron Siskind. American, 1903­­—1991. Man on Bed, 1940. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Leonard A. Fink (Class of 1952). AC 1984.74.12.

     

    Moving into the 1940s, however, Siskind began experimenting with more abstract compositions. While other photographers looked past sidewalk markings, graffiti, and torn posters, Siskind considered them worthy subjects. He zoomed in tightly to create his desired composition, emphasizing the movement or texture that he found most compelling. In New York 1, small bolts indicate that the picture is of some sort of metal surface, perhaps a dumpster. But the focus is not on the larger object. Instead, Siskind positions a small section of graffiti marks slightly off-center, inviting the viewer to consider the asymmetrical lines, their white and gray tones, their contrast with the dark background, and what other markings they may be connected to.

    Aaron Siskind. American, 1903—1999. New York 1, 1951. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. SC 2003:43-3g.

    With a strong emphasis on line and tone, Siskind’s work grew to closely resemble that of the Abstract Expressionist painters. He became close friends with artists such as Kline, Newman, and Mark Rothko. His relationship with Kline was so strong that after Kline’s death in 1962, he created several series of six photographs each titled “Homage to Franz Kline.” Organized by the location where they were taken, these groups emphasized the dark black lines and shapes that characterized most of Kline’s paintings.

    In Lima 89 (Homage to Franz Kline), Siskind centers his picture on two black strokes that form an “L.” As in Kline’s painting Rose, Purple, and Black, the lines are imperfect and slanting, with stray brushstrokes visible. Though the black marks are the emphasis of the composition, he also pays considerable attention to the background. Larger blocks of paint, errant drippings, and the natural texture of the surface below all contribute to the composition, creating a backdrop that resembles the chaotic application of color in Kline’s work. While Kline and other painters were able to create their own composition, Siskind limited himself to what he found. Yet the way he framed his shots emphasized the smaller markings of an ordinary object, lending an entirely new and decidedly expressionist perspective.

     

    Franz Kline. American, 1910—1962. Rose, Purple, and Black, 1958. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Sigmund W. Kunstadter (Maxine Weil, class of 1924). SC 1965:27.

    Aaron Siskind. American, 1903—1999. Lima 89 (Homage to Franz Kline), 1975. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. SC 2003:43-3h.

    Though Abstract Expressionism continued to largely be associated with painting and drawing, Siskind was not the only abstract photographer during this time. He also developed a close relationship with photographer Harry Callahan, who also focused on more mundane subjects, taking pictures of leaves, grass strands buried in snow, or telephone wires spanning across the sky. Much like Siskind, Callahan preferred harsh black-and-white tones in his work, and often shot such a small fragment of his subject that it was unclear what the original object was. The composition of Grasses in Snow, Detroit is so tight that it is completely devoid of trees, fences, or any indicators of an outdoor scene. Without such context, the grasses appear more like ink or pencil marks more than blades of grass.

    Harry Callahan. American, 1912—1999. Grasses in Snow, Detroit, 1943. Gelatin silver print. Purchased. SC 1977:29-4.

    Aside from his own work, Siskind also was a prolific teacher. Together with Callahan, he founded a graduate program at the Illinois Institute of Technology and later taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. Many of his students, such as Joseph Jachna, below, continued in his abstract tradition, ensuring that what began as a movement for painting and drawing was now a space for photography as well.

    Joseph D. Jachna. American. Colorado from Underware, 1975. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nancy Waller Nadler, class of 1951. SC 2007:34-2 (9). 

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  • Friday, July 15, 2016

    August Sander

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

    August Sander. German, 1876-1964. The Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, posing, 1930 (printed 1974). Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. SC 2014:53-1

    Born in 1876, August Sander had wanted to be a photographer since he was a child.  However, he worked as a miner and soldier before he was able to pursue his passion in 1899.  He worked and traveled throughout Germany, Austria, and Sardinia, but spent most of his life and career near his native Cologne.

    Known for photographing people from all social and economic circles during the interwar period, Sander worked with his sitters to create an original, iconic image of the person. 

    August Sander. German, 1876-1964. The Painters Anton Raderscheidt and Marta Hegemann, 1924 (printed 1974). Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. SC 2006:67-6

    Though many of his portraits were taken in his studio, he also bicycled across the countryside to find his subjects.  Over the course of his career, Sander worked on People of the Twentieth Century, a documentary project photographing hundreds of people from around Cologne.  He divided his work into seven groups, the Farmer; the Skilled Tradesman; the Woman; Classes and Professions; the Artists; the City; and the Last People (the elderly, deformed, homeless, or unemployed).  During the 1920s, Sander spent a great deal of his time with the artists of German avant-garde.  Otto Dix, in particular, became a good friend.

    August Sander. German, 1876-1964. The Painter Otto Dix and Wife, 1926 (printed 1974). Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. SC 2006:67-8

    In the 1930s, after the Nazis banned his portraits and destroyed his work for not presenting the Aryan ideal, he shifted his photography from portraiture to nature and architectural studies.  He was able to save many photo negatives for later reprinting, but of over 40,000 images taken by 1942, only 10,000 survived the war.

    Though Sander was fairly well known within Germany, he only gained international attention after his death, when People of the Twentieth Century was published by his son.  Sander is now considered a pioneer of documentary photography and his work has served as inspiration for other artists such as Walker Evans and Diane Arbus.

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  • Thursday, June 30, 2016

    Alice and Dorothy in Illustration

    Guest blogger Renee Klann is a Smith College student, class of 2019. She is the 2015-2017 STRIDE Scholar in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. This post discusses the art of Barry Moser, an printmaker and professor at Smith College. A recent gift of 91 of his works was made to the museum by Jeff Dwyer and Elizabeth O'Grady.

    “What is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversation?'"
    -Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

    After designing and illustrating editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There in the 1980s, Barry Moser was trying to decide what his next project should be. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz seemed like a “logical follow-up,” as he put it, even though he hadn’t read the book. However, he knew that like Lewis Carroll’s stories about Alice, it was an adventure starring a girl in a fantastical land. When Moser read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz he was not especially impressed with L. Frank Baum’s prose or the original illustrations by W. W. Denslow, but he was “struck by the parallels . . . between the stories of the two little girls.” He made the case that Dorothy is an American version of Alice, and he created illustrations that reveal the similarities between them.
     


    Barry Moser, American, 1940-. The Reverie of Alice’s Sister. Two-color wood engraving on medium weight, slightly textured, white paper. Gift of Elizabeth O’Grady and Jeffrey P. Dwyer. SC 2014:54-74

    Moser saw numerous elements of the stories that mirrored each other, primarily the heroines themselves. Both Alice and Dorothy are kind, sensible young girls caught in strange places and trying to find a way home. To demonstrate their similarity, Moser used the same model for Dorothy (his daughter Madeline, Smith class of 1994) that he had used for Alice. Another comparison he made between the stories was the way the heroines start their journeys. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and Dorothy is lifted up by a tornado, which, although they go in opposite directions, are both funnel-shaped spaces. In addition, both heroines encounter bizarre people, talking animals, and monsters. These strange and sometimes dangerous interactions made the stories seem more like nightmares than whimsical adventures, so instead of creating typical, cheerful children’s book illustrations, Moser said he “approached the images from a distinctly adult point of view.” He embraced the creepiness of Wonderland long before Tim Burton did in his movies, and made many of the characters, like the Mad Hatter below, look unsettling.
     


    Barry Moser, American, 1940-. The Mad Hatter, 1982. Wood engraving printed in black on medium weight, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Elizabeth O’Grady and Jeffrey P. Dwyer. SC 2014:54-59

    Moser also incorporated political satire into the illustrations for both stories. In Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, the figure of Humpty Dumpty is based on former president Richard Nixon. Moser decided to take the satire further in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He said he “peppered it with more than a few political comments, like Ronald Reagan cast as the Wizard—which makes my Oz a bit nightmarish, as so much of politics is.” The absurdity of American politics is a natural fit for the strangeness of Wonderland and Oz.
    The physical settings of the stories were very important to Moser, and they provided a way to contrast Alice’s and Dorothy’s experiences. In Moser’s mind, the voyages of the heroines represent the landscapes in which they live, with Alice in the small, enclosed spaces of England and Dorothy on the wide open Kansas prairie. Think of Alice eating a magic mushroom to shrink herself so she can get through the door to the rose garden, and Dorothy walking through the huge field of poppies. Moser referred to these as claustrophobic and agoraphobic spaces, respectively, and contrasted them in both the design and illustrations of the books. The books about Alice have marginal notes that enclose the text, while The Wonderful Wizard of Oz creates a sense of spaciousness through the nearly-square shape of the book and the open margins.
     


    Barry Moser, American, 1940-. Home Again from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1985. Wood engraving printed in black and grey on medium thick, smooth, white paper. Gift of Elizabeth O’Grady and Jeffrey P. Dwyer. SC 2014:54-58

    Home Again is an excellent example of Moser’s use of space in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s farmhouse is very small and low in the image, dwarfed by a long, flat prairie horizon and a huge expanse of sky. The sky is not empty, but instead full of faint images of the characters Dorothy met on her journey through Oz. Although it’s crowded with faces, the illustration preserves the sense of vast open space that is integral to Dorothy’s story.

     

    Alice and Dorothy came from different continents and their journeys took them to different magical lands, but the heroines do have a great deal in common, from their personalities to their experiences with strange creatures and nonsensical situations. Barry Moser realized how similar they were and cleverly demonstrated it in his illustrations.

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