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, February 26, 2014
“My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent.”
– Agnes Martin, The Still and Silent in Art
The enigmatic Canadian-born American artist Agnes Martin spent her long life and career purging her mind and art of all conceptual thoughts, living and working by inspiration alone in the pursuit of beauty and purity. Her paintings, drawings, and prints are most often square-shaped with subtle stripes of white, gray, cream, or light colors arranged horizontally, vertically, or in a grid formation. Martin was part of the Abstract Expressionist generation, yet her work was adopted by the young Minimalists of the 1960s who admired her seemingly objective approach to art-making. While she exhibited alongside the likes of such artists as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, she fundamentally disagreed with the Minimalists’ impersonal attitude toward their work. Contrary to their rigorously objective and unfeeling approach, Martin recognized that while nothing in nature (artwork included) could be perfect, her work could evoke the feeling of “transcendental perfection” and exaltation.
In 1967, amidst a wave of recent critical and commercial success, Agnes Martin suddenly left New York City, where she had been living for ten years. She traveled throughout Canada and western America for about a year and a half before putting down her roots in New Mexico, where she built a house by hand and lived in almost complete isolation for the next six years, in which time she made no art whatsoever. At the end of this artistic hiatus in 1973, Martin produced On a Clear Day, an epic series of thirty 12” x 12” screenprints which explore different grid configurations, a common motif in her work. The following year, Martin built a studio and returned to painting.
The SCMA recently acquired one of these remarkable prints, which are often considered to be Martin’s most successful attempt at eliminating all presence of the ego from her art. Martin’s relationship to spirituality and religion was rather complicated. In her writings on art and life, it is clear that she drew inspiration from Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, yet she never adhered to any particular belief system exclusively. In the tradition of Zen Buddhist practices, Martin strove for a non-egoic existence and artistic practice in which she emptied her mind to reveal deep-seated inspiration: “You have to wait if you’re going to be inspired. You have to clear out your mind, to have a quiet and empty mind.”
Martin’s artistic practice was contemplative and solitary, which is reflected beautifully in On a Clear Day. The clarity mentioned in the title can easily be interpreted as clarity in the natural world as well as in the mind of the artist. The understated neutral palette and near-perfect lines evoke the sensation of boundless space. “My [artworks] have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of this simple, direct going into a field of vision as you could cross and empty beach to look at the ocean.”
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Holly Trostle Brigham, American (1965 - ) Persephone: Rebirth of Spring, 1995. Watercolor on paper. Gift of Elizabeth and Neil Swinton in honor of Julia Meech, class of 1963. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2010:45
Holly Trostle Brigham (Smith College class of ’88) explores her own identity through the solitary female figure, and during the 1990s focused on women through the lens of ancient mythology. The Museum owns one work from her, a watercolor titled Persephone: Rebirth of Spring.
The title alludes to the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, the young daughter of the goddess Demeter. In most versions of the story, Persephone was picking flowers in a field when Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped her. He brought her down into the underworld and forced her to stay. Distraught and confused, Demeter went searching for her lost daughter, and neglected her divine duties as the goddess of fertility and agriculture. Crops began to fail worldwide, and humanity starved. Still, one god had seen the kidnapping: Helios, the sun. When he saw what was happening to the Earth, he finally told Demeter what had happened, and where her daughter had been taken.
Demeter forced Hades to return her daughter. By then, though, Persephone had made a crucial mistake. During the months she was trapped underground, the girl had tasted the food of the underworld, some pomegranate seeds. As a result, she was obliged to stay with Hades forever. Enraged, Demeter appealed to her brother Zeus, who created a compromise. Persephone would spend a third of the year with Hades, one month for each seed she had consumed, and Demeter could allow the crops to die during that time. The rest of the year she was free to be with her mother.
The myth is an etiological explanation for the cycle of fertility around the Mediterranean, a way to illuminate the change of the seasons. The return of Persephone from the underworld brought spring and fertility back to the world.
It is this moment that Holly Trostle Brigham illustrates in Persephone: Rebirth of Spring. Without the title, it would be nearly impossible to identify the work. Usually, artists depict Persephone with a pomegranate to indicate who she is, but this Persephone doesn’t have any props. She’s even naked – stripped of all clothes, she could from any culture or time period (although the red lipstick does look modern to me).
Detail of Persephone: Rebirth of Spring
Instead of making the woman a clear Persephone, Trostle Brigham created a lush scene that embodies the feeling of the Persephone myth. Behind the women is a cascade of blooming flowers. On some level, the artist is making a visual parallel between the fertility of nature and of the human body.
Still, the figure's direct gaze makes one pause. There's something in her eyes that makes it difficult to imagine her as the passive subject of a fight between Hades and Demeter, despite her vulnerable nudity. In its own way, the work is both a distillation of the Persephone myth down to its core elements, and a challenge of it, no pomegranate needed.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Carle Vanloo, French (1705 - 1765). Title Page, from Six Figures Academiques, Desinees et Gravees par Carle Vanloo, peintre ordre du Roy et Professeur en son Academie Royal de Peintre et de Sculpture, 1735-1737. Etching on tinted antique laid heavy weight paper. Gift of Alphons P.A. Vorenkamp. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1938:11-3
When you think of art historians you do not immediately visualize George Clooney in that role. At least I don’t, but you might be surprised how adventurous, determined and devoted to art some of them are and were. The newly released film The Monuments Men highlights in a somewhat curiously lighthearted fashion the difficult and often dangerous work that was done by art historians during and after WWII. These men and women volunteered often without any kind of army experience, to go out in the field to protect and restitute Nazi looted art. They were culled from all kinds of museums and art institutions and Smith College was not left behind.
Yes, one of the most noteworthy ones was a woman, a Smithie of the class of 1922, Ardelia Ripley Hall. Listed here are some interesting articles worth reading about this remarkable Monuments woman:
Other Smith affiliated monuments men were former Smith museum directors Charles P. A. Parkhurst and Frederick Hall, and former art history Professor Alphonse Vorenkamp. These art historians, academics were sent to war torn countries. This was not without risk; some of these countries were still engaged in battle while others were reeling in the chaos of postwar recovery.
With permission of the Smith College Archives
Vorenkamp, a Dutch Smith art history professor, was actually on sabbatical in his homeland Holland on the eve of the German invasion of Holland. It seems somewhat surreal to read his personal accounts about the academic research on Rembrandt he was doing, while around him museums were actively preparing themselves for war. His personal connections to these museums and their staff however, do give an interesting insight into these events. He writes:
“The director of the Mauritshuis, Professor Martin, the same who lectured at Smith last year, was proud of his new cement bombproof cellar and he dragged me downstairs to see his Paradise. I ain’t no Dante and Martin no Virgil, but at times I thought of old Doré just the same. At the moment I was in the Hague, it was the first week in January (Holland was invaded in May of that year) most of the paintings were down from the walls and stored in the Banks in the city and other secret places. The cellar was being finished the very minute. I saw it, with electric light we crawled into the place – Several feet cement on top of the room. Sticks representing the tallest and longest painting in the collection had told the architects who were coming to live there. By now, I suppose those cellars are filled with the treasures which were dispersed. It was the plan to recall the most important things. Professor Martin was cheerful enough. He told me, that in the years they hadn’t had such a beautiful chance to do the floors and walls and ceilings. He said if ever this place opens again, it is going to be spick and span.”
Vorenkamp managed to get out of Holland in the nick of time. He left his parents home on May 9th dodging an air raid and a demonstration on his way to Italy where he managed to catch a boat to the US. The next morning May 10th the Nazi bombed the city of Rotterdam and invaded Holland.
In May of 1945 Vorenkamp who had had some prior army experience was enlisted by the Dutch army as a Lieutenant Colonel.
He started his restitution work in Amsterdam and worked at the General Commissary for Economic Interests in Germany. He was made head of the subdivision of this office which was in charge of organizing the paperwork concerning stolen cultural objects, archives and libraries. They made a long list of works that were lost in Holland during the war and with that list he went off to Munich to function as chief liaison officer.
26 masterpieces taken on board American army plane. Vorenkamp in center with beret. With permission of the Smith College Archives
There at the Munich Central Art Collecting Point, buildings formerly functioning as the headquarters of the Nazi party, the allied forces had amassed thousands of recovered Nazi loot. Vorenkamp was in charge overseeing the returns of art to Holland. This was no small feat since Hitler and his cronies had been extremely deliberate about their massive art theft. Hitler himself had been gathering art for his grand imagined hometown art museum in Linz, Austria. Many high ranking men like Goering collected out of mere greed. Ironically Goering’s favorite piece, for which he traded 150 artworks, was a “Vermeer” painting, which was later discovered to be a forgery painted by the infamous forger Han Van Meegeren.
After his work as a Monuments Man, Vorenkamp was officially knighted by the Dutch royal family.
Then-Princess Juliana and her husband Prince Bernard behind her, together with Alphonse Vorenkamp (center of three men) presumably after the knighting ceremony. With permission of the Smith College Archives
On his return to America he organized a travelling exhibition of formally looted art in conjunction with the Dutch government. It was an exhibition of forty-eight 16th and 17th century Dutch works to thank America and in particular those institutions that had send people to help with the restitution effort.
Gilles Demarteau, Belgian (Demarteau 1722 - 1776); after Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish (Rubens 1577 - 1640). Samson Taken by the Philistines, n.d. Crayon manner printed in black and white on blue laid paper. Gift of Alphons P.A. Vorenkamp. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1938:11-1
Vorenkamp also leaves a small personal legacy behind in our Cunningham collection, since he donated a small group of carefully collected prints which are still frequently used in our classes and exhibitions. They and his remarkable story will be on view this Fall in our museum.