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.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
“My works are my honest thoughts carved into wood. My ‘art in wood’ comes into being spontaneously in spite of me, just as joy, astonishment, and sadness often do bubble up.”
One of the many pleasures of having a collection of 16,000+ works on paper at my fingertips is the chance to delve deeper into the work of artists with whose work I am only minimally familiar. Such is the case with the work of Munakata Shiko (1903-1975), one of the most recognized and collected artists of sosaku-hanga,Japan’s so-called “creative print movement.” During the early 20th century Japanese printmakers actively sought to break with the tradition of ukiyo-eprinting in which cutter of the block was simply replicating the vision of the designer of an image. The sosaku-hangaartists wished to follow the European tradition of the peintres-graveurs(painter/printmakers) who were able to fully realize their vision by fully participating in all aspects of making a print.
My rediscovery of Munakata is related to research for a series of exhibitions highlighting SCMA’s Asian collections. Entitled Collecting the Art of Asia,this project, which is on view until May 26, 2013, features four installations of works from east, south, and central Asia arranged over three floors. The exhibitions are designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of SCMA’s first acquisitions of Asian art, which were gifts from the famed collector Charles Freer in 1913.
The installation I worked on focuses on prints made between 1950 and the present day, which allows SCMA to showcase our expanding holdings in this area. A key component in our quest to build a strong collection of Asian art has been recent gifts of contemporary Chinese and Japanese prints. It has been fascinating to uncover the historical underpinnings of contemporary printmaking in Asia which emerged during the internationalization of print culture during the 1950s.
Born to a family of blacksmiths in Aomori, Munakata first learned about European art from local painters, and he was particularly enamored of Vincent van Gogh’s work. After becoming disillusioned with oil painting early in his career, Munakata found a way to combine his interest in Japanese tradition and modern Western art through printmaking. Although he devoted himself to woodcuts beginning in 1928, Munakata did not develop an international reputation for his prints until the 1950s, winning top prizes at print exhibitions in Lugarno (1952), São Paulo (1955), and Venice (1956).
Severely nearsighted from his childhood, Munakata kept his face very close to the block as he cut, sometimes following his drawing, but often creating the image spontaneously during the cutting process. He was equally idiosyncratic in his printing, titling, numbering, and dating of works, frequently reworking and printing blocks many years after they were first cut.
This is undoubtedly the case with this impression of Sand Nest,a work first created in 1938 as part of a series of thirty-one woodcuts illustrating the Nō play Uto No Hangasaku(Birds of Sorrow). Most of the blocks in this series were destroyed in an air raid during World War II, but this block is clearly registered as having been printed in 1957.
Another work by Munakata in the exhibition is one image from his series of views of the Tōkaidō. The Tōkaidō was the route that linked Tokyo and Kyoto, which were, at the time, the two largest cities in Japan. This subject was most famously treated by Hiroshige, who issued two volumes of 53 ukiyo-eprints of the Tōkaidō, in 1834. This series documented the 53 “stations” along the route which were marked by inns where travelers could rest or refresh their horses.
Hiroshige’s image is both illustrative and narrative in style, making use of the perspective of the winding road toward the distant Mount Fuji, using soft and modulated applications of water-based ink to provide naturalistic coloring.
Munakata’s version of the same scene, by contrast, is flat and expressive, using bright patches of color applied both to the back and the front of the image to enliven the surface of the print. In creating this series, Munakata made a number of trips along the Tōkaidō, seeking to record a modern version of this famed historic subject in quick ink sketches. These he translated into woodblocks in his studio, adding color.
Learn more about the Collecting Art of Asia exhibition and SCMA's growing collection of Asian art in our online catalogue.
Monday, January 28, 2013
Student Picks is a SCMA program in which Smith students organize their own one-day art show using our collection of works on paper. This month’s student curator and guest blogger Camille Kulig ’13 discusses her show “Conceal/Reveal: The Exquisite Art of Masking and Costuming” which will be on view this Friday February 1 from 12-4 PM in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
People have long exploited the power of costuming and masking as a means to both reveal and conceal parts of their identities. Masking and costuming have provided an outlet in which changing and altering appearances is made possible, questioning how we see ourselves and in turn, how others see us.
In the literal sense, masks have been used throughout time in a variety of contexts as a way to transform the appearance of a person often for the sake of a performance, as seen in featured works, Barnum and Baileyand Portrait of Gene Loring of the Ballet Caravan.This idea of transformation is one that has made the art of masking and costuming in the figurative sense a great source of agency and fascination. In the 1970’s performance artist and photographer Martha Wilson harnessed the power of costume in her Portfolio of Modelsseries, in which she takes on the personas of six female stereotypes through the device of dress and masking. A decade later Cindy Sherman, as seen in her work Untitled #95,further utilized the power of costuming and masking to challenge the viewer’s perception of reality, artifice and the performance of femininity through her staged vignettes in which artist stands in as actor. In Cuban artist Eduardo Hernandez Santo’s, series El Muro (The Wall)he captures the underworld of drag and the integral role make-up and dress play in transforming the body, making the question “Que Trajo la Metamorfosis?”—“What Brought on the Change?” particularly fitting. In masking the exactitude of knowing one’s identity is brought into question, or as Goya so aptly summed up with the title of his 1799 work Nadiese Conoce— “Nobody Knows Anybody.”
Ironically, the artifice masking enables, grants people access to their truest selves. Through the guise of costuming and masking, people are allowed freedom otherwise inaccessible. In this way, masking and costuming paradoxically and simultaneously conceal and reveal.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
These 19th century Japanese stencils in our collection prove that, contrary to what one might expect, the tools used to create an artwork can be just as beautiful and impressive as the finished works themselves. Unlike in Western traditions, stencil-making (or katagami) was a renowned art form in Japan. Stencils were most often used for the decoration of kimonos and other textiles.
After Japan’s 200-year long period of cultural isolation ended in the mid-19th century, Westerners were fascinated by the arts of Japan, most notably ukiyo-ewoodblock prints. However, tourists were also interested in Japanese textile stencils as art objects themselves for their high level of technical mastery and aesthetics. Artist Blanche Ostertag wrote in 1899 for Brush and Pencilmagazine: “What possibilities of color arrangements are suggested by some of these designs! Cotton dresses would be an endless joy were they adorned with any of these stencils, and our silk fabrics, both for household and personal adornment, might become doubly attractive.” The appeal of Japanese stencils lay in the sophisticated integration of the organic with the geometric, using images of birds, flowers, and vegetation as the basis for their designs. In the stencil below, the rhythmic arrangement of flowers and outlines of birds arranged on diagonal axes set against a background of vertical lines creates a sense of stylized motion.
This high regard for the art of Japanese stencil-making historically coincided with the Arts and Crafts movement which was a late-19th century design reform movement in Europe and America. Such artists responded to increased industrial production by creating hand-made furniture, wall-paper, and ceramics. British Arts and Crafts wall-paper designer George R. Rigby (who made stencils himself) remarked in 1900 that “Japanese stencilling is, to my mind, the only thoroughly successful and considerable use of the craft.”
The process by which the stencils are created is remarkable and is the primary reason why 19th-century Westerners and Japanese alike regarded these objects as artworks themselves. An artist would draw and cut a design by hand, using anywhere from two to six sheets of extremely thin washipaper for one stencil. The sheets were then adhered together with a brown glue made from persimmon, which makes the stencil waterproof and durable. The sheets are often glued with a matrix of raw silk threads between the layers for further reinforcement. Without these threads, the complex designs which often employ lines no thicker than a pencil mark, would not withstand more than one printing. Luckily, the silk threads are so thin, in fact, that they do not show up in the printing. This painstaking process is made even more complicated by creating a brand new stencil each time a different color is to be printed.