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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.

  • Thursday, March 24, 2016

    Clare Leighton: A Connection to the Land

    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.

    Clare Leighton was a printmaker and writer who was primarily concerned with depicting scenes of pastoral life. Interestingly, she moved from England to America midway through her career, becoming attached to her new country while keeping the central themes of her work essentially the same.

    Leighton believed art should be accessible to the general public, so printmaking was her ideal medium because the working class could afford illustrated books or individual prints to hang in their homes. Leighton’s work was also influenced by the World Wars and the Great Depression. In such times of uncertainty, art that depicted comforting everyday scenes and traditional values was popular. Her images of farm work and rural life fit the trend, and she thought nature had restorative powers that were especially important when people were stressed or their way of life was changing.

    Rather than focusing on the picturesque qualities of the landscape, Leighton generally chose to portray the people who worked the land. She said, “I see that man over there, bent to the earth, and it is as though the curves and shapes before me are eloquent as no words or thought can be.” The poses of the figures in her prints express their strength, dignity, and connection to the land. Winnowers, Majorca, a wood engraving print commissioned by The Woodcut Society of Kansas City, Missouri, is an example of this style. The workers, who are harvesting beans with three-pronged forks, form strong diagonal lines that emphasize their power and the rhythm of their movements. Leighton used multiple engraving tools to create a variety of crosshatching and stippling textures that make the scene even more engaging.

    Clare Leighton, American, born England, 1898-1989. Winnowers, Majorca, 1939. Wood engraving on medium weight, moderately textured, beige paper. Bequest of Henry Latimer Seaver. SC 2011:26-8

    In 1933 Leighton published The Farmer’s Year, a book with twelve prints of farm tasks corresponding to each month. She also wrote and illustrated Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle, a record of her time cultivating a garden at her cottage in the Chiltern Hills, as well as Country Matters, a depiction of English village life that showed the changes caused by modernization. In the preface to Country Matters Leighton wrote “A sentimentalized, self-conscious countryside, fixed for the sightseer, would have lost all that made it desirable.” As much as she respected traditional ways of life, she knew that she couldn’t illustrate an idealized, outdated version of rural England.

    In 1929 Leighton had begun making visits to the United States to lecture and exhibit her work. She was intrigued by both the variety of landscapes and the people she met there. Perhaps her interest in America was partly due to the fact that her father wrote stories about cowboys, although he wasn’t actually familiar with the American West. Whatever the reason, Leighton moved to the United States in 1939. She was unimpressed by big cities like New York, and preferred to make pastoral images similar to the ones she had become known for in England.

    "There is a universality about the people that is healing, and it matters little whether one be talking with a plowman in Devonshire or a tobacco farmer in North Carolina," Leighton said. This attitude can be seen in her depictions of American workers. Their specific tasks may be different from the figures in her prints of rural England, but they have the same dignity and monumental presence. In Clam Diggers, Cape Cod, the figures are crisply outlined and mostly black, with textural white highlights. Their bent backs mirror the hills behind them, creating a sense of unity between humans and nature. The figures are not individualized, instead acting as powerful archetypes of rural laborers.

    Clare Leighton, American, born England, 1898-1989. Clam Diggers, Cape Cod, 1946. Wood engraving on medium weight, moderately textured, beige paper. Bequest of Henry Latimer Seaver. SC 2011:26-7

    Leighton was interested in both the northern and southern United States. She wrote Southern Harvest, which depicted activities like picking cotton, milling sorghum, and making apple butter. In the introduction, Leighton acknowledged that she wrote the book because she wanted to become rooted in her new country. She included southern folklore, detailed explanations of farming methods, and an analysis of how the South was grappling with the legacy of slavery, as well as her personal feelings about the region.

    The ceramics company Wedgewood commissioned Leighton to make images of New England industries for plates, and in the process she grew attached to the region, eventually settling in Woodbury, Connecticut. In 1954 she published Where Land Meets Sea: The Tideline of Cape Cod, which contained images of fishermen and farmers with the same style and themes as her work in England.

    Although Leighton loved her adopted country, she also realized that sometimes she needed to leave an area in order to depict it effectively. For example, she left Cape Cod after creating material for Where Land Meets Sea so she could think about it more clearly and avoid a "too factual and photographic representation.”

    Clare Leighton’s work was focused on the land around her, whether it was in England or America. Her prints can cause feelings of nostalgia because they depict a way of life that has largely vanished, but Leighton doesn’t give in to sentimentality. Wherever she was, she depicted laborers with dignity and a connection to the earth.

    Clare Leighton, American, born England, 1898-1989. Gaspé Fisherman, n.d. Wood engraving printed in black on white wove paper. Bequest of Henry L. Seaver. SC 1976:54-411

    Clare Leighton, American born England, 1898-1989. The Net Menders, n.d. Wood engraving printed in black on thin, smooth white paper. Bequest of Henry Latimer Seaver. SC 2011:26-43

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  • Thursday, March 17, 2016

    Literary “Piracy” in the Fifteenth Century

    The Smith College Museum of Art is dedicated to bringing out works on paper into the main galleries, where all visitors can see them. Since works on paper are more sensitive to light than other mediums, SCMA has installed special Works on Paper cabinets throughout the galleries for the display of prints, drawings and photographs. Today’s post is part of a series about the current installations of the Works on Paper cabinets, which will remain on view through April 2016.

     

    Tyberias, leaf from pirated edition of Nuremberg Chronicle (Latin edition), 1497. Woodcut and ink on paper. Bequest of Henry L. Seaver. SC 1976:54-376

    The Nuremberg Chronicle was enormously popular; however, it was also very expensive, because of its size and the number of illustrations. In the neighboring town of Augsburg, a rival printmaker named Johann Schönsperger sought to reach a new market—middle-class people who wanted printed books but could not afford the ones being produced at the time.

    Schönsperger made a reproduction of the Chronicle, but with a number of cost-cutting measures that made it accessible to the masses. The text was nearly identical to the original edition, but with more abbreviations and fewer, less detailed illustrations. The book itself was also significantly smaller, and printed on poorer quality paper. This adaptation was perfectly legal, since fifteenth-century Germany did not have the concept of copyright or intellectual theft as they are known today. In fact, much of the text of the original Nuremberg Chronicle was taken word-for-word from other classical and contemporary writings.

    These shortcuts, however, had consequences for the book’s long-term survival. Despite being produced in much larger quantities, there are fewer remaining copies of the pirated edition than the original.

    When comparing the image of the city of Tyberias from the pirated edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle with the image from the original (reproduced below), there is a notable difference in quality. The buildings in the pirated edition have no brickwork or shading, and seem to be hastily rendered. To fit the same images in a smaller space on a smaller budget, details clearly had to be sacrificed.

    Here are the images from the pirated edition place side-by side with those same images from the original. I encourage everyone to look closely and spot the differences!

    Detail of Tyberias als Tyberiadis (original top, pirated bottom)

                

         

    Detail of kings Janus and Saturnus (original top, pirated bottom)

     

    Selections from the Nuremberg Chronicle are currently on view on the second floor of the Museum. They will remain on view through mid-April 2016.

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  • Friday, March 11, 2016

    Uncanny Valley: Portraits of the Almost-Human

    As many of you may have noticed, last month my first exhibition, Uncanny Valley: Portraits of the Almost-Human went up on view at the museum! I’ve been excited about this project for a while. When looking through the Works on Paper collection, I found myself drawn to works that were a bit ambiguous and eerie, eventually landing in the realm of sculpture photography.

    Sally Gall. American, 1956–. Ravello. 1983. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Shearman, class of 1987, and Nicholas Fluehr. SC 2002:36-1

    The more realistic an image is, the more viewers tend to identify with it—up to a certain point. Lifelike sculptures often have a peculiar, unsettling quality, occupying a perceptual and emotional space known as the “uncanny valley.” This term first appeared in 1978 in Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction by Jasia Reichardt and refers to the unease experienced in the presence of a human facsimile or look-alike, for instance in robotics or in computer animations. But what happens when photographers treat these figural objects as if they were living human subjects?

    Clarence Kennedy. American, 1892–1972. Kongō Rikishi (Buddhist Guardian Gods, Sanskrit: Vajirapani; mid-13th century). c. 1951. Gelatin silver print double mounted on paper. Gift of Mrs. Edwin H. Land. SC 1996:22-31

    Sculpture photography is an inherently difficult genre, as something is always lost when taking a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional object. But something new can be gained as well. These stand-ins for human beings—from dolls to votive figures and beyond—were created for a specific purpose, whether to advertise, to entertain, or even to inspire and honor. However, the act of photographing them allows for more complicated alternatives to arise. While people are occasionally visible in these photographs, they generally serve as accessories to their inanimate counterparts.

    This installation aims to capture the stark and strangely intimate world of human facsimiles. From the coy disaffection of fashion mannequins, to the spectacle of religious shrines, to the likeness of Lady Liberty herself, the way in which these figures were photographed gives life to the not-quite-living.

    Daniel Chauche. French-American, 1951–. San Simón, San Andres Itzapa, from La Santeria Chapina. (Volume I, Folio 9 of 12). 1978 negative; 2011 print. Gelatin silver print. Purchased with the Margaret Walker Purinton Fund. SC 2012:19-3

    In his series La Santeria Chapina, photographer Daniel Chauche explores the complex spirituality of Guatemala through its diverse shrines and altars.  Also known as Maximón, San Simón is a folk saint venerated in the highlands of western Guatemala. The story of Simón—likely an adaptation of earlier Mayan legends—was that he was a local priest, good-hearted but with a love for drinking and womanizing. Though the Catholic Church eventually excommunicated him for his vices, he was beloved by the community, and started his own church that became even more popular than the original. In deference to his less-than-saintly behavior, Simón’s effigies are dressed like cowboys or bandits, and traditional offerings include cigars and alcohol.

    Uncanny Valley will be on view in the Cunningham Corridor until May 13.  I hope you have the chance to see it!

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