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, October 18, 2012
Romare Bearden was a master of the art of synthesis. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden grew up in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 30s. He created artworks which brilliantly fused his vast array of interests and influences: Cubism, jazz, folk art, Renaissance painting, African sculpture, Social Realism, Dutch painting, classic literature, and many others. Despite the composite nature of his work, it is remarkably and distinctly his own. Part artist and part art historian, Bearden was not only a renowned painter and collagist, but he also uncovered and published scholarship on previously unknown and undervalued Afro-American artists, forging an increased sense of respect and appreciation throughout the 20th-century.
Bearden’s Untitledwatercolor drawing, which entered our collection this year, was produced during a transitional moment in the artist’s career. Between 1945 and 1950, Bearden briefly broke away from his subjective paintings of his Southern youth in order to visually interpret classic works of literature like the Bible, Homer’s Iliad,and Garcia Lorca’s Lament for a Bullfighter.The watercolor drawings Bearden produced during these years were his most abstract works to date. Their fragmented treatment of space was particularly influential to his famous collages, which he began in the 1960s.
In the process of researching Untitled(ca. 1947), I was struck by its stylistic similarity to Bearden’s so-called “Iliadvariations” watercolor series of sixteen works exhibited in 1948. While Bearden’s preceding biblical drawings depict distinguishable narrative moments, the Iliadwatercolors are called “variations” because they lack specificity, including only vague references to warriors and the city of Troy. The watercolors often share the same bright palette with black lines delineating the forms, evoking the open, shimmering shapes of stained glass, as seen in this workor this workknown to be from the series.
The static figures posed in shallow space in Untitledand in the Iliadwatercolors seem to recall classical figures on ancient Greek vase paintings chronicling the Trojan War. Here, the figure on the left is greatly stylized, much like the figure of Achilles on this sixth-century vase by Exekias,with the legs shown from the side and the torso simultaneously twisted to be seen from the front. It would come as no surprise that Bearden was influenced by the work of classical vase painters, given his broad art historical knowledge and referential nature. What is surprising, however, is Bearden’s ability to veil this mythical tale beneath so many layers of visual and narrative abstraction that without a title or exact date, it now proves difficult to concretely define its relationship to the Iliadvariations. It makes one wonder, is this actually a work from the series exhibited in 1948 or simply a contemporary drawing which is only related stylistically?
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Guest blogger Kendyll Gross was a 2012 participant in the Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies at Smith College. She also served as the 2012 Brown SIAMS Fellow with a month-long internship in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
After choosing to concentrate on photojournalism, a young W. Eugene Smith remarked, “My station in life is to capture the action of life; the life of the world, its humor, its tragedy. In other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real.” Humanism and social responsibility are strong themes found within Smith’s body of work. He often lived among his subjects for weeks, completely immersing himself within their everyday life. Smith passionately committed himself to capturing intimate scenes that revealed the essence of his subjects and hoped that his images would help to stir the emotions and conscience of his viewer.
The "Spanish Village" series concluded a European trip that had begun in Great Britain. On May 2, 1950, Smith crossed the Spanish border with an assistant and an interpreter. Lifewanted Smith to report on problems with the food supply in Franco’s Spain. However, Smith was determined to do something with a much more political angle; the timing of the photo-story coincided with the United States’ discussion of allying themselves with Spain although the country was under fascist rule. Smith wanted to highlight the poverty and fear within Spain brought on by Francisco Franco. It took him two months of wandering all over Spain to find the village of Deleitosa, a rural town suffering from severe economic difficulties caused by the burdens of the Franco regime. An article by Gomez de la Serna in the daily paper ABCconvinced him that this was where he should look for the reality of life in Spain.
The dramatic lighting in Spanish Wakecomplements the somber subject matter. The photograph shows an elderly man upon his deathbed surrounded by six women covered in veils and headscarves. Among these women are his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. In Spanish Wake,Smith makes compelling use of what is called chiaroscurolighting, which dates back to Renaissance paintings. It pertains to depicting stark contrasts between light and shadow to emphasize space and depth as well as a sense of drama. The scene’s intense lighting creates a dominant mood of mourning and sadness. The deceased man’s face seems to radiate its own glow among the darkness, creating a halo effect while the distressed, pale faces of the women are clear and poignant among the setting’s shadows. The expressive contrast between light and dark intensifies the already tragic scene and immediately pulls the viewer into the emotional turmoil of the photograph.
Although Smith sought to create “a true picture, unposed and real,” he was known to manipulate the negatives of his images. Two of the women from Spanish Wake,the wife (see detail above) and the daughter, were looking almost directly at Smith when he took the image, but Smith solved this problem in the final print. He printed their eyes almost totally black then with a fine-tipped brush applied bleach to create new whites. The result was to redirect the pupils of the two women’s eyes downward and to the side. Had Smith decided to leave the photograph as it was, the mood of the image would have changed drastically. This manipulation of the women’s eyes makes the scene more accessible as it appears the viewer is peering into an undisturbed and confidential moment. While Spanish Wakeitself may not be completely honest, it channels Smith’s desire for uninhibited photography that captures the emotional reality of a situation.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
The Maximón is obviously a complex product of the mixture, at several levels and at various times, of Maya and Roman Catholic ritual and beliefs.– Michael Mendelson, Maximón: An Iconographical Introduction(1959)
Guatemalan saints, beatos(blessed people) and deities usually represent holiness, innocence and purity of heart, yet the enigmatic Maximón, with his taste for alcohol and tobacco, is an unorthodox figure among Guatemalan congregations. Despite his unsavory character, Guatemalans’ worship of Maximón increased after 1880, especially in the highlands.
This folk saint has been venerated in a range of forms and dressed in different costumes for public rituals, especially during Holy Week, by Ladinos (people with indigenous and Spanish heritage) and indigenous people. In Chauche’s photograph, however, Maximón is wearing a military uniform and newly polished combat boots. He is holding an elongated object which appears to be a rifle and a rustic tray, which contains his favorite offerings: agua ardiente(alcohol), soda and cigarettes. Chauche only reveals the lower half of Maximón’s body. It is here where Maximón Militar – a deity, a doll, a figure, a religious hybrid – not only embraces two different religious worlds, the Maya and the Spanish, but goes a step further into a new ritual, war.
Daniel Chauche, while avoiding capturing the face of Maximón, finds a way to depict the shame and fear of the Guatemalan people and perhaps, as long term resident, his own, as well as the consequences of a long civil war that plagued the country.
Guatemala, like the majority of the countries in Latin America, gained its independence from Spain in the 1820s yet, at least for the Guatemalans, independence from European tyranny did not assure economic prosperity or peace among its people. Moreover, after independence, Guatemala had been a victim of authoritarian governments, harmful foreign interventions, and an unprecedented military coup in 1954. The coup not only established the modus operandi of foreign and domestic policy aimed at any political party that sympathized with communist or socialist ideals, but it also destabilized the country and unleashed one of the bloodiest civil wars in Latin America lasting nearly forty years.
Daniel Chauche took Maximón Militarin 1989 during the civil war in Guatemala, seven years before the peace accord between the government and rebel groups was signed. The sense of shame and fear is clear, however, questions still are unanswered. What was the real reason why Chauche omitted the upper body of Maximón? Or is perhaps the man/figure wearing the military uniform and the shiny boots not Maximón at all but is instead a member of the military force and the Maximón is depicted only by the two pictures of San Simón/Maximón placed at the feet of the military figure?