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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, September 7, 2012

    Whistler's Venice Set

    James Abbott McNeill Whistler. American, 1834–1903. The Bridgefrom the Second Venice Set.1879–80. Etching and drypoint on laid paper. Gift of Herbert and Ellen Fairbanks Bodman, class of 1945. SC 2003:1-2. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    This summer’s corridor exhibition is Image and After-Image: Whistler and Photography,on view until September 30, 2012. Featuring 20 prints and photographs from the permanent collection, Image and After-Imagelooks at James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s etchings and drypoints alongside the development of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century.

    In 1879, Whistler accepted a commission from a London gallery to execute a dozen etchings of Venice over a three-month stay. Whistler lingered in Venice for fourteen months, producing over fifty prints as well as some paintings and pastels. The etchings were collected in two sets, known as the First Venice Set (1880) and the Second Venice Set (1886), and they represented a turning point in Whistler’s career. Doing away with any last remnants of anecdotal realism, these impressionist prints evoke a sense of everyday life in Venice using a spare and expressive visual shorthand. With the Venice Sets, Whistler began cutting his sheets at the plate mark, leaving only a tab for his trademark penciled butterfly signature denoting that the impression was printed by him.

    James Abbott McNeill Whistler. American, 1834–1903. Upright Venicefrom the Second Venice Set.1879–80. Etching printed in black on paper. Purchased. SC 1969:45. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    Upright Veniceis among the first etchings Whistler made upon his arrival in Venice in 1879. He touched it up months later, adding the waterfront scene at the bottom and more gondolas in the distance. The lightly bitten lines, printed in brownish-black ink, are so delicate they have the effect of embroidery, echoing the fibers of the woven cream paper. Whistler also toned the sheet with a faint veil of ink to evoke the fall of light and shadow.

    The vertical composition of the etching, which recalls a Japanese print or scroll, creates a gentle spatial disorientation. The waterfront in the foreground and background appear as two free-floating planes, with the empty expanse of the water between anchored by the gondolas and their shadows. Although the skyline panorama is topographically accurate—it shows the buildings around the Church of Santa Maria della Salute as seen from a window across the San Marco basin waterway—the focus is on atmosphere rather than historical monuments or picturesque landscape.


  • Thursday, August 30, 2012

    Pandora's Box

    Guest blogger Nathan Rubinfeld was a participant in the 2012 Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies at Smith College.

    Master ZBM; Marco Angelo del Moro (thought to be). Italian, active 1565 – ca. 1586. Pandora’s Box or An Allegory of Les Sciences qui Éclairent l'esprit de l'homme (The Sciences that Illuminate the Human Spirit),1557. Etching on paper. Gift of Sue Welsh Reed, class of 1958, in honor of Priscilla Cunningham, class of 1958. SC 1973:19. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    Master ZBM’s exquisite print, Pandora’s Box or An Allegory of Les Sciences qui Éclairent l'esprit de l'homme (The Sciences that Illuminate the Human Spirit)is an ideal point of entry into the Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies’ current exhibition Outside The [Box](on view in the Nixon Gallery at the Smith College Museum of Art from July 27 to September 30, 2012). Gathering fifteen students together from across the country for a six-week museum boot camp, the SIAMS program is a Pandora’s box of sorts. It has certain defined limits – like the four sides of a box – that both contain and open onto innumerable and mysterious fragments of knowledge for its participants.

    Coming from a range of schools, and having studied in a variety of disciplines, the fifteen students were brought together to live and learn every aspect of the daily life of a museum and its staff. In addition to weekly assignments, we were given a room, roughly thirty objects thematically selected by the Smith College Museum of Art, and the task of mounting all aspects of a professional exhibition. The fifteen became three groups of five, as the students were divided into teams to take on the tasks that would make up the exhibition: Curatorial, Design and Public Presentation, and Education.

    As a member of the Curatorial Team, I had the opportunity to experience the difficulties that go into an exhibition’s conception. Handed a considerably large gallery and thirty-some boxes, or artworks related thereto, we were presented with a challenge in defining the thematic overview of the exhibition. How could we make such a seemingly banal, everyday object be seen as exciting and enticing? How were we to adequately address the differing cultural origins of many of the works, as well as being sensitive to alternative meanings given to the box within cultures?

    As our conversation began, one piece we had been given quickly became a pivotal work: Master ZBM’s print, Pandora's Box.We latched onto the etching for the story it enclosed, rather than for a primarily aesthetic reason. We saw Pandora’s box as the first box, as a paradigmatic box. But more than this, we saw in the myth of Pandora an instance in which a box had served as morethan a box, functioning outside the realm of the purely utilitarian. The underlying themes that became guiding for us in defining the parameters of the exhibition were the box as an object that could excite curiosity, and the box as an everyday object that would invite thoughtful reconsideration and reinterpretation.

    The myth of Pandora is definitive in Western ideas of the box as an object of curiosity and a container of mysterious contents. The myth is also a prime example of the historical transformation of a particular box. Though “Pandora’s box” is a common idiom today, it was not always a box, but rather a large and immovable earthenware vessel. Pandora, linked with the Biblical Eve as a woman unable to avoid temptation, was taken up by the Fathers of the Church who were influential in the transmission of the myth and the transformation of her vessel into a box. Just as Eve was understood to be responsible for the fall of man in delivering the apple to Adam, so Pandora became responsible in turn, as her cumbersome vessel was turned into a portable box.

    Detail from Pandora’s Box or An Allegory of Les Sciences qui Éclairent l'esprit de l'homme (The Sciences that Illuminate the Human Spirit).

    Marco Angolo del Moro’s print differs from other representations of Pandora in three important ways, as lucidly described by art historians Dora and Erwin Panofsky in Pandora's Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol.First, though her box traditionally held exclusively good or evil, del Moro’s Pandora released a strange combination of both. From the box emerge symbols of evil, as well as symbols of knowledge. Second, the figure of Pandora is blind, as made clear by her hand gesture, which reveals the absence of pupils. Pandora is not acting upon willful curiosity, but rather unseeingly or unwittingly. Finally, Panofsky describes Pandora’s ignorant action is a blessing in disguise, setting “in motion the powers of light that drive away the creatures of darkness.” The powers of light are personified in the leftmost figure, with her alert gaze and brilliant torch (see above), and the sun-god Apollo, seated in the sky (see below). Apollo points to Aquarius, the zodiacal sign of January, which marks the “Ascent of the Sun” after the peak of winter, symbolizing, in Panofsky’s words, “the beginning of a new year and a new era.” Marco Angolo del Moro’s print allegorically portrays Pandora as Ignorance, an instrument of blind fate bringing about an age of light from which she herself is forever excluded.

    Detail from Pandora’s Box or An Allegory of Les Sciences qui Éclairent l'esprit de l'homme (The Sciences that Illuminate the Human Spirit).

    Beyond Apollo, and depicted in his infamous descent, is the angel Lucifer (see below). The inclusion of this Christian figure serves to make explicit the theological redefinition of the Pandora myth by the Fathers of the Church. Lucifer, in falling from the heavens, presents a visual analogy to the aforementioned fall of man. Del Moro’s etching, dated to 1557, coincides with the Renaissance and the revival of classical humanist ideals. The archetypal and all-knowing “Renaissance man” of the time presents an analogous embodiment of light to that of the torch holding figure beside Pandora. The print portrays the pursuit of knowledge during the Renaissance as a force of literal enlightenment combating the black night of ignorance feared by the Church. After all, “an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.”

    Detail from Pandora’s Box or An Allegory of Les Sciences qui Éclairent l'esprit de l'homme (The Sciences that Illuminate the Human Spirit).


  • Thursday, August 23, 2012

    Where Do You Put the Emphasis?

    William T. Wiley is something of a cult hero among artists. He is associated with the West Coast Funk Art scene, the irreverent and whimsical anti-establishment art movement that blossomed at the University of California, Davis in the 1960s. His sculptures, paintings, watercolors and performance art works combine Zen philosophy, political commentary, satire, visual and verbal puns and quirky personal symbolism.

    Wiley began working in watercolor in 1968, after a six month artist’s block. Small and delicate, and eminently out of fashion in the contemporary art world, watercolor allowed Wiley to work in a personal, searching, off-beat manner. His watercolors, like his sculptures, are assemblages of sorts, contrasting exquisitely rendered drawings, often of an assortment of curiously grouped objects, with hand-written text. Influenced by Zen koans, statements of questions that resist linear thought, Wiley produced images and texts that blur the line between wisdom and whimsy.

    William T. Wiley. American, b. 1937. Where Do You Put the Emphasis,1971. Watercolor and ink on cream colored paper. SC 2012:1-21. Photography by Amanda Shubert.

    Our watercolor and ink drawing Where Do You Put the Emphasisdepicts a series of blue circles against a craggy background that resembles desert topography. The text reads: “Where do you put the emphasis? Providing there is such a thing.” The reference to “emphasis” suggests punctuation (especially since there is no final period in the text), but visually the circles evoke marbles or billiard balls more than periods, games of strategy, and chance.

    This little drawing is one of my favorite objects from our new Pokross Collection of modern and contemporary art from Shared Inspiration: The Muriel K. and David R. Pokross Collection.As I researched Wiley for the exhibition, trying to learn more about this object, I was pulled into the labyrinth of associations that is Wiley’s personal mythology. For starters, I found that the circle motif kept cropping up elsewhere in Wiley’s work during 1971.

    In Random Remarks and Digs(pictured below), he conceived of the circles as atoms and molecules visible to the naked eye:

    I even found the motif elsewhere in our collection. Coast Reverse,printed on chamois leather, was made in 1972:

    William T. Wiley. American, b. 1937. Coast Revere,1972. Chamois printed on special Arjomari with hand acrylic painting and drawing. SC 1972:38-8b. Photography by Amanda Shubert.

    Read more about Shared Inspiration: The Muriel K. and David R. Pokross Collection hereand here.Then come see Where Do You Put the Emphasisand Coast Revereby making an appointmentat the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.