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.
Monday, June 4, 2012
The art of dying well
In our youth-obsessed Western society death has become taboo, hidden away in sterile funeral homes and shiny caskets. Death, a friend only to the old and the sick, not to be talked about, not to be seen. Death throughout history was never a welcome visitor. However, in times of war, famine, or disease, when death was personal, undiscriminating, and close, visual representations of death in many forms were more commonplace. A long life was for the few and fortunate, and so the emphasis was placed on the one thing inevitable in a poor soul’s life: death.
Käthe Kollwitz. German (1867 - 1945). Tod (Death); Plate II from the series Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers' Rebellion),1897. Lithograph on yellow-brown chine collé mounted on thick white wove paper. Purchased. SC 1958:44
The Ars Moriendi was an originally Rhenish (German) “manual” on the art of dying well. The Cunningham Center owns an illustrated page from this intriguing piece of human history. The work highlights the medieval culture of death, which sprung up in Northern Europe around the time of the black Plague. The page in question is a 15th-century woodcut mounted on an oak panel. The book originally contained six chapters, which addressed the various elements of a good Christian death, from what to feel, how to behave, and which prayers to choose. The work was very popular at the time, widely distributed and translated in many languages. It clearly fulfilled a practical need in dire times.
Unknown. Rhenish. The Temptation by Avarice, Plate IX from Ars moriendi. 1460-1470. Woodcut printed in grey-brown ink on paper mounted to oak board. Purchased with the Elizabeth Halsey Dock, class of 1933, Fund. SC 2005:20.
The virtuous dead
While the Ars Moriendi was written for the literate few, the illiterate would find their comfort in the churches. Catholic churches were filled with examples of “good deaths” all centered around the crucified Christ. Venerable martyrs would cover the walls, often depicted in their moment of (mostly gruesome) death or portrayed with the actual instruments of their demise by their side. Unlike saints whose lives would serve as examples, the martyr found his or her glory solely in their moment of death.
Death and the Maiden
In the 16th and 17th centuries the image of death remained present in art. However, death took on many new guises. German artists like Hans Baldung Grien (whose work is displayed below) turned death into a “seducer” and lover of young maidens. The virginal pallid white female is “kissed” or actually bitten by death. In Dutch there is an old saying that something has suffered from “de tand des tijds” (the tooth of time). Here death’s “kiss” could be a kiss of aging or a kiss of death. A beautiful contemporary print from our collection titled “Death and the Maiden” clearly finds its inspiration in this age-old theme.
Jiri Anderle. Czech (1936 - ). Death and the Maiden,1983. Soft-ground etching and drypoint printed in black and red on paper. Gift of Andrew Carron and Cathy McDonnell Carron, class of 1979. SC 2007:53-1
Hans Baldung. German, 1485 - 1545. Death and the Maiden, 1518/20. Oil on panel. Kunstmuseum Basel.
Vanity and death were also a favorite pairing. In this Hans Thoma print from 1912 this old theme is repeated. Death holds up a mirror to the young woman reminding her of her own mortality. In turn the young fancy man in his plumed hat in this 16th century engraving by Lucas van Leyden reminds the viewer of his own mortality by pointing at the skull kept under his cloak. There is some debate among scholars regarding the true meaning of these vanitas portraits. I believe that since Christian virtues of modesty were highly praised in Protestant Dutch society the wealthy had to account somehow for their wealth by advertising their humility. While the Protestant Church believed one was already predestined to go either to heaven or hell at birth, it did not stop people from demonstrating their virtues and modesty to convince others that they were among the elect. The vanitas portrait could therefore be regarded as a sort of 16th/17th century afterlife insurance.
Lucas van Leyden. Early Netherlandish (1494 - 1533). Young Man with Skull,n.d. Engraving on paper. Gift of the estate of Mrs. Charles Lincoln Taylor (Margaret Rand Goldthwait, class of 1921). SC 1994:20-16.
Hans Thoma. German (1839 - 1924). Reminder,1912. Drypoint on ivory wove paper. Gift of Lessing J. Rosenwald. SC 1951:41
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Guest blogger Julie Warchol was a participant in the 2011 Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies and is currently a curatorial volunteer in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
Danny Lyon. American, born 1942. West Street between Jay and Duane Streets from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. 1967; printed 2007. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.
In 1966-1967, several decades before the World Trade Center attacks, sixty acres of Lower Manhattan were systematically demolished and few, except Danny Lyon, seemed to notice or care. A Brooklyn native and young documentary photographer, Lyon had just returned to New York City after spending two years photographing and riding with outlaw motorcyclists for a series called The Bikeriders. He settled into a loft apartment at the corner of Beekman and Williams Streets, on the outskirts of a neighborhood that was to be destroyed. This portion of Manhattan contained some of New York’s oldest streets which were constructed in the 19th-century. In their prime, they had been bustling centers of mercantile activity, but were in an apparent state of decline by the 1960s. Many of these Lower Manhattan buildings, which were deemed architecturally insignificant, were razed in order to construct Battery Park City and the World Trade Center as well as other new buildings which have come to characterize the city. In the midst of this rapid leveling, Danny Lyon took to the streets with his large format camera to document the buildings in their final days, the looters and few remaining occupants, and the eventually demolition itself.
The views of New York City presented in these photographs are jarring; the desolate brick buildings and cobble-stone streets seldom contain people, cars, or any other signs of life. Simultaneously dilapidated and majestic, they stand as symbols of a past century that were sacrificed for the creation of more modern structures – a classic American strategy of development. Recognizing the symbolic importance of these neighborhoods and their fate, Lyon takes a subjective, and therefore novel, approach to his documentary photographs. Publishing journal excerpts alongside the photographs in his book The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, Lyon maps the progression of his work and encourages the viewer’s sympathy. By the end of the project, Lyon had shifted his focus from the ill-fated buildings to the demolition workers themselves, those unsung heroes who take great pride in their work. In these photographs, Lyon finds somber beauty not only in the architectural remnants of 19th-century New York, but also in their destruction.
“I came to see the buildings as fossils of a time past. These buildings were used during the Civil War. The men were all dead, but the buildings were still here, left behind as the city grew around them. Skyscrapers emerged from the rock of Manhattan like mountains growing out from the earth. And here and there near their base, caught between them on their old narrow streets, were the houses of the dead, the new buildings of their own time awaiting demolition. In their last days and months they were kept company by bums and pigeons.
For a hundred years they have stood in the darkness and the day. In the morning the sun has shined on their one side, and in the evening on another. Now, in the end, they are visited by demolition men. Slavs, Italians, Negroes from the South, American workers of 1967 drinking pop-top soda on their beams at lunch time, risking their lives for $5.50 an hour, pulling apart brick by brick and beam by beam, the work of other American workers who once stood on the same walls and held the same bricks, then new, so long ago.” – Danny Lyon, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan
Thursday, May 10, 2012
This print is based on the Greek myth of the minotaur, which can be read in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Like much of Metamorphoses,it is a tale of creativity and suffering. The story takes place on the island of Crete, where lives the minotaur, the monstrous child of a human and a bull. He is enclosed in a labyrinth constructed by the canny Daedalus, and each year he is appeased by a sacrifice of seven boys and seven girls from Athens. The Athenians are not terribly pleased with this arrangement, so they send Theseus to kill the minotaur. Ariadne, the woman who loves Theseus, gives him a gift before he leaves that saves his life: a golden thread that he can tie to a rock at the entrance of the labyrinth to guide him back out. Theseus kills the minotaur and returns to Athens victorious. But the story ends in tragedy: Theseus, in his jubilation, forgets to change the black sails of mourning to the white sails of victory, and when his father Egeus sees the boat from a high cliff approaching the city, he throws himself into the ocean out of grief.
Ovid’s tale is complex to begin with – all those layers of art and artistry, wildness and captivity, love and suffering. Picasso reflects the many facets of the story in his composition, but he also alters them in significant ways. There is the minotaur in the foreground, who here is blind, his unseeing eyes lifted powerfully towards the starry sky. There is a young girl holding a dove, occupying the brightest area of the composition, perhaps an Ariadne figure. We can see a man in a boat half-shrouded in his sail, reminding us of Theseus, Egeus, and the sad final notes of the tale.
In this work, Greek mythology collides with Picasso’s own personal mythology of artistic creation. The minotaur is a motif in Picasso’s oeuvre, symbolizing the tortured artist. Picasso’s minotaur is fierce and virile, yet also sympathetic and even fragile. He is blind, which suggests that he is a visionary who transcends literal sight, but he also relies on the innocent girl who guides him.
Minotaure Aveugle Guide par une Fillette dans la Nuit is from Picasso’s Vollard suite, a series of 100 prints all made after themes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The series is named for Ambroise Vollard, the foremost French print dealer and publisher at the time.