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, September 19, 2011
This week you'll see a double-bill of posts about Student Picks, our student exhibition program, to mark this Friday's fast approaching deadline for Smith students to enter to win the chance to organize an art show at SCMA. In this post, guest blogger Kendyll Gage-Ripa, Smith College class of 2012 reflects on the process of putting together her Student Picks exhibition, held in December 2010.
Carrie Mae Weems. American, born 1950. Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen from Grace and into the Hands of Evil, 1988. Gelatin silver print. Purchased. SC 1991:2. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.
My name is Kendyll, and I am a Smith College senior studying Studio Art and African-American Studies. Getting selected to create a Student Picks exhibition was a wonderful (and initially a bit overwhelming) surprise. I didn’t begin seriously thinking about my exhibition until late October. At the starting point I had no idea where the project would lead me—I was full of questions that I could only answer by beginning the process. Although I knew I wanted to create an exhibition that would be thought provoking for others, I would later realize that the experience would be a profound source of learning for me as well.
Because I had a specific collection of objects to work with, whatever theme I might choose would have to be informed by the art. Therefore, my first step was to browse SCMA’s online database of artworksso I could get a sense of the material I had to work with. This proved difficult, as the database is not set up for “browsing:” although works of art are easy to search out when you know what you are looking for, if you don’t, you have to get creative.
In the midst of the mysterious process of “getting creative,” I began to feel that images I was pulling up from SCMA’s collection were strongly connected to ideas from one of my classes, conversations I had been having, and my own private musings. Slowly, along with my discovery of certain images from the collection, an exhibition theme revealed itself to me from my mess of thoughts and feelings.
The theme and title for my show gradually emerged from questions I had about images of women’s bodies. As I thought about the role women’s bodies play in western art and contemporary visual culture, I began searching for artists whose work attempts to resist, critique, and even subvert the way the female body has traditionally been depicted. This process led me to consider much broader ideas that were, nonetheless, intimately tied to the specific topic I was trying to explore. For example, works from the collection like Carrie Mae Weems’s Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen from Grace and into the Hands of Evil, and Imogen Cunningham’s The Unmade Beddrew my attention to the process of representation itself, and how it shapes our society’s reading of the female body.
I decided to center my show on “questions”: questions the artists ask, questions I posed, and questions the viewer might ask. I wanted to ask “who is she, really?” as a way to start a conversation between images and audience. Putting together this exhibition taught me that while asking questions is the beginning of interpretation and understanding, perhaps it is the final goal as well. Maybe critical thinking means moving from question to question—gathering meaning, without necessarily reaching concrete answers. In putting a stop to the process of questioning, a fixed “answer” might actually cut off the flow of learning. Questions leave us open to the fullness of the world. Perhaps questions are the closest we can come to the truth. In a sense, I ended where I had begun in October—with a beautiful mess of questions, and not an answer in sight.
Imogen Cunningham. American, 1883–1976. The Unmade Bed, 1957. Purchased. SC 1976:19-14. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Guest blogger Judith Keyler-Mayer is a Senior Lecturer in the German Department at Smith College.
Käthe Kollwitz. German, 1867 - 1945. Weberzug (March of the Weavers);Plate IV from the series Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers' Rebellion),1897. Etching on thick cream wove paper. Purchased. SC 1958:45. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.
My classes and I have been fortunate to benefit from the Cunningham Center for many years and in many ways. I usually bring students of advanced German language and culture (300-level) to “private showings” at the CC towards the end of each semester. These classes are geared towards special topics in German society and history and culture like “War and Peace in German culture,” “Growing up in German Speaking Europe,” or “Made in Germany.”
In the last five years, I worked mostly with Henriette Kets de Vries, who selected and assembled the relevant artifacts and meticulously prepared a custom tailored exhibition of prints for my groups weeks before the actual showing.
It is in the nature of advanced language classes that the students mostly work with a lot of ready-produced texts in written form (i.e. articles, fiction etc). They also might acquire special vocabulary by listening to songs or by watching movies.
There is, however, a great challenge for the students to deal with non-verbal media like pictures, since these require the students to produce their own formulations, without reproducing ready-made building blocks. The confrontation with a selection of prints relevant to the class’s topic gives them the opportunity to perceive their topic in a new way - visually and without words.
For me as the teacher, a lesson in this custom tailored art environment offers an abundance of teaching opportunities in regards to language and culture, or ideally “language through culture.”
After a short introduction given by Henriette the students have the opportunity to closely inspect the 10 to 16 presented artifacts. During the lesson, the students are encouraged to describe and compare the prints, verbalize their own impressions, interpretations, and emotions. Typically, class discussions develop by themselves when students speculate about the artist’s intentions, the cultural relevance of the work and/or its connections to the class’s topic. Sometimes students with knowledge of art history can contribute background information, and Henriette is around to answer specific questions (yes, in German!).
For me as the teacher, these lessons are normally very rewarding, because I can observe how much knowledge and means of language the students have acquired throughout the course, and whether they are able to bring cultural information together and find the connection to the class’s topic.
Beyond direct benefits to the classroom, a visit to the Cunningham Center can have some other desirable side effects, like a welcome break from the class routine. For many students, this is their first visit to the Smith Art Museum, and for some even the first encounter to an art exhibition at all. My hope is that they feel encouraged to have a closer look, get an “eye-opener” or at least an introduction to the language of art and maybe come back again.
Monday, August 29, 2011
“The look of a wall or a window is a look into time and space. Windows are symbols. They are openings in. The wall carries its history. What we seek is not the moment alone.” –Robert Henri
Edward Hopper. American, 1887–1967. Evening Wind, 1921. Etching on white wove paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm G. Chace Jr. (Beatrice Ross Oenslager, class of 1928). SC 1975:66-2. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.
The image above is Evening Windby Edward Hopper. Best known for his paintings, Hopper began his career as a printmaker, and it is for the extraordinary etchings he produced between 1915 and 1923 that he first gained critical acclaim. His prints, like his paintings, are subtle vignettes of urban experience, rendered with psychological acuity and an eye to formal abstraction. We see solitary nocturnal figures prowling the shadows of empty parks and cafés, and nudes with mask-like faces at the windows of tenement apartments. His etchings are part social record of a time and place, and part portraits of a timeless interiority, a project perhaps best expressed by Hopper’s most frequent and seemingly contradictory claims about his work: that all he is trying to do is “paint sunlight on the side of a house” and that he chooses subjects he believes will be “the best mediums for a synthesis of my inner experience.” In Evening Wind, as in so many of Hopper’s prints and paintings, the way light suffuses a house isa study of inner experience.
Hopper was part of the same generation of printmakers as George Bellows and John Sloan—all three studied at the Art Students League in New York City with Robert Henri, who encouraged them to go out into the city and make quick sketches from memory of what they saw there. Popularly known as the Ashcan School, they were notorious for their crude urban realism.
Consider this etching Turning Out the Lightfrom Sloan’s series “New York City Life”:
John Sloan. American, 1871-1951. Turning Out the Light, 1905. Etching. Courtesy of Connecticut Valley’s Wetmore Print Collection.
This print is is likely a source for Hopper’s Evening Wind. They share a subject – a woman getting into bed at the end of the day – and they are compositionally similar, both illuminated by a single dramatic light source that cuts, like the line of the women’s bodies, diagonally across the print. Sloan’s work, which was rejected from the American Water Color Society in 1906 for its “vulgarity,” shows a woman in the playful euphemistic act of turning out the light; she glances over her shoulder at her lover, and begins to peel down the strap of her nightgown.
Evening Windis similarly sexually charged, but where Sloan’s print is narrative - and thereby perhaps even more scandalous for the time, asking us to imagine what comes next—Hopper’s is more ambiguous. What has this woman stopped to see? What is she thinking about? The light from the window (mysteriously, since it is evening) seems to symbolize something, but it’s not clear what—it is suggestive, but it can’t be pinned down. And Hopper’s subject, instead of sharing a knowing look with another person, is fixated on the window. She might be watching a lover leave her apartment, or she might just be surprised by the wind that floods the room and engulfs her body. The uncertainty here is important: we can’t see what she sees. The window is blank to us. It illuminates the print, but obscures its meaning; it casts light on the subject, but conceals the object of her perception. The frame of the window suggests the frame of a painting or print—an image-within-an-image, like the painting hanging on the wall behind the curtain, barely perceptible in the shadows – but it’s a private vision, an image only this woman can see.
Sloan’s subject, as his title indicates, is “New York City Life.” The label applies nicely to Hopper’s work as well, but, then again, in Evening Wind, isn’t New York City life precisely what Hopper doesn’t show? It’s what’s happening out in the street - the cars and buses, pedestrians and sidewalks, the urban drama the young woman gazes out at, the area of the print that remains unetched and wiped clean of ink. You might say that Hopper’s vignette of New York City life is a woman looking at a vignette of New York City life. He turns the Sloanian social record, like the light, into an interior experience.