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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.

  • Wednesday, August 19, 2015

    “It was the Best of Times”: American Prints of the Great Depression

    Guest blogger Nicole Viglini is the International Fine Print Dealer’s Association Intern at the Smith College Museum of Art.

    This piece discusses works from the The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection, a collection of prints which was recently donated to the Museum.

    Recalling what it was like to create art in the 1930s, Edward Laning, an artist commissioned to paint murals in the New York Public Library by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, declared:

    It was the worst of times; it was the best of times. It was the best because it was the worst. Business came to a standstill, the banks closed, people everywhere were thrown out of work – and almost over night New York became the Great Good Place and America the Land of Promise. Until then, every man’s hand had been against every man. Now, suddenly, all were kindly and helpful and filled with compassionate purpose. I know now that it was our Golden Age, the only humane era in our history, the one brief period when we permitted ourselves to be good.

    Part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the WPA was a relief program created during the Great Depression, employing Americans to work on public projects, such as constructing roads, government buildings, and parks. The WPA also hired artists to create art for public spaces like state schools, airports and post offices. Whether or not they were contracted by the WPA, American printmakers during the Great Depression commented not only on the extent of economic hardship people experienced, but also on the social cohesion that came out of the efforts to overcome these tribulations. In addition to portrayals of desolation are depictions of hope, camaraderie and an intermingling of social classes. According to Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang, as the Great Depression wore on, “the more ‘socially conscious’ American printmakers… intended to publicize a ‘deep-going change that [was taking] them… into the street, into the mills, farms, mines and factories. More and more… are filling their pictures with their reactions to humanity about them, rather than with apples or flowers.’”

    The amount of work produced by the artists commissioned by the WPA is astounding: between 1935 and 1943, these artists produced around 2,566 murals, 10,000 paintings, 17,700 sculptures, and 300,000 prints. The incredible number of prints produced is owed to the fact that printmaking was relatively inexpensive and the artwork easily transported. “The print itself was the most democratic and educational of any artistic medium,” notes art historian Richard G. Mann, “given that its inexpensive production facilitates the creation of multiple copies which were easily disseminated.”

    Elizabeth Olds (American, 1896 – 1991). Mrs. Manchester’s Musical Program for Homeless Men, n.d. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, slightly textured, cream-colored paper. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2014:32-436

    Elizabeth Olds worked for the WPA’s Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1940, and ardently believed in the mission of the program. She claimed it “‘bridged the gap between the American public and the American artist.’” The FAP commissioned Olds to create Mrs. Manchester’s Musical Program for Homeless Men. In this piece, a woman plays the harp for a group of men. The art conjures a sense of the absurd; it calls to mind the harsh criticism from opponents of the FAP, who found the appropriation of federal funds for art to be frivolous and wasteful. Known for her sharp satire, Olds’s choice to have Mrs. Manchester play a harp acknowledges these accusations. At the same time, she shows the power that art and music has to bridge class divisions. The harp creates a barrier between the men and Mrs. Manchester, signifying the class gulf between them. This divide is accentuated by their body language; each side is pulling away from the other. Yet, some of the audience leans in, perhaps signifying the power that music, and art in general, has to overcome the social gap.

    Elizabeth Olds (American, 1896 – 1991). Black Jack at the Transient Home, n.d. Lithograph. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2014:32-701.

    In Black Jack at the Transient Home, Olds portrays a similar cohesion and camaraderie found in Mrs. Manchester’s Musical Program for Homeless Men. The men around the black jack table stand and sit close together, all engaged in one activity.One of the card players wears a fedora and smokes a pipe; he is clearly from a different social class, yet he blends in with the rest of the players. In this piece, Olds reminds the viewer that people from all backgrounds are subject to the same fluctuations of fortunes. However, while Olds shows a degree of unification among different classes, she does not argue that these distinctions disappeared entirely. In addition to lithographs, Olds began to produce silkscreen pieces under the tutelage of Anthony Velonis under the auspices of the WPA in the late 1930s. After the Great Depression, she taught art and illustrated children’s books.

    Charles Wheeler Locke (American, 1899 – 1983). The Hole in the Wall, ca. 1938. Lithograph printed in black on medium weight, slightly textured, cream-colored paper. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2014:32-582

    Men chat, smoke, and drink coffee in Charles Wheeler Locke’s convivial café scene, The Hole in the Wall. Judging from their caps, the man on the left and the two men chatting at the end of the bar appear to be working class, perhaps longshoremen. The man in the homburg hat smoking a cigar appears as if he hails from elsewhere. This apparent difference of class adds to the intrigue of the piece and allows the viewer to put together a story. As the man with the cigar talks, the longshoreman sips his coffee and gazes at the bill left on the counter, perhaps wondering if the man wearing an expensive hat and three-piece suit will pick it up. Like Elizabeth Olds’s work, Locke’s The Hole in the Wall acknowledges that the economic upheaval of the 1930s spurred new interactions between those from different social classes, yet subtly argues that a class divide still existed. In addition to etchings, Charles Wheeler Locke created paintings, illustrations, and lithographs, often portraying urban scenes and bar scenes. He studied and later taught at the Art Students League in New York City.

    Harry Sternberg (American, 1904 – 2001). Subway Car, 1930. Etching and aquatint. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2014:32-717

    In Subway Car, Harry Sternberg depicts a microcosm of New York City. The many people seated and standing in scattered array with their disparate expressions portrays, in condensed fashion, the controlled chaos of a busy city. Just as in the prints by Elizabeth Olds and Charles Wheeler Locke, Sternberg uses peoples’ hats and clothing to convey different social classes. In many ways, the subway is a great equalizer. Everyone aboard is subject to the same fare, the same free-for-all seating and the same delays. Though people from many different walks of life are present together, they do not directly interact with one another. A couple chats in the foreground, and a few shady-looking men look askance; everyone else seems to be absorbed in their own thoughts. The ads above the seats remind the viewer of the busy commercial madhouse above ground. Within the confines of the subway car, hurtling through tunnels beneath the chaotic city, there is a measure of calm and a respite for people to regain some modicum of control. Like Locke, Sternberg also studied and taught at the Art Students League, in addition to working at the Museum of Modern Art and New York University. He worked as a supervisor in the graphics division of the WPA during the 1930s.

    In each of the pieces represented in the Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection from the 1930s, there is a wide range of portrayals of life and work. The complexity and uncertainty, the ending of an era and the dawn of a new one with mixed blessings is portrayed in these pieces. The decade of the Great Depression was seen not only as a time of immense strife and hardship, but also as a time for people to come together. 


  • Wednesday, August 12, 2015

    The Iconography of Constance Pott

    Guest blogger Nicole Viglini is the International Fine Print Dealer’s Association Intern at the Smith College Museum of Art.

    This piece discusses works from the The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection, a collection of prints which was recently donated to the Museum.

    In 1902, a London medical school’s newspaper blithely predicted that “Miss Constance Pott will be remembered by her renowned picture of the front quadrangle of the Hospital, issued through the Gazette in 1896.” Later issues of this paper continued to allude to the popularity of her prints. Ironically, Constance Pott (English, 1862 – 1957), a preeminent artist in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries known for her skillful etchings and her professional partnership with Sir Frank Short, is not remembered for this, or for any other works she produced. Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang attribute the waning appreciation of women printmakers of the Etching Revival, a movement that began in mid-nineteenth-century France, to both external and internal factors, including circumstances beyond their control, individual choices, and the types of relationships the artist cultivated. In the case of Constance Pott, the Langs connect her faded legacy to her death at a time when etching was no longer a popular artistic medium, and to the fact that she outlived most of her contemporaries and many of her students. Pott never married, and had no children to cultivate her legacy. She left her artwork and books to two sisters, and the bulk of her money to one of her students at the Royal College of Art (RCA), Johannes Matthias Daum. Furthermore, Pott did not keep a catalogue of her work. The Langs ascribe her “reluctance for self-promotion” to her Victorian upbringing, underscoring her upper middle class background. They describe a book written by her mother, Mrs. Henry Pott, which was entitled Quite the Gentleman and extolled the virtues of Victorian gender roles. Pott was later remembered by one artist, who had not studied under her, “as an ‘old maid; very, very Victorian, very much respectable.’ She engaged very much in ‘good works.’” 

    Pott received her training at the world-renowned Royal College of Art. During the mid-nineteenth century as the industrial sector began to rise, various companies sought artisans to take on jobs in crafts, spurring the advent of training schools for industrial design. The RCA was one of these schools, but from the beginning, many of the students attended to learn fine art rather than draftsmanship and other crafts. As the Langs note, Pott, while studying at the RCA in the late nineteenth century, “had not taken to the ordinary daily round of drawing and design, such as adapting ‘a lily or rose to wall-paper, tile, or carpet design.’” She discovered an engraving class and began to focus on creating art. Pott’s long association with the artist Sir Frank Short began in 1891, when Short taught the engraving class at the RCA. 

    Constance Mary Pott (English, 1862 – 1957). On the Medway, n.d. Etching printed in black on heavyweight, moderately textured, beige paper. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Promised gift. SC TR 7604.1076

    Pott’s work belies her Victorian upbringing. There is something post-apocalyptic about On the Medway, with its dilapidated pier and skeletal ship masts. The cluster of hovering seagulls begs the question, where lies the carrion? While evidence of human activity is central to the piece, most eerily portrayed by the abandoned, floating barrel, the absence of people contributes to its somber tone, accentuated by a bold use of black. The structure at the end of the pier registers as a haunting relic of a lost civilization. Perhaps Pott found inspiration in the wreckage brought about by the severe economic depression that settled over Europe in the 1890s. A commentary on boom and bust economic cycles, the nature of commerce and humanity’s mark on the natural landscape was hardly subject matter fit for “an ‘old maid; very, very Victorian, very much respectable.’”

    Sir Frank Short (English, 1857 – 1945). Low Tide and the Evening Star and Rye’s Long Pier Deserted, 1888. Etching printed in black on medium weight, slightly textured, cream-colored paper. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Promised gift. SC TR 7604.512.

    Pott’s connection with Frank Short can be succinctly emphasized by comparing On the Medway with Short’s work, Low Tide and the Evening Star and Rye’s Long Pier Deserted. Short’s piece evokes the same sort of post-apocalyptic feeling. The subject matter and composition is strikingly similar, though while Pott’s use of line is more bold and assertive, Short’s rendition uses more fine lines and appears starker. This difference is discerned in their respective treatments of the pier: where Pott’s pier ends in a folded up gangway, Short’s recedes into an indiscernible point. The low tide in Short’s piece contributes to the feeling of the pier’s abandonment. The closeness and jumbled nature of the ships in the background evoke an image of a graveyard. Skeletal ship masts mirror Pott’s piece, but in Short’s work, they resemble crosses in an old cemetery.

    After graduating from the RCA, Pott returned to the school in 1902 to assist Short in the classroom. One account portrays Pott’s dedication to the job and to her students: “‘Enter the class any Saturday morning, and you will find her by the printing press with up-rolled sleeves, in long blue etcher’s blouse, ink-dabber in hand, a copper plate on the heater in front. And while the plate is inked, she will give kind advice as to the botched and bungled plate of the student who stands by.’” 

    Constance Mary Pott (English, 1862 – 1957). High Street, Kensington, 1898. Etching and drypoint printed in black on thick, slightly textured, cream-colored paper. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Promised gift. SC TR 7604.511

    Pott’s work often comments on modernity in relation to the past, regardless of the subject matter. There is a constant allusion to preceding eras in her work, perhaps one of the elements that drew people in and made her so popular. In High Street, Kensington, Pott is not so much concerned for the people going about their daily business as she is about the juxtaposition of the low buildings with their storefronts to the cathedral rising in the background. Everything in this piece seems to pull towards the spired tower, such as the slope of the awnings and the angles of the roofs. This piece lacks the ominous feeling of On the Medway, yet it evokes a certain pang of nostalgia in its clear cognizance of the contrast between days gone by and the present. Pott’s treatment of the cathedral denotes a certain reverence; the tower becomes a reliquary for a bygone time.    

    Constance Mary Pott (English, 1862 – 1957). St. Martin’s in the Field, 1907. Etching printed in black on medium weight, slightly textured, cream-colored paper. The Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang Collection. Promised gift. SC TR 7604.998

    Pott uses a similar approach in St. Martin’s in the Field, giving great detail to the facade of the Church of St. Martin’s in the Field, located in London’s Trafalgar Square. The church has stood there since its completion in 1726, but there has been a church in that space since the thirteenth century. Similar to High Street, Kensington, the people in the piece are secondary. The peddler of flowers becomes especially poignant in considering Pott’s themes; her presence alludes to the ephemeral nature of human activity and the perennial rhythms of human existence. In comparing the three pieces discussed, it is clear that Pott picked out one focal point in her piece – the pier, the cathedral, and the church – and in rendering those central elements, imparted an iconic status to them.

    As a print collector’s handbook wrote in 1921, “Every medium of the copperplate is at the command of Constance Pott, whose extraordinary mastery of technique renders service to a rare and beautiful artistic expression.” The writer expressed what was abundantly clear: Constance Pott was a true master. But today, she is largely forgotten. 


  • Wednesday, August 5, 2015

    Collecting the Past: Kenojuak Ashevak

    Guest blogger Jiete (Jady) Li is a Smith College student, class of 2015. The original version of this work was written for Collecting the Past: Art and Artifacts of the Ancient Americas. This course was offered Spring 2015 by Dana Leibsohn, Priscilla Paine Van der Poel Professor of Art.

    Kenojuak Ashevak. Inuit, 1927 – 2013. Untitled, 1961. Pencil on white wove paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Houston (Alice Watson, class of 1959). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1979:35-14

    This pencil drawing on wove paper by Kenojuak Ashevak, one of the most well-known modern Inuit artists, represents two human figures encircled by animals and sea deities against a blank background. The absence of a setting seems to indicate an indefinable space, creating an otherworldly and fantastic atmosphere. The two central figures, probably a parent and a child, wear the traditional Inuit parkas. They stand with their backs to the viewer on the decorated tails of two sea deities.

    Detail of drawing

    Different from the mermaid-like creature on the left, the one on the right with two more long plumes, a squarish fin, and a five-fingered hand may represent the Inuit sea goddess Sedna (detail above) whose fingers have been cut by her father.  The hand of Sedna supports a bird facing a wolf (or a sled dog or a fox) whose four legs step on the human figures and the other sea deity. The swirling tail of the wolf echoes with a small bird flying above the big one on the left. The overall composition forms a circle encompassing the central parent and child. The drawing is probably about Sedna’s transformation into the sea goddess or about Kenojuak’s imaginative perception of the world around her.

    Detail of drawing

    The Cape Dorset printmaking project was developed in the 1950s under Western colonialism: Western ideologies, aesthetics, and interests shaped Inuit people’s identity and arts; simultaneously the aboriginal people learned to see themselves in the ways which mattered to the outsiders. At first, this project was considered a symbiotic “win-win game” for both the Western and native participants, as all stakeholders contributed to the formation of a primitive and exotic representation of Inuit culture to the outside world. The Canadian government sponsored such a program in order to claim sovereignty in the Arctic and find a historical origin of the national identity, while the northern native artists were driven by the economic benefits, catering to the southern patrons.

    Detail of drawing

    The Cape Dorset project tried to save the “pure” and “authentic” Inuit culture in the rapidly changing modern world under the tight Western control and intervention. The natives consequently faced a struggle between modernization—participation in a market-driven capitalist economy, and primitivization—creation of historical imageries unrelated to their contemporary life. Perhaps because of a lack of autonomy in the production and dissemination of Inuit cultural knowledge in the 20th century, the natives had internalized the romanticized Inuit image created by the Westerners: they saw themselves as how the outsiders saw them.

    For instance, the locals believed that Inuit arts produced in workshops supervised by Westerners preserved the pristine and pre-Western contact aboriginal culture and were thus used for educating their children.  Passing down knowledge filtered through a Western lens to future generations has further intensified the primitivization of Inuit culture within the local community.

    Detail of drawing

    Due to the post-colonial repositioning of archaeology and ethnography as well as the political sovereignty of Nunavut, the ethical imbalance and cultural racism between the Western authorities (such as Western founders, managers, and scholars of the project) and native art makers in Cape Dorset were recently acknowledged and challenged. In the last two decades, the Inuit people have become more self-critical, reflective, and empowered to define their identity by themselves, which can be demonstrated in the exhibition An Inuit Perspective: Baker Lake Sculpture.  More and more contemporary Inuit artists have started to portray their present everyday life, including modern transportation, costumes, and technologies.

    This infusion of Western culture into the Inuit way of life does not make the aboriginal people “inauthentic” or “impure,” but suggests that the Inuit community is a fluid and changing entity participating in the global world rather than a static and culturally determined product. Though outsiders can learn and interpret other cultures, the natives should have the autonomy and freedom to produce, display, define, and disseminate their own culture.