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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 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.


  • Wednesday, July 29, 2015

    Collecting the Past: Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Guest blogger Amenda Cho is a Hampshire College student, class of 2015. Her academic concentrations at Hampshire were Anthropology, Journalism, and Photography.  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.

    Enrique Chagoya. American born Mexico, 1953. Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists , 2001. Lithograph and woodcut with black, ochre, blue, yellow, and green ink, chine colle and collage on paper Purchased with the Arch W. Shaw Foundation, through the courtesy of Nancy Simonds Shaw, class of 1972, administrator. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2002:9

    One of the things that is interesting about the Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists codex is how many different critiques can be read within the piece of work.  There are many different ways of reading the cannibalism theme, the appropriation of different cultures, and how the art industry has played a role in that within the piece, but one thing that stood out to me was the “blood stains” present throughout. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    They are obviously not real blood stains, but they are a reference to how the Mayans have become associated with violent religious rituals that include cannibalism, and it also refers to how the Western world has appropriated the images and text of the Mayan culture and consumed them.  Though this is a strong theme throughout the piece, what caught my attention with the blood stains is how it is a reminder that this ritual of cannibalism continues through the work and through people who are viewing it.  As a part of the audience, we “consume” this piece as a work of art which critiques the consumption and appropriation of other cultures in art, and yet by viewing it, we are participating in exactly what the piece is critiquing.  This causes one to think about the audience’s own influence in how art is understood, and the different filters and packaging the piece goes through before actually reaching the audience. 

    So who is this codex geared towards?  Historically, codices made in the Mayan culture were used to keep records of religious and spiritual rituals, as well as to keep a written record of the people’s history.  However a majority of the codices were burned by the Christian church, as they were seen as pagan and unholy texts.  Those that have survived until now somehow made it to Europe before the burning of the codices, and are still located in different parts of Europe today. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Detail of burning filing cabinet

    When considering this, there are several pages of the codex that make more sense, specifically page ten (above) which has the image of a burning filing cabinet.  This also means that these same codices that were used to teach history to younger generations of Mayan people are now in display for mostly the Western world to decipher, consume and teach the rest of the world about.  This is something that Enrique Chagoya is very critical of and what he tries to call attention to with this codex. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Enrique Chagoya is currently a professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University, but was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico.  It was here that he became more aware of ancient indigenous beliefs, imagination, and history.  It is also here, through his Nahuan nurse, that he became empathetic towards the Indian side of Mexican culture.  This gives some information as to which side of the narrative Chagoya relates more readily to and to whom he might be directing the codex and its critique toward. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    When talking about the codex, Chagoya uses the terms “reverse anthropology” and “cannibalism” as metaphors of the process of how dominant cultures are able to rewrite and redefine traditions and cultures of other groups of people, and this is something he tries to illuminate through the cannibalism theme throughout this piece.  This seems to suggest that the piece was made for the dominant culture, currently the Western world, to attempt to understand, as these terms are critiques of things the dominant culture participates in. 

    It is also obvious that the codex was made for Western consumption because of the main languages used throughout the codex.  The codex begins with a title that comes from the German language, and continues to use both English and German throughout, even until the end.  This is interesting because of the original purpose of the codex in the Mayan context.  However, it almost builds more on the cannibalism theme, as it is a reflection of a group of people’s history that is now made specifically for the consumption of the Western powers. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Another group of people that the codex is geared toward is the art industry and those who participate in it.  This is made most obvious from pages sixteen to eighteen where the popular images of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans are appropriated, and instead of having the traditional “Tomato Soup” written on it, it now uses the body parts of the art industry such as “Artist’s Brains Soup” and “Critic’s Tongue Soup” (above).  This plays off the audience’s role in the consumption of art and the packaging that they take art in because many times, people come to art with an understanding that is founded from specific perspectives, such as through a curator or a critic.  This is parallel to Chagoya’s critique of who is able to write history, because similar to the histories of certain cultures, there is a filter, or a re-packaging, of people’s understanding of art, as there is a re-translation of cultures and traditions. 

    This piece is mainly geared towards these two specific groups of people.  However, as mentioned before, the audience, no matter their background, is still a participant in this.  So despite messages that are being sent through this piece, everyone who views it is participating in the consumption of different cultures and their art.  This almost seems to say that despite Chagoya’s critique of this practice, it is something that is a part of a cycle and that it is something that is inevitable since everyone is participating in it.