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‘UnAmerican’ and more: Smith College exhibits explore issues of identity

  • “The Objective of Tehran,” oil on canvas by Philip Evergood, 1945. Photo by Petegorsky/Gipe, courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Monster Symbolizing Nazism,” crayon and ink on paper by William Gropper, 1939. Image courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Figure Study,” pen, India ink, and graphite on paper by Rockwell Kent, undated.  Image courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Three Cows and one Calf,” pen, India ink, graphite and dry brush by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1922. Image courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Medusa del Trópico,” screenprint by Cándido Bidó, 1986. Photo by Petegorsky/Gipe, courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Chinese Shan-Shui Tattoo,” photo by Huang Yan, 1999. Petegorsky/Gipe photo, courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2018

Last fall, as she viewed one of the Smith College Museum of Art’s major exhibits, a profile of American surrealist painter Honoré Sharrer, Emma Chub was struck by how history seemed to be repeating itself.

Chubb, SCMA’s curator of contemporary art, noted that Sharrer, a mid-to-late 20th century artist who won early acclaim for her work, later found her career somewhat sidelined during the Cold War because of her (and her husband’s) left-wing politics.

And when she looked at the headlines of today’s newspapers, Chubb noted, she read about white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, Virginia, or the U.S president denigrating certain immigrant groups, or his call for barring transgender people from the military.

“My thought, was, ‘How can [the museum] respond to what’s happening in the country, not in a reactive way, but a generative way?’ ” Chubb said. “A lot of our students are affected by the immigration debate … one thing museums can do is look at these issues in a longer historical context.”

SCMA’s response, curated in part by  Chubb, comes in the form of “Un/American,” a look at five American 20th-century artists who faced censure, suspicion or worse for their political views, ethnicity or work. Drawn from the museum’s collection, it’s one of three current smaller exhibits or “focused installations” that are partly aimed at students but that also stand on their own.

In addition to “Un/American,” the exhibits include “Color and Heat: Pan-American works from the AGPA collection,” a collection of prints from Latin American artists, and “Chinese Shan-Shui Tattoo,” a photo exhibit of body art from a Chinese husband-and-wife artistic team.

‘Un/American’

The five works of this installation, dating from the early-to-mid 20th  century, include drawings and lithographs, and none of the subjects themselves could be considered controversial: In fact, a couple of them might have been considered patriotic, or at least a celebration of American values, at the time they were made.

But as the installation shows, the definitions of “America” and “American” have changed at times in the nation’s history.

For instance, illustrator and painter Philip Evergood in 1945 created a painting, “The Objective of Tehran,” for a war relief calendar designed to celebrate solidarity between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which received extensive military and humanitarian aid from the U.S. during WWII.

But in 1959, with the Cold War in swing and the Soviets now considered enemies, Evergood was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) because some members thought he and other U.S. artists, whose work had been selected for an upcoming exhibition in Moscow, had communist leanings.

The same test awaited Ben Shahn, who crafted a colorful 1937 poster for the Resettlement Agency, a New Deal program designed to help farmers bankrupted by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Shahn, whose work was also chosen for the 1959 Moscow exhibit, was also forced to defend himself before the HUAC.

Painter, printmaker and writer Rockwell Kent, whose pen and ink drawing “Figure Study” is part of the SCMA exhibit, endured even more. Well known for his progressive views, Kent was called before the HUAC in 1940 and had his passport revoked in 1950 as an alleged communist; in a case ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, he successfully sued to have it returned.

And Japanese-born Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who came to America in 1906 as a teenager, was denied U.S. citizenship under existing laws, then faced greater restrictions during WWII, such as having his assets frozen and not being allowed to own a camera.

A painter and printmaker — the exhibit includes his modernist drawing “Three Cows and a Calf” — Kuniyoshi also was compelled to make anti-Japanese propaganda art during WWII.

For Chubb, who just joined the SCMA staff last summer, this was her first curating work (done jointly with Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs Aprile Gallant) at the museum, and she says she was pleased to be able to draw on the museum’s collection to address current issues of “Americanness.”

“[The country] has struggled at times with this idea of who is a real American, that identity is somehow malleable,” she said. “Art is a way to push back against that.”

Latin and Chinese colors

“Color and Heat” takes its name from a tribute that Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and diplomat, wrote in 1979 for the work of Latin American printmakers and other artists. His thrust was that art from the region went a long way to overcoming decades there of civil disorder and rule by dictators.

“Printmaking, like the poetry and novels of Latin America, gives us back our confidence in the genius of our peoples,” Paz wrote. “It is both earthly and spiritual nourishment: color and heat, form and idea."

The small exhibit, of some 15 prints, is drawn from a collection SCMA received in 2016 from Marius and Suzanne Sznajderman. Marius Sznajderman, a printmaker who formerly lived in France and Venezuela before coming to the U.S. in 1949, once coordinated collections for a group known as Pan American Graphics Arts (AGPA), which represented artists from across Latin America.

The exhibit is especially notable for the bright colors of several works. “Medusa del Trópico, (Medusa of the Tropic),” for instance, by Dominican printmaker Cándido Bidó, offers a twist on the ancient Greek myth, suggesting this warm-weather Medusa is more soothing — maybe a bit shy — with her hair wreathed in birds and the sky behind her various shades of blue.

Bolivian printmaker Carmen Baptista, meanwhile, reimagines the story of how the country was founded in “Bolívar y Juana Azurduy.” The screenprint depicts Simón Bolívar, considered the liberator of Bolivia from Spanish rule, meeting with Juana Azurduy, a rebel leader who never received proper credit for her role in the liberation.

The print, which is set in the cobblestone streets of a Bolivian town, bursts with bright colors and detail: Bolívar on a white horse, wearing a blue jacket; Azurduy in a red blouse and a long, black skirt; buildings with whitewashed walls and terracotta-tiled roofs.

And speaking of colorful scenes, another compact SCMA exhibit, “Chinese Shan-Shui Tattoo,” features multiple photographs of Chinese artist Huang Yan, whose chest, back and arms have been painted by his wife, Zhang Tiemei, to show a traditional Chinese landscape of steep, forested mountains.

In the show, in the Carol T. Christ Gallery, which is dedicated to Asian art, the landscape paintings change form in each photograph as Huang Yan repositions himself by, for example, folding his arms across his chest or clasping his hands.

As exhibit notes explain, body art has become increasingly popular in China since the 1990s. A few of these photographs were shown at SCMA a few years ago during a special exhibit of Asian art — and they might be considered a prelude of sorts to an exhibit opening in February, “Modern Images of the Body from East Asia.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on these exhibits and on SCMA, including visiting hours, visit smith.edu/artmuseum/.