SIDE BY SIDE Docents’ Choice: Works on Paper

4 March—1 June 2008

What is it that makes comparing two works of art so powerful? What do we see when we examine things side by side that we don’t see when we look at objects individually? The docents of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum set about answering that question during the fall of 2007 and the exhibition Side By Side is the result of their investigations.

Since the early 1970s, an active corps of volunteer docents has been integral to the Museum's efforts to serve its diverse constituencies. Besides providing tours of the permanent collection and special exhibitions to visiting groups, these volunteers offer educational initiatives to school children of all ages. Meeting each week to discuss works of art and to hone their pedagogical skills, these volunteers are engaged in all aspects of museum work and serve as a link to the community beyond the walls of the Museum and the College.

This year in addition to their regular duties, the docents were challenged not only to learn about the Museum’s permanent and changing exhibitions, but to create one of their own. Delving into the myriad works on paper in the Museum’s collection that are not regularly on view, the docents were asked to select two objects, to find a way to compare them and to share with each other and the public what that process of comparison reveals. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate with one another? That conversation was at the heart of our venture.

Articulating the similarities and differences was an integral part of the process. As Susan Woodford writes in her book, Looking At Pictures: “…Odd as it might seem, looking on its own is frequently not enough. Finding words to describe and analyze pictures often provides the only way to help us progress from passive looking to active, perceptive seeing.” Presentations based on their research provided the background for writing the wall texts for the exhibition. The docents soon learned that condensing extensive research into a few hundred words is much more challenging than it first seemed. They had to decide whether they wished to focus on the formal properties of a work, such as design and composition, or whether they wished to examine content, context, or method of making.

The thirty works in the exhibition, selected by fifteen docents, include drawings, etchings and prints, photographs, paintings, silhouettes, and collage. Two quite different crucifixion images by Romare Bearden and Ricco LeBrun each use the imagery to reflect the unprecedented brutality and suffering perpetrated during World War II. Other comparisons include photographs of artists at work, cityscapes, nudes, and landscapes from both western and eastern traditions and from the 18th century through contemporary times.

Anita Page, who has recently joined the docent group remarked, “Doing research on two works creates a third entity—the interconnectedness of the two, unintended but vital to the art viewing process. It’s very exciting!” Adds veteran docent Sheila McElwaine, “Selecting, researching, and presenting works on paper from the collection has been a powerful learning experience and has given docents more appreciation for issues the museum staff confronts year in and year out. Being entrusted with backstage access and direct contact with museum objects sends a strong message about our place on the team.”

Image Captions

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991)
Beside the Sea with Fish and Chips
Collage and acrylic, 1977
Gift of Jeffrey H. Laoria in honor of Julie Lavin (class of 1986)

Romare Bearden (American, 1914-1988)
Home to Ithaca
Cut-paper collage, 1977
Gift of the estate of Eileen Paradis Barber (class of 1929)
Photograph Petegorsky/Gipe