Few materials in the modern world have proved as important or as versatile as paper. Barely a minute goes by when we do not come into contact with some kind of paper: post, newspapers, product packaging, notepads and memo slips, brochures and books, napkins and toilet rolls, receipts and carrier bags and, of course, money.
However, while no-one would deny paper’s influence, few consider how it has shaped our culture and, more specifically, our art. Certainly, its importance to literature is self-evident, but there are other areas of creativity, where paper – cheap to produce and readily available – has become as valuable and sought-after as the rarest minerals.
An ordinary sheet of white, A4 legal paper is so cheap that no one even bothers selling it singly – it must be bought in reams. Take the same sheet, however, and give it to a top Japanese origami artists and it becomes considerably more valuable. And if the same sheet bears a doodle by Keith Haring its price goes through the stratosphere.
It’s doubtful that anyone could have known how essential paper would become when the first sheets were produced in China around 200bc. Even by the 15th and 16th centuries, it was still an expensive and rare commodity in northern Europe and used mostly in the creative process, one of the best examples being Holbein’s preparatory drawings.
His working method is clearly displayed in the massive paper drawing of Henry VIII at the National Portrait Gallery: look closely at the exquisitely-drawn monarch and tiny holes pierced round his outline are visible. This series of holes, called pouncing, was used to transfer the drawing to the wall or canvas. Charcoal dust was brushed into the holes leaving lines of tiny black dots on the surface behind. This proved to be an efficient way of image duplication. Paper was used as a tool of the trade, rather than being the focus of the work itself.
This century has seen the medium of paper grow in status; the birth of modernism has seen artists truly exploit the opportunities it offers. Raoul Hausmann, the self-proclaimed inventor of photomontage, took clippings and pictures from newspapers and magazines and collated them together into eccentric montages. The resulting piece is worth far more than the sum of its parts.
One of the most eloquent commentators on modern culture with his paper work has been Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. He took utterly worthless pieces of paper – old bus tickets, used envelopes, postcards and other packaging – and brought them together to form abstract works of art. Creating art from non-art, if you like. Schwitters was trying to undermine the accepted notion of art as something expressive, or meaningful as well as commenting on our throwaway culture.
Schwitters was one of the first, but by no means the only artist to discover the true value of ordinary paper. In his later years, Matisse became so crippled that his fingers no longer had the dexterity to create his famous paintings. Instead, he would cut out paper shapes and rearrange them into an abstract masterpiece. The most famous example is The Snail, currently owned by the Tate Gallery, which is only a few squares of coloured paper. The positioning of the squares, however, has transformed them into a multi-million pound picture. Picasso took this a stage further. Amused at the value of his signature, he would sign worthless pieces of paper such as napkins, tablecloths and the backs of envelopes which would later sell for a fortune. Small wonder people used to queue to get him to scribble his name on the nearest scrap to hand.
James Bloggs did much the same thing in the Eighties. A struggling New York artist, he used to try to pay for his supper by drawing dollar bills on a tablecloth. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t cut much sway at first but as they became more notorious, such doodles were transformed from a joke into works of art. Ultimately, he was able to buy with one doodled dollar, which had absolutely no currency value whatsoever, a top-of-the-line Harley-Davidson. In many ways, modern artists have become alchemists in that they can turn the worthless into the priceless.
An interesting offshoot of this is another everyday item: the postage stamp. Although superficially only worth the price that the Royal Mail puts on it, these tiny squares of paper can be worth more than many currency notes, the most famous example being the Penny Black. But the humble stamp does have more to recommend it. Stamps can provide an entire social history not only of this country but many others.
Stamps can be works of art in their own right. The 10 stamp Roundel designed for the Royal Mail incorporates so many security features that in essence it has become a worthy item (and one that may well increase over the coming years). With its elliptical perforations, braille, foil blocking and use of 12 different printing processes, it is not only almost impossible to counterfeit, but substantially different from any other stamp on the market and therefore a must-have for any discerning collector.
With such small pieces of paper able to grab such great attention, it is a wonder that many modern-day designers remain unaware of the potential of wood pulp. So enamoured are they of computer screens and the tricks they can perform that it’s easy to forget exactly what paper can do. An image is all very well, but it should be remembered that, as history has shown, the material is always capable of so much more.