"Remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue and abiding love." - George Bernard Shaw
The humble paper is an incredibly versatile material and its usage in art dates back centuries. Paper was invented in China at the beginning of the second century AD, and spread from there to the Middle East. As the Islamic Empire spread throughout Africa and Europe, papermaking became increasingly mechanized. It was around that time that paper became the de facto material on which to record legal and diplomatic information for political and administrative needs. This created a huge demand for paper that resulted in sheets that were largely mass-produced, inexpensive, and fragile. Although bureaucratic work drove the production of paper, artists also found paper’s abundance, flexibility and relative affordability made it a useful material with which to work.
There are so many things that an artist can do with paper. A flat sheet of paper is the most common support for drawings, prints and watercolors. There is an extensive history of stacking paper into the form of a book or folio, from medieval illuminated manuscript books to contemporary artists’ books. Paper can also be folded to create a sculpture, such as the traditional Japanese art of origami. When paper is wet and molded it creates three dimensional objects, a process known as papier-mache. Folk artists from regions as diverse as Mexico and Poland cut or tear tissue paper to create works known respectively as papel picado and Wycinanki. Paper's translucent quality makes it a good material for creating lanterns, such as the farolitos of New Mexico. Light and paper are also combined to make photographs when light-sensitive paper is exposed to the sun. Even contemporary photography that is done using digital cameras is still usually printed onto paper as the final product.
With the opening of Renaissance to Goya in a few weeks, the museum will be absolutely filled with paper. In that exhibition alone, the visitor will be able to see a spectrum of works on paper that demonstrate not just the versatility of paper but the history of modern Europe. You will see that history is recorded on paper not just in the form of bureaucratic records and textbooks but in art as well. You might even think twice about whether you really want to live in a “paperless society” in the future.
José Camarón (1731-1803), An Oriental woman. Drawing, 214 x 149 mm. Courtesy the British Museum