Back from Beyond

I trekked to the Bay Area last week. I’m still getting settled back in. I went to an evening workshop with Sara Burgess at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Her papercuttings are divine, and I figured mingling with some knife-happy, paper-crazy folks outside of my isolated corner in the Redwoods might be just the thing.

I also reconnected with a few old friends along the way that I don’t get to see nearly enough. This was good, but also sad. So many people I care about are going through such hard times–major economic insecurity, unemployment, frightening health stuff…

As for the workshop, my hands did not want to cooperate. Not to boast, but I used to be able to wield a scalpel or X-Acto with a fair amount of skill. Not so much anymore, alas. But the show-and-tell of Sara’s work alone made the night worth it. The books she makes from her all-white scherenschnitte-style papercuttings are exquisitely intricate. She fashions some of the cut pages into map folds that pop out when opened. She showed us one multi-layered carousel book that looked like delicate layers of lace. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of her cut paper work online, but she says that she plans to put more up on a site she has just started, White Papers Press. You can already see a few examples of her work’s complexity there.

These snaps are from my drive home. I went slowly and stopped a lot on the way. The rain made it particularly scenic.

Catching up After the Outage

Our electric was out for a day and a night. Blech. Let’s hear it for rural living…

So, with a whole day’s worth of email and stuff to catch up on, what better thing to do than find a nice little paper-related video?

Each frame was crafted from a 4 x 6″ piece of card stock. By Javan Ivey.

Comet Pictures

This is only related to paper in a loose sense. I often used to use 35mm photos as source material for my collage work. I have quite a few photos in boxes, books and piles. Every once in a while I scan a few. These are of the comet Hale-Bopp from 1997.

This one on the left was taken at a mountain pass off of Highway 299, a twisty road that heads east from here. I had gone inland, because here on the coast it’s too foggy most of the time to get a decent picture of something in the sky.

There were quite a few other people skywatching there as well. After I’d set up my tripod, a truck pulled up and parked behind me. Whenever it became dark enough between passing cars to take a picture, its driver would beam his headlights on me, ruining my exposure. I suspect he thought he was being helpful, providing light. I wanted to go tell him what he was really being, but felt intimidated. Eventually, though, I did manage to get a few snaps and was happy.

That general time when the comet was around provided a few strange memories. One night that March there was also a lunar eclipse. It was an unusually clear evening, and I was driving down the highway with my husband just after dark. The sides of the road were lined with parked cars where there normally would never be any. People stood all around staring up in a daze, gazing back and forth from one part of the sky to another, from the huge comet to the eclipse and back again. It looked like a scene from a Sci Fi flick. The aliens are landing. Or the Apocalypse is about to begin.

This picture on the right is especially for my friends D. and M., who weren’t yet born in ’97. D. loves comets and all things astronomical. This was taken in McKinleyville, not too far from where they live.

I happen to like comets too, although not with such a scientific bent. By coincidence the year before Hale-Bopp appeared, I did the paper mosaic collage Sleepers Awake (below). This comet was actually constructed from pictures of a galaxy from an old book. I cut them up into little bits and rearranged the bits into a comet.

I guess, in the end, I did manage to make this somehow be about paper.

Victorian Cutups

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been looking at Mrs. Delany and Her Circle, the catalogue for a recent show about the 18th C. collagist that was at the Yale Center for British Art and is soon to be at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (14 Feb – 1 May). Another exhibition catalogue I’ve been browsing is Playing with Pictures: the Art of Victorian Photocollage. The related show started at the Art Institute of Chicago, and is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY through May 9. The book is quite enjoyable. I wish I could see the exhibition, which was just favorably reviewed by Roberta Smith in the NY Times. She says:

Breakthroughs aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Collage, one of the riverheads of modernism, is usually thought to have been introduced around 1912, when Braque and Picasso began gluing pieces of newsprint and wallpaper to their Cubist drawings. But what if it turns out that at least one form of collage was practiced decades earlier, not in Paris in the teens but in Victorian England in the 1880s and ’70s? And not by ambitious your-body-my-art macho geniuses but by women at the highest reaches of society, including the Royal family?

She ends the review by noting how modern the concepts behind so many of the pictures in the exhibit look. Many are strikingly reminiscent of work by well-regarded artists of the later 20th C. through today. “May this exhibition serve as a reminder that the most interesting thing about such distinctions [between the Victorian works and modern fine art] may turn out to be the inevitability with which they fray, as more kinds of visual play, by women and others, comes to light.”

Well-promoted exhibitions such as this make me hopeful that perhaps, finally, we’ll get rid of the irritating notion that Picasso and Braque invented collage.

Mrs. Delany, Part II

It was in the mid 1990s and we were getting ready for a trip to the UK. As I compiled a list of places I’d hoped to visit, I showed my husband a picture of one of Mary Delany’s 18th C. “paper mosaics” (as she called them) in an old book. How nice, I said, if it turned out that I got to see one at the British Museum (which houses her work). He, a university researcher, told me to write to the British Museum and request to see the collection. I think I laughed. I had no academic affiliation. But I wrote anyway. They replied that I should call to arrange an appointment after I’d arrived in the UK, and to be sure to bring my passport when I came to the Students’ Room in the Department of Prints and Drawings.

I’d expected to spend a couple of hours looking at the Delanys. Given the context in which I’d only ever seen pictures of her work — old black and white crafts books and the like — I’d been under the impression that the paper mosaics were quaint little flower pictures — probably a curiosity, really.

Then I saw them in person. I was astonished by their intricacy and ingenuity. They had just the right kind of balance that collage work should have. They weren’t pictures of flowers that happened to be done in cut paper, but, rather, the cut paper aspect was an integral part of their being. It provided a texture and blending of space and a sculptural element that another medium simply could not provide. How, I wondered, could these amazing, botanically accurate plant portraits in paper not be given more credit for their place in the history of collage?

But then again work in paper, in general, has traditionally never been taken all that seriously in the art world. It has been considered the stuff of commercial displays and folk crafts, unless, of course, it was taken up as a side venture by an established male painter, á la Picasso or Matisse. Then it’s been innovative. If it was done by an 18th C. female amateur and the subject matter was flowers…

What was originally supposed to have been an hour or two in the Students’ Room turned, instead, into days of complete immersion in the Mary Delany collection. It was hard to pull myself from these incredible bits of cutting and pasting history.

And, it should be noted, history is a key word here. Mary Delany herself was an interesting person. She was an 18th Century aristocrat who knew the King and Queen and their family. She mingled in circles with Handel and Swift, among others. The letters she wrote have been collected and published and are famed to this day. Many of the paper mosaics have, I discovered, notations on the back recording events that occurred as she worked on each piece. These include such things as visits from members of the Royal Family. These dated to around when the American Revolution was happening. She began to make the paper mosaics when she was 72, and continued until her eyesight failed ten years later. She made nearly 1,000 of them.

Fashions change, in art and opinion, and these days I’m beginning to feel vindicated. Mrs. Delany’s reputation in collage, and, indeed, the status of art made from paper in general, is rising. I’ve been enjoying the recently released — and rather lush –companion book/catalogue for Mrs. Delany and Her Circle, an exhibit that ended this month at the Yale Center for British Art. 

What a joy it is to read lavishly illustrated, serious essays about Mrs. Delany’s place in paper art history. Among other things, it includes chapters devoted to the technical aspects of how the collages were made, including analyses of the papers and tools she used. It also includes top-notch reproductions of her work, not just of the collages, but of her drawings and of the embroidered court dress she made as well.

The dedication in Mrs. Delany and Her Circle is to Ruth Hayden, a descendent of Mary Delany’s sister and the author of another recommended book, Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers.

Mrs. Mary Delany

Art historians annoy me. Nothing personal if you happen to be one, mind you. It’s just that I get ticked off whenever I read an official art history version of how collage came to be. The Cubists, we are told, invented collage. When Picasso and Braque decided to paste some scraps to their paintings, this became a brilliant revelation that changed the course of modern art. Bleh. People had been doing things, some of it quite interesting, with cut paper for centuries before the Cubists. But generally these people were women or peasants or their day jobs didn’t involve working in a traditionally accepted fine art medium such as oil paint, so they don’t count.
The Georgian aristocrat Mrs. Mary Delany (1700-1788) was one of those interesting characters in collage history. I wrote about her on my website:

Beginning at age 72 and continuing for ten years until her eyesight began to fail, she created almost 1,000 botanical illustrations from cut paper. Her pictures were made with incredibly intricate detail. She would cut out with exact precision each tiny detail of a plant—individual stamens, bits of pollen, cactus spines… She called her works “Paper Mosaicks.”

One of the great joys of my life was getting to study a majority of these in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. They have now scanned the entire collection of nearly 1,000 of these works and made it available online.

And while I was browsing on the web, I discovered that the Yale Center for British Art is currently having a show about her. It even got a mention on a NY Times blog, and a nice review of it was in the Hartford Courant [update–since deleted]. It ends by saying “…Delany, in her quiet way, continues to influence artists hundreds of years later.” She certainly has influenced me.

Fairy Tales and Paper Cuttings

I’ve long had a soft spot for Hans Christian Andersen. He was a depressive who lived with very bad teeth at a time when dentistry wasn’t exactly what it is now. He lived in constant pain. He never really fit in wherever he was, and didn’t particularly care much for his home town. This wasn’t someone who wrote cheery stories, by and large. He was also something of a visionary. He once wrote about how he imagined the world in the year 2000, when Americans will fly to Europe in great airships with wings. They will telegraph their hotel reservations ahead, and come with guide books that will tell them what to see. And flying will be such a fast mode of transportation that the airships will be crowded and the people will be able to come see all the sights in a week before flying home again. He wrote this in the mid 19th C.

But in addition to writing, he was an obsessive paper cutter. He also made collages out of scraps, some of which look as modern as a Schwitters. According to the Odense City Museum:
To Hans Christian Andersen paper was not meant to be media for the written word only. Paper—it seems—represented the basis for his imaginative expressing. Throughout his life Hans Christian Andersen was an addict to paper. He wrote on it, he drew on it—and he used it

to cut in. Like the ancient expression that the form and art was hidden in the stone, only to be revealed by the sculptor, the poet used his material—the paper—to engrave, or rather to carve out his ideas with ink. And more radically he used his unexpected monstrous scissors to cut out the most elegant figures. (Odense City Museum)

The museum site has some pictures of his scherrenschnitte-style papercuttings, as well as his famous collage/decoupage screen. I also found this charming little paper rocking chair. Delightful, no?
And just to end on an appropriately surreal note, during my searches I discovered that the Irish Museum of Modern Art once had an exhibit called Cut-outs and Cut-ups: Hans Christian Andersen and William Seward Burroughs (yes, that William Burroughs).