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Whether he is a painter, a sculptor, or an architect, an artist always comes back to paper at some point in their creative process, either for preparatory studies, experiments, design, or self-expression. Minimalist in its form and almost ascetic as material, the paper gives artists ample room for expression and therefore opens up an inexhaustible array of possibilities to transform the material as they see fit.

Demonstrating a particular interest in this material that appears to be fragile in the beginning, many artists of the 20th century have used paper to create works that reveal a new kind of complexity. Selected for its quality or by pure chance, heavyweight or transparent, painted, assembled, glued, cut, or torn, the paper has been the medium for many of the artistic innovations of the 20th century.

Our selection of some 20 works illustrates the variety and vitality of the avant-garde movements. The exhibition highlights different creative approaches and brings together a dialogue of techniques.

“Devant le papier, l'artiste se fait.”

Stéphane Mallarmé, poet and art critic

For the Fauvists — artists of the first avant-garde movement of the 20th century — paper has been their medium of choice as it allows them to play with the motifs that bring out the visual shock with colors. The white space on paper plays a key role in liberating the forms so that the nudes, bathers, and dancing bodies can appear. The characters and landscapes are rendered in a revolutionary way. The Fauvists detach themselves from the object of representation and focus on the artistic aspect. By laying vivid touches of colors on paper, the Fauvists play with the act of perception. “Do not do anything that represents something”, wrote Derain to Matisse.

In the years of the apogee of Fauvism, André Derain painted the Four Bathers (1906) and The Birth of Venus after Botticelli (1905). The two works bear witness to this principle: he appropriated the material with boldness in his way of applying colors while preserving plenty of blank space on the paper.

With Jeune femme nue allongée (1906, Indian ink on paper), Henri Matisse demonstrates his quest for expressiveness: by getting rid of most decorative elements, he simplifies the composition and concentrates on the evocative quality of the female body.

Paper is a common medium for preparatory studies for the artists of the first half of the 20th century, especially to set grids of composition (mise au carreau). These preparatory works are of great interest for understanding the creative process before getting to the final work.

Besides the fact that Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier are well known for their friendship and their common vision in artistic and humanistic matters, they both used paper to set up complex compositions. Fernand Léger leaves the trace of grids visible on his Etude pour Composition polychrome (1951): the artist was thus able to adapt his composition to a large dimension by drawing a network of lines with a pencil.

A fascinating drawing of Le Corbusier documents one of the steps toward the final realization of the emblematic Taureau XII (1956). The drawing shows the palms of the hands, the architectural structure, the chromatic shapes, and the stylized figures — all are structuring elements for the final composition.

View of the exhibition "Face au papier", Galerie A&R Fleury. Photo by SLB

The post-war Paris saw an emerging generation of new artists grouped under the umbrella term of the second “Ecole de Paris”. Whether it’s Lyrical Abstraction or Informal Art, the artists demonstrate a great interest in paper on which they concretize full-fledged and definitive projects. Artists find in paper the ideal material for the kind of art that orients toward gestural writing.

Considered the pioneers of this avant-garde movement, Hans Hartung and Gérard Schneider liberate their gestures and engage their bodies in a renewed abstract language by exploring the artistic possibilities offered by paper as a medium. Currently on view in the gallery, the two works of Hartung and Schneider translate the intensity of their search for spontaneity of expression by experimenting with the effects offered by gouache, ink, and pastel on paper.

Serge Poliakoff’s work is characterized by interlocking patches of colors. By facilitating the inexhaustible possibility of the abstraction, the material of paper, smooth or grainy, allows the painter to explore from another angle the relationship between line and surface, between balance and tension, between transparency and color.

View of the exhibition "Face au papier", Galerie A&R Fleury. Photo by SLB

Paper becomes even more versatile with time: in addition to its delicate quality as a material, it becomes a means of artistic expression in its own right that enables various manipulations or transformations.

On the one hand, the technique collage is one of the best examples of these experiments done on paper. Le Corbusier used paper as colors in his Garder mon aile dans ta main et trois taureaux (1960). The artist cuts up the Salubra paper that he invented as color options.

Other artists like Raymond Hains, on the other hand, follow the logic of subtraction of the material. His work presents a large metal sheet covered with torn posters. By leaving glimpses of typographies on the paper, the artist reveals the beauty of the urban space, sublime but transient.

In line with the material research, we present these two artworks that appear simple at first sight. The volume of the pieces animates by engaging with the space where they are situated.

Alicia Penalba seems to embark on a journey of horizontal lines when creating on paper. This paper collage of matte and glossy black strokes produces a flying sensation associated with her sculptures: the juxtaposition of pieces of paper with torn edges defies gravity with a dynamic that reaches for the sky.

In using paper, Claudine Drai creates a poetic and sensitive universe with all its fragility and delicacy. In this relief painting created with paper, a pure white dominates. Drai creases it, folds it, tears it, and glues it to highlight the silhouettes and landscapes. She plays with the effect of transparency as the light flirts with the surface. She creates a world animated with spiritual forces and contemplative emotions.


Le Corbusier

Garder mon aile dans ta main et trois taureaux, 1960
Collage of gouached papers, of Salubra papers, of black paper and ink on paper
56,7 x 72,6 cm | 22 3/8 x 28 5/8 in.

Fernand Léger, Étude pour composition polychrome


Fernand Léger, À la ferme


Hans Hartung, PAS-12-1947


Serge Poliakoff, Composition bleue


Claudine Drai

Sans titre, 2015
Tissue paper on canvas
80 x 80 x 30 cm | 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 x 11 3/4 in.

Alicia Penalba, Composition abstraite


Raymond Hains, Affiches déchirées sur tôle


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