For a hundred years, artists have been using and abusing newspapers as a vital part of their works. Pungent examples include the Spanish painter Salvador Dali creating an absurd newspaper about himself, the German-born Swiss artist Dieter Roth making a sausage, complete with gelatin and spices, out of copies of the British tabloid Daily Mirror and the American Jim Hodges coating a Jordanian newspaper entirely in 24 karat gold.
Little attention has been paid to this phenomenon by the world’s museums in the past. But these examples and five dozen others now make up a novel exhibition called “Shock of the News” that opened recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and will close Jan. 27. It goes nowhere else.
Judith Brodie, the gallery’s curator of modern prints and drawings and the creator of the show, sets her exhibition’s historical underpinnings in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Massive new rotary presses could turn out fat French newspapers at incredible speed. Free and compulsory education, introduced in France a couple of decades earlier, guaranteed a growing number of readers. By the early 1900s, Parisians bought 6 million copies of newspapers a day.
Since Paris was then the world capital of art, it was natural that this exciting new fashion would soon attract the attention of artists and their associates. Brodie credits two pioneers in Paris as the first to show a way to employ newspapers in art.
The first, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian poet and playwright and future fascist ideologue, managed in 1909 to manipulate Le Figaro, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Europe, into publishing his manifesto for an artistic movement called “futurism” on its front page. The wild-eyed manifesto called for the glorification of war and the obliteration of the past by destroying museums, libraries and academies. It was an odd article for the front page of the respected Le Figaro.
Marinetti, who grew up in Egypt, made the front page by wooing the only daughter of a family friend, Mohammed El Rachi Pascia, a wealthy Egyptian tycoon and major stockholder in Le Figaro. To please his daughter and her suitor, El Rachi Pascia browbeat the editors into publishing the manifesto.
In the view of Brodie, Marinetti, who never married the young lady, had succeeded in “hijacking” Le Figaro. This opened the way for artists afterward to manipulate and mock newspapers and the idea of newspapers, much like Dalí did with his “Dalí News” in 1945 and Roth did with his sausage-like “Literaturwurst (Daily Mirror)” in 1961.
The second pioneer was Pablo Picasso. The Spanish painter cut out a piece of the Paris newspaper Le Journal in 1912 and pasted it into a collage called “Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass.” In the exhibition catalog, Brodie writes this “is widely considered the first self-consciously modern work of art to incorporate real newsprint.”
Picasso may have been trying to send some kind of message. His clipping includes the fragment of a headline that says in French, “The battle is joined...” The clipping also cuts the name of the newspaper so it reads only “LE JOU...” Picasso might have been playing a joke here, for “jou” are the first letters of several French words including those that mean day or toy or, in slang, an aspect of sexual pleasure.
Picasso’s innovation led to many artists using newspapers as an integral part of their material, sometimes displaying the headlines and news stories as a kind of message, sometimes covering up the news pages, as Hodges did in 2008 when he gilded the newspaper Al Arab Al Yawm and called the work “Good News.”
There has been no slowdown. Despite the declining circulation of newspapers in the age of the Internet, Brodie says that contemporary artists of the 21st century have been using newspapers in their work even more than their predecessors.
The exhibition makes no attempt to divide the artists between those following Marinetti’s direction and those following Picasso’s. It is sometimes confusing to differentiate them, in any case, and a number of the artists seem to follow both pioneers at the same time. But the exhibition does demonstrate that, in the wake of the Marinetti and Picasso openings, artists have maintained a fascinating and continual interplay with newspapers for a century.
“The Venal Press,” a 1929 montage by the Russian photographer Semen Fridliand that shows a batch of Parisian newspapers molded to the face of a woman and blocking her vision.
A colorful 1943-44 mural by Hans Richter, the German-born American Dada painter and moviemaker, who uses lengthy newspaper clippings to tell the story of the battle of Stalingrad during World War II. The work is titled “Stalingrad (Victory in the East).”
A 1949 cutout, “Head With a Beard,” in which the American painter Ellsworth Kelly has cut a portrait of his own features out of a piece of a newspaper page.
“Modernist Struggle,” a 2008 work that looks as if the American artist Paul Sietsema has thrown paint on a pair of clippings from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The clippings look dog-eared and colored by age, but they are not clippings at all. Sietsema has drawn them painstakingly in ink. In the artistic tradition of trompe l’oeil, they have been rendered to trick the viewer into believing they are real.