Papering Paris

December. Montmartre. Mid-morning. Falling snow melting on empty tables and chairs. Artists hastily covering their paintings with plastic sheets. And on the ground, delicate white deer tracks running across the cobblestones. Suddenly I was staring at a deer that stared back at me.

The deer was a work of surreptitiously placed art. Its creator must have printed it on thin paper, cut it out and glued it to the wall, another installation in Paris’s large and ever-changing collection of Street Art.

The city’s visual richness keeps drawing us back to Paris, and street art is a huge part of that. As I see it, street art does not include tagging and undecipherable messages sprayed on walls and shops fronts. Street art—in paper, ceramics, painted freehand, or created with stencils—should indicate wit, forethought, and artistic talent. And it should somehow belong where it is found.

Item: Our Lady of the Black Tights.

Perhaps she is still in the 4th arrondissement, where we met her on Rue Aubry Le Boucher in December 2008. Finely proportioned, lively, and carefully executed, she seems to belong where she is. At the same time, she stands out alone within the larger street environment. However, when joined by pedestrians, she somehow seems more animated, exhorting us to a sprightly walk: Come on, folks, put a little more energy into it.

On another day’s ambling along in the Marais, I encountered Alfred Hitchcock and the Musical Lady. I am sure they did not come to the party together. The styles are too different. Perhaps the wrinkled directorial Hitchcock arrived first and someone thought he needed a female lead.

Hitchcock liked female leads who were mysterious and our Musical Lady certainly fits the bill. How does one explain that, except for her arms and legs, she is made entirely of a collage of layered sheet music? What is the message of the music? Is there a message?

You don’t have to look for street art. It will find you. Part of the experience is the way you come upon it – the moment at which you spot it, the angle of approach, the point at which you grasp what it is you are looking at.

Philippa and I had just emerged from Notre Dame du Travail (our favourite Paris church and definitely a subject for a future blog) in the 14th and were headed towards the Gare Montparnasse. As we approached this modern apartment complex, we saw something on a pale wall.

As we walked towards him, he resolved himself into a man, who grew larger and more distinct.

So distinct, we could see he was disappearing.

Paper-based street art will do that. It’s ephemeral and unless deliberately torn down, it ages gradually and gracefully. Then it is gone.

But will all paper-based street art age gracefully? What will happen now that some of it has become the high-priced art of galleries and auctions? It appears more and more frequently in art magazines and journals. One of its most mysterious practitioners, a British artist known only as Banksy, has even directed Exit Through the Gift Shop, a mockumentary satirizing the world of street art (Banksy appears in the film but his face is never revealed).

We don’t know where street art is going, we do know it will continue and take new and as-yet-unimaginable forms. The stern warnings painted on or carved into the stone on government building in Paris remind us that street art is not new: Défense d’Afficher Loi du 29 juillet 1881. Indeed, the enamelled Défense d’Afficher sign put up so many years ago on Rue de Gergovie has now become art itself.

It in no way belittles the quality of the artworks themselves to say I would probably find them less interesting if they were captured and presented in a gallery, even though some works seem too good to lose to the ravages of time and weather. And yet the transformation over time and the beauty of decay are also too good to lose. One hopes we will have both and if the history of French street art is anything to go by there is no reason to worry, no reason to

at least on that front.

Text and photographs copyright Norman R. Ball

Links: For an introduction to paper street art, see Sticker City: Paper Graffiti Art, by Claudia Walde, Thames and Hudson, 2007.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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4 Responses to Papering Paris

  1. Sab says:

    A fascinating posting Norman, and all the more so as I’m totally involved in the street universe you’re talking about!

  2. Adam says:

    I agree that street art belongs where it is found, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with all your definitions. I’ve spoken to several artists, and there is quite a gulf between the ‘paper’ artists and the grafitti artists. It was Blek le Rat who ‘invented’ paper street art because he kept getting arrested and this method gave him a quick way of putting up his creations without getting caught. However, many street artists today see the paper artists as almost cheating. Is it street art when most of it is created in a studio? The street is then gallery rather than place of creation.

  3. Phil Beard says:

    I have to confess that I’ve paid very little attention to this. With a few exceptions, I’m no great admirer of graffiti or street art – much of it seems to be vandalism of the built environment or primitive scent marking. But I quite like the ‘paper art’ – it’s a low level intervention and ephemeral, with an element of wit that’s not often present in graffiti. After reading this I shall look more closely in future. I entirely agree about Notre Dame du Travail – a splendid exercise in recycled iron-work from the Palais de l’Industrie.

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