Abstraction before Abstraction – Turkish Paper

Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Colored paper (stone marble), Unknown, 18th century, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Colored paper is paper whose surface has been colored, impregnated, painted, printed, or embossed. There are many such techniques for processing paper. But the art of marbling for so-called “Turkish paper” is regarded as the “king among methods for creating colored paper,” to cite Peter Jessen, the first director of the Library of the Berlin Kunstgewerbe Museum (today the Kunstbibliothek, or Art Library).

Colored paper (snail marble), Unknown, 18th century, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In a report of his journeys through Turkey, published in 1615, the English traveler George Sandys was the first to mention colorful marbled paper: “The remarkable cloud patterns of their paper, which cover the surface densely in a highly colorful marble-style configuration, is manufactured with the help of a trick through immersion in water.”

Colored paper (wave marble), Unknown, 18th century, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Much practice is required to master the “trick” of this “dipped” (marbled) paper: the pigments, mixed with ox gall, are applied to the surface of a mixture of water and gum tragacanth by means of splashing with a brush. Then, small sticks or combs are used to maneuver the pigments into a colorful conglomerate of fantastical patterns. This floating carpet of color is then transferred to a sheet of paper, which is then dried.

Calligraphic writing sample on colored paper, Hafiz Osman, c. 1720, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The technique of marbling paper, which originated in the Middle East , became known in Europe in the late 16th century, where its products were hence known as “Turkish paper” or “Turkish marble.” In Turkey, the artfully colored papers served as album leaves, onto which samples of calligraphic handwriting were pasted.

Colored paper (combed marble), Unknown, 18th century, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In his Ars magna lucis et umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow) of 1644, the Jesuit and universal savant Athanasius Kircher included a detailed description to “Turkish paper” – at long last, the “trick” to manufacturing marbled paper on a water’s surface had been revealed. Kircher was fascinated by the luster and beauty of these images (“picturae splendor et pulchritude”), whose diverse possibilities of treatment were said to hold to promise the discovery of endlessly new patterns.

Colored paper (combed marble), Unknown, 18th century, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In 1651, the German poet Georg Philipp Harsdörffer too referred to the technique for “making Turkish paper.” Following a description of the materials and technique involves, he is the first to emphasize the improvisatory virtuosity required for painting on water: “This art calls for great diligence and a nimble hand, the ability to swiftly create diverse forms on the water’s surface directly from the imagination.”

Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot and D’Alembert, 1770, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

During the 18th century, marbled paper was produced in factories. The division of labor involved is described in detail in the French Encyclopédie, which compiled and published the totality of the knowledge available at that time. The paper marbler is a laborer who does not so much paint the paper as stain it with various colors (“qui fait peindre le papier, ou plutôt le tacher de differentes couleurs”). The uniform distribution of pigments results in abstract patterns reminiscent of marble, agate, waves, and ridges. Among the preferred pigments are indigo blue, red from brazilwood or Florentine or madder lake, and ocher yellow.

Encyclopédie Detail Fig. 1-8, Denis Diderot and D’Alembert, 1770, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Fig. 1 The water, mixed with tragacanth, is filtered into a basin through a sieve
Fig. 2 The pigments are prepared by crushing
Fig. 3 The pigments are splashed or flung onto the water
Fig. 4 The creation of colored patterns with the help of combs
Fig. 5 The pigments are transferred to a sheet of paper
Figs. 6-7 The sheet of paper is drained in a bin or vat
Fig. 8 The still moist sheet of paper is suspended from a line

Catalogue of patterns, Georg Christoph Stoy, c. 1730, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This catalog of marbled papers, with original samples created by Johann Christoph Stoy, a manufacturer of colored papers from Augsburg, is an absolute rarity. With information on prices and stock sizes, it also allows purchasers to familiarize themselves with the qualities of the various coloring techniques

Detail of the catalogue of patterns, Georg Christoph Stoy, c. 1730, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Found in Georg Christoph Stoy’s product catalogue are three variants of “Turkish paper,” which display characteristically contrasting patterns.

Galatée, Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, 1793, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Beginning in the 17th century, marbled papers were used as endpapers. The endpapers join the body of the book with the cover at the front and back. They form the first and last pages of the book, and are displayed to the viewer when it is first opened, and then again when it is closed at the end. The marbled paper that was bound into this French book by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian displays an explosion of pigments that produces a swirling torrent of color.

Fables Choisies, Jean de La Fontaine, 1755, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This copy of a celebrated edition of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, featuring numerous engravings after drawings by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, and today in the collection of the Kunstbibliothek, comes from the library of George Drummond, who was Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

Fables Choisies, Jean de La Fontaine, c. 1755, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

His heraldic ex libris has been glued to the endpaper, whose bright coloration and patterning, reminiscent of marble, creates the strongest possible contrast with the severe design of the bookplate.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne, 1788, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In Laurence Sterne’s novel, the fictive narrator relates the comical story of his birth and eccentric family. Rather than presenting a conventional chronology of events, he pursues a series of meandering associations, a technique that anticipates the use of “digression,” a 20th century literary innovation. The narrator’s continual detours are emblematized by a piece of marbled paper, a “motly emblem of my work,” which Sterne uses not as an endpaper, but instead binds directly into the middle of the novel.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne, 1788, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

At considerable expense, the page area normally occupied by a column of text was treated directly with marbling technique, and sewn into the printed book as pages 111-112. Subsequent to the first edition of 1761, however, the publisher decided instead to glue pieces of trimmed marbled paper to the corresponding pages of the book.

Colored paper by Wiener Werkstätte, Josef Hoffmann, 1903/1907, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A liberation from its function as endpapers – effected by Laurence Sterne through its ironic displacement to the center of his book – pointed the way toward new artistic horizons for marbled paper, which now ceased to serve purely decorative purposes and became perceptible as an abstract image – and moreover long before 20th century ‘abstraction.’

Colored paper by Wiener Werkstätte, Carl Beitel, 1903/1907, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In 1904, shortly after the founding of the Wiener Werkstätte, and drawing inspiration from the English Arts and Crafts Movement, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser hired the bookbinder Carl Beitel. In accordance with their credo: “Good materials and consummate technical execution,” colored paper too experienced a renewal through artistic craftsmanship.

Colored paper by Wiener Werkstätte, Josef Hoffmann, 1903/1907, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the marbled papers of the Wiener Werkstätte, small figural forms are blended with abstract color patterns. The typical spectrum of “Turkish papers” encompasses splotches, veins, waves, and snail forms. The artists of the Vienna Secession enjoyed playing with the associations elicited by the patterning, encouraging unexpected figures – principally birds and fish – to emerge on the water’s surface.

Colored paper by Wiener Werkstätte, Koloman Moser, 1903/1907, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In his Critique of Judgment, published in 1790, the philosopher Immanuel Kant defined “free beauty” as a type of beauty that was correspond to no specific function, and which could be enjoyed for its own sake. He had in mind the colorful formal variety of flowers and shells – a century later, the colored papers of the Wiener Werkstätte seem to pursue this idea of free beauty, at the same time showing the way toward the art of abstraction.

Colored paper by Wiener Werkstätte, Koloman Moser, 1903/1907, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In Johann Heinrich Zedler’s Universal Lexicon of 1745 , the patterns appearing on “Turkish paper” are characterized as images that “resemble roses, waves, and clouds, all intermingled with one another.” The magic is said to consist in the mixture of colors, in which one may discover little worlds – or perhaps only a yellow sheet.

Der Blaue Reiter, Wassily Kandinsky und Franz Marc, 1912, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Russian Painter Vasily Kandinsky is regarded today as one of the most important pioneers of abstract art. The almanac Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), edited by Kandinsky together with Franz Marc and published in 1912, served as a manifesto and program of the new art.

Der Blaue Reiter, Wassily Kandinsky, 1912, From the collection of: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In Franz Marc’s words, the Almanach presented “the newest movement in painting in France, Germany, and Russia, demonstrating the fine threads that connect it with the Gothic and the Primitive, with Africa and the great Orient, with folk art and children’s art, so primordial in their expressiveness, and in particular with the modern musical movement in Europe and the new theatrical ideas of our time” – colored paper, with its imaginative abstract patterned imagery had now been forgotten.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Concept and Text: Michael Lailach
Translation: Ian Pepper
Realisation: Justine Tutmann
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Foto: Dietmar Katz
www.smb.museum
Kunstbibliothek

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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