Art Term Tuesday: Papier-mâché

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Papier-mâché is a crafty technique that most of us have encountered in our lives, likely in an elementary school art project – I remember making a colorful orb in second or third grade! There are two methods of creating something from papier-mâché: the strips of paper method and the paper pulp method. With strips of paper, long strips of paper are glued together with an adhesive and then layered on top of one another for strength. The paper pulp option uses pulp, obtained by soaking or boiling paper, then adds glue to the drained mixture for sculpting. Both options can be used independently or in conjunction with a wire armature or skeleton to provide support. Once the papier-mâché is dry, it can be sanded, painted, and even waterproofed – hence why it’s so popular among elementary school art teachers! While most readers may have similar experiences with papier-mâché, what you may not know is that it has a history dating back thousands of years, making it one of the oldest artistic media.

The earliest evidence we have of a culture using papier-mâché dates all the way back to the Han dynasty in 200 A.D., in Imperial China. The Hans started using papier-mâché soon after they invented what we’d think of today as modern paper. The technique was used in a variety of methods, from warrior helmets and mirror cases to snuff boxes and ceremonial masks. Papier-mâché has also shown up in artifacts from Ancient Egypt as coffins and death masks, from the Middle and Far East as small painted boxes and trays, and in India it is still regarded as a luxury, ornamental handicraft. Papier-mâché was also used in Europe around 1540 in the construction of dolls heads.

Clyde Connell, American, 1901-1998. No. 4. Papier-mâché and metal over wood, 1990. Gift of Ian and Mimi Rolland, 2007.21. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

By the 18th and 19th century, papier-mâché was widely used in Europe as a low-cost alternative for the base of gilded frames or architecture. It was also useful in constructing coach doors and chair backs. This may come as a surprise, but when mixed and used properly, papier-mâché can be surprisingly durable. To achieve the necessary strength for a coach door or chairback, sheets of papier-mâché were laminated and treated with linseed oil, which made them waterproof. These sheets were pressed into whatever shape needed then laid over wood or metal armatures to be strong enough to support the weight and movement of a closing door or keep a chairback structurally sound. You may still be thinking that laminated paper wouldn’t make a very strong chair, however, before the late 19th century, chairs for the upper-middle class (who could afford fancy, papier-mâché chairs) did not buy most of their furniture for comfort but for prestige and decoration. The sitter spent most of their time perched on the front edge, thus placing an insignificant amount of pressure or wear on the back of the chair – they wouldn’t be caught slouching or throwing themselves onto a chair like we do today. Russian artisans perfected the technique of papier-mâché and had a thriving ornamental papier-mâché industry that was featured in Tiffany & Co. catalogues beginning in 1893 through the fall of Imperial Russia in 1917.

Perhaps one of the most well-known uses of papier-mâché in the United States comes from Mexico, where the material is used extensively in religious celebrations such as Día de los Muertos. In Mexico, papier-mâché is often used to create piñatas, mjigangas (giant puppets), masks, and dolls representing either religious or cultural figures. The technique was brought to Mexico during the colonial period to create items for the Church, and has continued to flourish.

While we can see that papier-mâché has a long history, why doesn’t it show up more in fine art? Part of this could be because it is considered more of a “craft” than a fine art, and is thus relegated to the sidelines. Another reason could be that papier-mâché does in fact show up in fine art but is often used in conjunction with other techniques (mixed media), and is therefore overlooked.

Clyde Connell, American, 1901-1998. No. 5. Papier-mâché and metal over wood, 1990. Gift of Ian and Mimi Rolland, 2007.22. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The work of Clyde Connell gives us an example of the subtle use of papier-mâché in mixed media works. In her sculptures No. 4 and No. 5, you may not see how papier-mâché has been utilized at first – the works appear to be comprised of mostly wood and metal objects. Upon closer inspection, we can see a lightly textured covering over the entire base of the sculpture. This is papier-mâché! Delicately used to create a sense of “skin” in Connell’s sculptures. Influenced by the harsh disparities of growing up in Jim Crow era Louisiana, Connell’s work reflects on race and the human experience. By incorporating a skin-like texture through the use of papier-mâché, she gives her abstract, anthropomorphic sculptures a living, human quality; allowing viewers to connect with her art.

There are still artists who use papier-mâché as the main element in their sculptures, like Dennis McNett. McNett who often utilizes the material in creating immersive sculptures representing his own interpretation of Native American and Norse mythology. We see this in Tale of the Rainbow Crow, below, which consists of four papier-mâché birds suspended by wires against a vibrant backdrop. Through the use of papier-mâché, McNett was able to craft sculptures easily suspended from the ceiling – if he had used a different material, such as wood, the works would be immensely heavy; whereas, papier-mâché atop a wire armature allows for large, but still lightweight, works of art. Also, due to papier-mâché’s aforementioned strength, McNett was able to construct birds that are impressively large that are able to support themselves.

Dennis McNett, American, b. 1972. Tale of the Rainbow Crow. Papier-mâché, wood, acrylic paint, and wire, 2015. Museum purchase, 2018.295.1 – .54. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Whether it is the primary media in a work of art or one of many, it’s clear that papier-mâché continues to be utilized by artists and craft-makers alike. From its beginnings as utilitarian snuffboxes to fine works of art, papier-mâché is limited by only the creator’s imagination.

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