Most museums offer us either art or artefact, but the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes’ latest exhibit has managed to do both. Paper, an unlikely star, is the diverse collection’s unifying factor. Papel means both “paper” and “role” in Spanish, giving “Papeles Modernos: de Toulouse-Lautrec a Picasso” an aptly multidimensional name. Like the word, paper is both simple vehicle for art and witness to its creation. In devoting itself to such a simple element, “Modern Paper” takes us through the public and the private and towards an understanding of the modern moment.

Curator Ángel M. Navarro drew a compilation of about 80 pieces from the museum’s late 19th and early 20th century European trove and grouped them thematically into seven sections. The sections are accompanied by an explanation of historical dynamics and how they affected the artistic community at the time. Together, they show visitors how the medium of paper spans the private first sketch of a nascent concept to the extreme accessibility of poster art.

Although the careful lighting and perfect framing give the room typical formality, a closer look at many of the pieces reveals torn edges, smudges, blotches, and yellowing. The works bear the marks of their own creation. This is especially true of the “Studies”, “Portraits”, “Eloquence of the Image”, and “The Nude” sections, all of which are eerily illustrative of their authors’ circumstances and thought processes, if not directly autobiographical.

As Navarro puts it, “They are works that arose as explorations, experimentations, or searches of determined subjects, free studies that eventually could be used in a future piece. They could also be drawings that document the room in which an artist produces, and that he keeps in his workshop.” In other words, they are drills, warm-ups, first drafts, and doodles. Perhaps some could even be deemed illustrated diaries.

In the corner section called “The Nudes”, the use of the human body breaks from strictly religious, mythological, and instructive purposes and emerges as a worthwhile subject in its own right. Both poles of that transformation are present. Colourful portraits speak to their emboldened creators’ deliberateness in depicting the nude body. In contrast, Auguste Rodin’s trio of scribbled figures are particularly intriguing for their difference from his meticulously moulded sculptures. They seem hardly there, anchored only by their shy pencil stroke shadows.

In others, the masters themselves offer us self-reflections. One has to contemplate Pablo Picasso’s self-analysis as he draws “Painter and Model Knitting”, his subject concentrated on the yarn in her fingers, the painter fixated on her face. In James Ensor’s self-portrait, “Demons Torturing Me”, the artist sits among a crowded page of monsters drawing near, his eyes bulging. Above him is a sign which removes all doubt about the identity of the victim: “J. Ensor 1895”, a confession of his suffering.

At the other end of the spectrum are the mass-produced and widely-distributed works, made possible by the rising use of the lithograph, which enabled printed art to reach wider audiences through advertisements, magazines, and newspapers. The “Diffusion” section explains this new accessibility and offers a sample of the art that became part of Europeans’ day-to-day lives. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s iconic depictions of Parisian diversion are a classic example. The cool sophistication of the redheaded lady surrounded by the furore of the concert in “Divan Japonois” gave its viewers a taste of the late night café and gives us a taste of the times.

Between the promotional posters and divulging self-portraits, “Papeles Modernos” does bridge the extremes of private and public. A couple of sections, namely “Urban Landscapes” and “Eloquence of the Image”, place the individual in his geographical and political context. Henry de Waroquier’s “Venice” stands out especially, the city’s roofs and cupolas extending into the background while its citizens scuttle across the plazas, small but heavily marked.

“Modern Paper” allows a peek into the artistic process of some of Europe’s most influential minds and in their roughness, the pieces seem more intimate, and in some ways more genuine. Highly reproduced works also give us a sense of what reached the public at large and became part of a common experience. Navarro draws attention to the artwork’s implications for the present: “It should be evident that many of the foreign artists in the heterogeneous ensemble… are those who opened pathways in expressive and technical problems, facilitating the multiplicity of expressions that today’s art offers us.” It is a privilege to see that process on the page.

Tues-Fri 12.30pm-8.30pm
Sat-Sun 9.30am-8.30pm
On display until 3rd March, 2013
Free entrance
Written explanations in Spanish only
Avenida del Libertador 1473
Temporary Exposition Pavilion

Originally published at The Argentina Independent.