BROUGHT TO BOOK: RIDDLE BY ANGELA LORENZ
by Gill Saunders, Wallpaper History Review 1995
To readers of this journal the riddle posed by Angela Lorenz will be readily unraveled. The mysterious 'it' that has "'imposed of censored books', 'reviled by Balzac',"'defiled by Whistler', 'accused of imitation for over 500 years' and yet 'still persists in closets and cupboards, even in books', is, of course, wallpaper. A maker of witty and original book works, Lorenz has encapsulated an idiosyncratic history of wallpaper in the pages of A Riddle (Bologna, 1994). Her inspiration for the venture was drawn largely from the Victoria & Albert Museum's rich collection of historic papers and, as befits the book form, there is much play on wallpaper's relationship to the printed word.
Wallpaper itself, like the riddle, plays the 'what am I?' game from its very beginning, when it masquerades as everything from velvet and tapestry to leather and wood. Lorenz has seen in wallpaper's deceitful nature layers of ambiguity and contradiction. It is a tissue of lies, obliterating, dissembling, and counterfeiting.
The book itself is full of counterfeits-'pretend' fragments of wallpaper copied in linocut and collograph, pasted in, in the manner of a sample book. It is nested in grey foam (of the kind used for book supports in the V&A Print Room), shut inside a dark-blue, cloth-bound box resembling the standard solander boxes which house much of the V&A's collection of wallpaper fragments. The first page gives a facsimile of a Georgian tax duty stamp-the ultimate penalty for the evasion of duty was death. The second reproduces a paper from a House of Lords committee room, and the last is from a prison room in the same building (the originals of both are found in a book of cuttings of papers designed especially for the Houses of Parliament from 1851-59).
The misrepresentation of Eastern ornament as perpetrated in Chinoiserie is alluded to in the next piece which derives from the 17th century Easton Neston flock with its ludicrous amalgam of 'India' and 'Chinese' motifs, palm trees and pagodas.
Wallpaper as the weapon of the censor is its next incarnation-published works deemed blasphemous or seditious were, in several instances, confiscated and over-printed with patterns for use as wallpaper. Lorenz uses the example of Hobbes' Leviathan, ordered by the Bishop of London to be 'damasked' or obliterated in 1673. She might equally well have chosen a later example, the profanities of Ovid's Metamorphoses, transformed by overprinting into a sheet of floral wallpaper, where the words, still visible, become an abstract pattern (see illustration). Wallpaper has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the printed word, alternately censor or support. During the US Civil War shortage of paper compelled the resourceful inhabitants of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to print a single sheet newspaper, the Daily Citizen (July 2, 1863) on pages from a wallpaper sample book; in World War II, old newspapers were overprinted as wallpapers because there was no other paper available for such non-essential purposes.
Wallpaper has been reviled for ugliness; it has even been held responsible for inducing depression and hysteria. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novel The Yellow Wallpaper the heroine's descent into madness and despair is charted through her morbid fantasies about the wallpaper in her imprisoning bedroom, a projection of the claustrophobic mania of her marriage. She emphasizes the disturbing ugliness of the paper embodying the demons that destroy her sanity. Balzac's criticisms of wallpaper are illustrated by Lorenz with a linocut copy of a French paper from 1799 crossed through and labeled 'discontinued' as found in marked-up sample books used by manufacturers and retailers.
Whistler committed the defilement as part of his decorative interventions in the Peacock Room (1876-7) he designed for Frederick Leyland. An expensive, embossed leather already lined the walls; Whistler saw this as incompatible with his scheme for the re-decoration and so had it overpainted a deep blue-green, provoking Leyland to a lawsuit. Lorenz shows a textured collograph printed to simulate the leather, overpainted with acrylic tempera.
The generally assertive nature of wallpaper was revolutionized in the early 1930s by the Bauhaus, which created subtle small-scale patterns, represented here by beige basket-weave designs. The deceitful, imitative character of wallpaper is represented by a collograph of faux wood.
The oldest wallpapers have survived not on walls, but lining cupboards,
closets, chests, and as endpapers and book-covers. Indeed the earliest
producers and retailers of wallpaper were stationers and booksellers.
Lorenz has made of wallpaper a puzzle, a secret. She emphasizes the
way in which fragments of wallpaper function as a series of clues to
their own identity, and to a larger history. Here wallpaper is compelled
to provide some answers, literally brought to book.