Astrid Berglund from the Pully Museum before Andy Warhol’s Mao wallpaper, 1973

To celebrate wallpaper not as decoration, but as a new medium for artistic expression, the mudac in Lausanne and Pully museum present a landmark exhibition. Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jenny Holzer are amongst the 50 international artists and designers whose wallpapers, some of them rarely seen before, are included in the show. The result is elegant, intriguing and not a little provocative.

“Covering the wall. Contemporary wallpapers” – a close collaboration between mudac, the Lausanne museum of contemporary design and applied arts, and the Pully museum – celebrates the artistic revival of wall paper.

Long abandoned in favour of white wall minimalism, wallpaper is now being revitalized and revisited.

Contemporary artists over the past ten years have become interested in a medium that offers the possibility to make a statement in a profoundly poetic manner while finding a way into people’s homes.

Inspired by Warhol’s forays into art multiplication in the 70s (his 1973 Mao wallpaper is in the exhibition), publishers have followed closely behind.

Independent curator Marco Costantini is one of the first art historians to have become interested in the use of wallpaper by contemporary artists and designers. The exhibition he has organized for Lausanne and Pully is a panorama of his research started in 2002 and includes several gems.

Studio Job, Perished, 2005 © Studio Job, one of several wallpapers that use disquieting images to remarkable decorative effect

Dan Graham, Two-Way Mirror Hedge Labyrinth For Korea, 2009  © Dan Graham, Courtesy Maharam (New York)

Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82 and Sarah Lucas, Tits inspace, 2000
make strong statements of subtle feminism

“We are experiencing a revolution in wallpaper,” he says, “as it abandons its decorative purpose to become something more meaningful.”

Working on the preparation of the exhibition for the last three years, Costantini has divided the display into 13 themes, which he has organized to spectacular effect in the two museums.

Topics covered range from consumerism to political statements, but they also include colour-by number decors, effective hybridizations between different patterns and some examples that are boldly ironic or simply humoristic.

Reviewed within the context of the development of contemporary art, the show reflects a clear return to narration by many artists. These are walls that tell stories.

Rudolf Herz, Zugzwang, 1995, with the ironic juxtaposition of portraits of Marcel Duchamp and Adolf Hitler taken by same photographer. Custom-edited to fit a room at mudac, the work is exposed for only the third time

Virgil Marti, Beer Can Library, 1997 (left) and Claude Closky, Sans titre (Supermarché), 1996-99 (right)

It also opens a door to the democratisation of art. Although several of the wallpapers by artists can only be obtained through their galleries, others can be purchased directly through publishers. Wallpapers by artists and Maharam even provide online catalogues.

The work by the designers on the other hand has always been more readily available, although an opening frontier due to the potential of new technologies is producing interesting developments. Wallpapers that heat, absorb sound or respond to Iphones (by complete the display at mudac.

Other designers come up with novel ways to hang wallpapers. M/M (Paris), composed of Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak, consider that their wallpaper should be treated as a poster that is hung by stapling only the upper corners to the wall.

“I was really interested to work together with museums that have fundamentally different vocations,” Costantini told Swisster. The mudac covers design, whereas Pully is essentially dedicated to the fine arts.

“By showing how very contemporary artists and designers are rediscovering the medium, but how wallpapers are dissolving the frontiers between their two practices,” he believes that the joint exhibition acts something like a metaphor.

“Some happy accidents have occurred,” Costantini observes, when, for example, Damien Hirst’s butterfly wallpaper echoes the beauty of the original painting on the wooden beams of the mudac, or a fireplace in Pully interrupts a wallpapered surface that beckons old-fashioned portraits.

He admits that the exhibition is also a tribute to his own grandfather, a house painter whom he often saw papering walls.

Brigitte Ziegler, Shooting Wallpaper, 2008, video projection © Brigitte Ziegler
The artist highjacks the pastoral scenes of Toile de Jouy with the interruption of a blasting device like a tank

The two museums where the exhibition takes place have been stripped bare to allow the wallpapers to be plastered directly on the vertical surfaces: the 60 different examples espouse the space and are set out in a way where miraculously none rivals the other.

“Both were originally homes,” says Chantal Prod’Hom, director of mudac, “and this project, although ephemeral, allows them to regain their initial status.”

The fact that the project is purpose-built, custom-tailored and site-specific gives it a natural beauty and elegance, while being eye-arresting and intellectually engaging.

“We decided on this radical approach, accepting the fact that the exhibition cannot travel, since the wallpapers will be ripped off at the end,” which is why, Chantal Prod’Hom explains, the teams from the two museums have produced a milestone catalogue in English and French.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy Wallpaper, 1997-2004, (c) Hirst Holdings Limited & Damien Hirst (all rights reserved, 2010) / 2010 Prolitteris Zurich

“The project grew out of a common desire to show how wallpaper is positioned at the crossroad of art and design,” says Delphine Rivier, who directs the Pully museum, highlighting the fact that the project was able to grow in size and importance due to an “exceptional partnership” that doubled the surfaces.

She believes that the project is opening a new field of research, as the many art historians who contributed to the catalogue appear to testify.

“But two museums were not enough,” she jests, so they have also teamed up with the Swiss national museum Château de Prangins that is presenting From wall to wallpaper, subtitled ‘The poetry of walls’.

A rich collection of examples from the 16th century to the contemporary are on show until May 1, 2011, with tickets that can be combined with Pully and Lausanne.

“I wasn’t at all convinced by the subject,” Jean-François Thonney, mayor of Pully, said at the opening, “but I’m delighted by the result.”

“It is the role of cultural institutions to lead us to discoveries and this team has surpassed itself,” he said.

A roundtable discussion will take place on Sunday, November 21 at the Pully Museum with the participation of Gill Saunders, Senior curator of prints, Victoria & Albert Museum, London (UK). Entrance and a brunch will be free.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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