6 questions to ask when buying works on paper
An expert introduction to the category, illustrated with works by Miró, Klee, Degas, Cézanne and more, offered in the Impressionist & Modern Works on Paper sale on 21 June at Christie’s in London
Encompassing a diverse range of media — from drawing and painting to collage and beyond — works on paper can offer a glimpse into the artist’s creative process. For many, the freedom and immediacy afforded by working on paper became instrumental to their practices, spawning new techniques, subjects and methods.
In the second half of his career, for example, Joan Miró experimented with an ever-increasing variety of mediums and techniques — using objet trouvés, various supports, or burning the canvas. This spirit of experimentation resulted in such incredible works as the large, raw and colourful Personnage, oiseaux (above).
Not confined to studies and experiments, works on paper represent important modes of art-making in their own right.
On average, works on paper do tend to cost less than paintings — though of course they cover a wide range of price points.
It’s a category that allows you to buy a work by a leading name that might otherwise stretch your budget in another medium, such as Paul Cézanne’s small but incredibly striking Autoportrait, a rare example of a self-portrait by the artist.
Major museum and gallery exhibitions have underlined the central importance of works on paper to many different artists.
Works on paper were vital to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose drawings and paintings represented a constant, direct outpouring of creativity. Numerous solo exhibitions have been dedicated to these works, and they played a key role in the groundbreaking 2017-18 Barbican show, Basquiat: Boom for Real.
The acclaimed recent retrospective of David Hockney’s career at Tate Britain, meanwhile — recently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — devoted an entire room to works on paper, displaying the keen, delicate visual immediacy that underpins Hockney’s entire practice.
Its not just contemporary works on paper that have significant exhibition histories. Birnen-Destillation, an early work by Paul Klee, for example, has been exhibited extensively in Germany. In 2001 it was included in the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation. Hailing from the same private collection as Trauerblumen, another Klee work on paper which sold at Christie’s in February 2018 for £512,750, it features the artist’s trademark inscription and hand-mounting process, which served to both catalogue his works and declare them complete.
Many artists placed working on paper at the core of their practices. For Basquiat, an avid draughtsman since childhood, paper was a transportable outlet for his visual imagination. Basquiat considered drawing a key means of expression in its own right and no less significant an art form than painting; his works on paper are notable for their remarkable range, incorporating oilstick, crayon, acrylic, pen, pencil and watercolour.
Perhaps no one better mastered pastel than Edgar Degas, whose use of the medium on paper was fresh and incredibly modern. Pastel opened his technique to a realm of new motifs, allowing him to capture even the most fugitive postures of his female models — something that was nearly impossible to achieve using traditional oil paint.
Not only did the malleability of pastel enable Degas to religiously study the movements of dancers and bathers, as in Après le bain, trois femmes (above), it allowed him to experiment with colour to a degree he had not experienced before. In Degas’ mature period, when he defined himself predominantly as a pastellist, he became bolder in his use of different textures, often juxtaposing pastel with gouache, thinned oil or watercolour to increase the intensity and luminosity of his works.
This is a question that has always been central to this market. By its nature, paper is fragile, and up until fairly recently this was a factor that made some collectors nervous — particularly those who lived in countries with high humidity or prone to extreme changes in temperature, which could impact the material in drawings.
Today, significant advances in conservation have removed many concerns collectors might have once had. Most framers now know to use archival material in their work. For collectors, conserving a work can be as simple as making sure that their frame has the right type of glass in it. If a work is not under protective glass, however, it’s a good idea to avoid direct exposure to very strong sunlight, or hanging works above hot radiators, for example.
Executed circa 1915, Fernand Léger’s Dessin de guerre is a testament to just how durable works on paper can be if correctly cared for. After being conscripted to the French army’s Engineering Corps in August 1914, Léger executed this work on paper at the front lines of the Battle of Verdun, and sent it as a gift to the Russian avant-garde power couple Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. Although many of the works Léger executed at the front are in vulnerable condition — due to their long histories and, of course, the rough conditions in which they were made — the bright white gouache in Dessin de guerre has stood the test of time.
It’s not unusual to find a drawing without a signature. But this hardly means that it is not authentic. Cézanne, for example, rarely signed his works on paper, as in the case of Paysage (environs de Melun?). But the work’s excellent provenance and exhibition history, as well as the artist’s distinctive mark-making, point to its undoubted authenticity. Written about as early as 1926 and held in the Estorick collection since the 1960s, it was included in the catalogue raisonné of Cezanne’s watercolours and will feature in a forthcoming online catalogue raisonné of his work in the medium.
As specialists, we can often identify the hand of the artist — and we will never put a work in one of our catalogues unless we have confirmed its authenticity with the recognised authority, which is always external to Christie’s.