As I look at the canvas painting hanging on the wall opposite me, I wonder: why not paper? Why not framed? The seaside painting protrudes a couple of inches out from the wall – as most canvas frames do – and so contrasts against its background. But to me canvas seems so rudimentary, first used by 15th century Italian oil painters; over time they became redundant, as modern humans grew increasingly fond of the framed picture, and other more modern designs. This week, we’re going to look at what makes canvas so popular, and how it crept back into the mainstream after years of being ‘worn out’.
The birth of an era.
From Renaissance painters, such as Di Vinci, all the way to Pablo Picasso’s surrealist scribblings in the early 20th Century, canvas has been a huge integral part of the art world for a very long time. It was easily stretched across frames, walls and other surfaces. It brought the colours of the oil paints to life with its uneven and rugged textures.
Then print came along and completely turned art around. The birth of typography meant that we could instantly have lettering and sharp, angular shapes. These sorts of contours and details lent themselves to a ‘cleaner’ canvas, and that canvas wasn’t actually canvas at all. It was paper.
Out with the old prints, in with the new prints.
It all kind of happened at once, like some industrial print revolution. As soon as typography started taking off, people started looking for a cleaner sheet of paper. A smoother cut, sharper edges and clean lines were in demand; much like the laser printer of today.
Then Pop Art happened, and even though canvas was being used in parody and playfulness; bright white paper, cardboard and outlandish materials were being experimented with, suddenly, canvas wasn’t the only go-to material for artists, and gradually it became less and less popular as the 20th century went on.
Canvas in the Home
Of course we can’t take artist’s preferences as a generalisation, because we’d never get answers, statistics or real insights. Art is too experimental and post-modern to ever be able to pin point what materials are popular and which are ‘redundant’; it’s just too difficult. But what we hang in our homes is a good measure, and the 21st century household has seen the most obvious effect of the canvas resurgence…
At the turn of the latest century, millions of us were starting to hang up these canvas prints, which at first were a novelty outside of the art world. Pictures and paintings that stuck out from the walls, 3D in a way! People even started to print digital photographs on canvas and even make their own as a means of saving money on prints. Canvas was interesting, and quirky – and still is to a degree –and after a decade or so of hanging around, it is well and truly here to stay. Again.
So what makes canvas so good for prints?
Canvas brought back that sense of having and owning a painting, rather than just buying a generic two-dimensional framed picture. The bumps and unevenness of the surfaces, the raised edges of the frames and the ruggedness of the finish, made canvases feel like vinyl records do today – rare. In a world of digital, faceless media, we took something physical back: the canvas painting. Even if there were two thousand of the same versions produced, it still felt real and gets us in touch with the artwork more than a flat image.
Those who created their own, either by printing, painting or both, took that idea to the next level. We’re a culture of digital maniacs, overloading on information, images, entertainment and media. And so we have begun to rebel: we create our own media. We’re buying handmade soap, baking, knitting, and of course; embracing canvas paintings.
I’m not sure whether canvas prints have survived the test of time, or whether they have been lost, forgotten and then entirely re-invented for the modern home. What I do know however, is that they are one of the most tangible mediums of art we have left, and along with the newspaper it puts the slogan, ‘Print is Dead’ to bed.