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Exhibit presses the newspaper into artistic service

A detail from Pablo Picasso: Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass, 1912 sheet music, newspaper, colored and white paper, charcoal, and hand-painted faux-bois paper on wallpaper 47.9 x 36.5 cm (18 7/8 x 14 3/8 in.)

Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Print journalists are so accustomed to having their work end up as fish wrap that they may indeed be startled by Shock of the News, a fascinating exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. It is a collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and photographs that illustrate how newspapers are, literally, the stuff of great art.

In this case, art goes well beyond imitating life. According to the exhibit's statement of purpose, the "vibrant and multifaceted relationship with the printed news" being put on display is the product of "major artists co-opting, mimicking, defusing, memorializing and rewriting newspapers" over the course of a century.

The medium is being given a message. For example, New York artist Sarah Charlesworth's contribution – April 21, 1978 – is a compilation of 45 front pages designed to show how news organizations around the world handled the famous photo of kidnapped Italian prime minister Aldo Moro taken by the Red Brigades captors who later shot him.

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By removing text from the pages, she highlights just how important each publication considered the story, and the overall effect truly is shocking. (The Globe and Mail that day also carried the Moro photo on the front page, but gave prominence to the Queen and her first grandchild.)

Assembled by Judith Brodie, the gallery's head of modern prints and drawings, Shock of the News took five years to complete and includes work from more than 60 artists from 1909 to 2009. It begins with a framed front page of Le Figaro bearing Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's famed The Futurist Manifesto – not in itself a work of art, but so controversial that it inspired Pablo Picasso to cut up a newspaper for his 1912 masterpiece Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass.

And that prompted other artists to begin incorporating news pages – whole and cut up – in a variety of ways: literally as a surface on which to paint, sometimes as a way to make a political statement, often as part of a collage. New York sculptor Jim Hodges produced The Good News by coating two sheets in 24-karat gold.

The exhibit, which includes such heavy creative hitters as Georges Braque, Man Ray, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, chronicles the heyday of a medium that is now under digital siege. But Ms. Brodie insists that "I didn't do this as a death knell. It's a tribute, looking back 100 years to the amazing art that has come out of newspapers."

To her, "a newspaper is beautiful, affordable – everyone can have it. I love its peripheral vision, and I have consistently loved [art] that has language in it – words, letters, typography."

Many works are devoted to the Second World War, and perhaps the most powerful is Stalingrad, exiled German artist Hans Richter's nearly 16-foot-wide painting completed in 1944 using news stories to explain the brutal battle for the city. "So determined was Richter to have people read Stalingrad's newspaper texts," Ms. Brodie writes in the catalogue. "that he restructured their layouts, with the result that they read continuously."

Not everything in the show, which runs until Jan. 27, exhibits as much respect to newsprint.

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In 1961, German-born artist Dieter Roth mixed spices, water and gelatin with pages from books, newspapers and magazines that he disliked to make Literaturwursts – brown rolls tied at each end. Two years later, another German artist, Joseph Beuys, immersed an entire edition of a newspaper in fat to make a piece called Kraft.

Others use newsprint in more whimsical ways. In 1976, renowned American artist Laurie Anderson cut pages from The New York Times and The China Times into thin strips that she wove into richly textured, patterned pages to call attention to Sino-American relations.

And what of the future? Ms. Brodie remains optimistic: "I know a lot of newspapers are dying, but some will survive."

"Printed newspaper still carries weight," she adds. "The day after [President Barack] Obama was elected, I went across the street to the Newseum [Washington's shrine to journalism], where they put out 40 or 50 newspapers every day. That day, there must have been 100 people congregated in front of those newspapers. They were quiet – they saw [the news of America's first black president] was on the front page in Australia and all around the world.

"They could have downloaded it, but that day they wanted the real deal – one they could hold on to, one to show to their children."

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