• Denholm Hewlett

[Art/Culture] Saul Steinberg: Paper Bag Masks (1914-1999)

The prolific Romanian-American writer and cartoonist who gave graphic definition to the postwar world by designing magazine covers and artwork for The New Yorker for almost six decades, while boasting a successful career as an multi-talented artisan through his drawings, paintings, screen prints, collages and sculptures. Today we explore his Paper mask project.



Steinberg's career is as impressive as it is extensively multi-disciplined. I've always had a personal fascination with his collection of Paper Bag Masks that he made over fifty years ago between 1959 and 1963. The idea of disguise and masquerade has always been a central theme to Steinberg's art. In the world that he saw, everyone wore their own special mask or adopted a certain facade. Whether it be real or metaphorical, people tend to invent personas for themselves and these facades can often end up becoming who they are. “The mask is a protection against revelation.” Steinberg wrote.



This idea has only become more solidified in today's hyper-connected and simultaneously disconnected world, we all live amidst a fragmented culture of vapid social reality and surface level filter-heavy veiner. The charming and arresting dystopian narrative running through Steinberg's masks are more relevant than ever with the 2020 pandemic, which has ushered an age where masks are required to be worn when venturing into the public sphere.



Steinberg produced and illustrated hundreds of these ingenious paper-bag masks, with an array of social species, from glamorous socialite to the alienated and disenfranchised. The paper masks were made famous with photographs taken by Inge Morath of the artist and his friends donning the masks and posing in various setting, from lavish dinner parties to eerie isolated portrait shots. Steinberg was always regarded to be a true artistic polymath and renaissance man who was always crossing the boundaries of art by exploring new abstract and uncharted visual territory.



Saul Steinberg's limitless and ever-evolving imagination as a creator was gradually refined through the development of his rich and dynamic artistic output, which allowed him to fully express himself through his various paralleling and integrated creative pathways, whether it be drawing or writing. “I don’t quite belong to the art, cartoon or magazine world, so the art world doesn’t quite know where to place me,” as Steinberg used to say.


"I'm a writer who draws" ~ Saul Steinberg

You can check out a gallery of Steinberg's paper mask figures below. ~



Saul Steinberg defined drawing as "a way of reasoning on paper," and he remained committed to the act of drawing. Throughout his long career, he used drawing to think about the semantics of art, reconfiguring stylistic signs into a new language suited to the fabricated temper of modern life. Sometimes with affection, sometimes with irony, but always with virtuoso mastery, Saul Steinberg peeled back the carefully wrought masks of 20th-century civilisation. ~ An overview taken from Saul Steinberg's Official Foundation website


~ Psychic Garden