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Large works on paper, in particular ones that covered walls, were new in the realm of printed works of art during the early decades of the sixteenth century. Following in the footsteps of wall hangings and tapestries of the late medieval period, wallpaper became a new concept in the Renaissance. Although wallpaper has generally fallen in and out of favor in the past several decades, it recently has been experiencing its own renaissance with visual artists. At the Rhode Island School of Design, a 2003 exhibition entitled On the Wall: Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists featured wallpaper with a variety of patterns and designs, from fisheyes to photo-realist landscapes.
Over the centuries wallpaper's popularity has also waxed and waned. In the final years of Albrecht Dürer’s life, thirty years after his Apocalypse series of 1498 changed how woodcuts were perceived in terms of size and importance, Dürer's pupil Sebald Beham rethought what a woodcut print might be and what it could show. This included its use as wallpaper. Where Dürer broke new ground in the exploration ofthe larger, full-page size for visual image alone and the role of the woodcut designer as publisher, Beham explored subject matter new for the woodcut technique and for large-sized woodcuts; subject matter that had sometimes been executed in engraving before, but never in woodcut in large format, and thereby expanded the audience for large independent woodcuts, including wallpaper prints. I will explore in this essay the use of such woodcuts, and their audiences and sizes. Later I will focus on one of Beham’s large woodcuts that was used as wallpaper, showing that the taste for such domestic decoration links the half millenium between the Northern Renaissance and the recent wallpaper revival.