The Art of Money

Across the globe, the images on a country’s currency offer a window on its culture

"When I'm traveling outside the country, I generally think about the local currency only in terms of how many — or how few — pounds, francs, kroner, yen or pesos constitute one U.S. dollar," says author David Standish. Foreign money is hard to take seriously, he jokes. Compared with greenbacks, most foreign notes seem too colorful and too cute.

But the images and designs on paper money say a lot about the country that issues it. Through their money, countries project their self-image and reveal what's important to them, and how they want to be seen by the rest of the world. For instance, during a trip to China some time ago, Standish noticed that China had two currencies — one for its citizens and another for the influx of tourists. The tourist yuan were new and crisp and engraved with tranquil scenes of Chinese landscapes. The regular notes, however, were emblazoned with images of socialism and industrialization on the march — happy workers bearing hoes, a mighty freighter steaming along.

The money of some countries, could pass for art, says Standish. Swiss francs, for example, look fairly surreal. The backs contain images superimposed on images, creating an airy, collage effect, made crazier by a daunting array of anticounterfeiting squiggles and curves. The fronts exhibit blasts of color in sliding intensities, like sections chopped out of a prism. The Netherlands' fifty-gulden note, featuring a close-up of a bee on a sunflower colored a cheery yellow with some orange and green, and detailed with quintessential Northern Renaissance precision, "is money fit for framing," Standish declares.

Our own money, which Standish describes as "the world's most boring," is also fairly weird, claims the author. What must other people think, he asks, when they see that glowing eye balanced on a pyramid on the back on the $1 bill? That the United States traces its origins back to visitors from outer space who purportedly founded Egypt?

Still, Standish reminds us, it's the dull old greenback, not the lovely Netherlands fifty-gulden note, that pays our bills.

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