17 Dec 2020
A History of Collage
UNFRAME delves into the history of Collage Art, exploring the ground breaking collage work of Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism.
Collage as a medium illustrates the meticulous technique, process and final image where in which paper, textiles, photographs and other ephemera are used. The term collage, importantly, derives from the French word ‘collés’ or ‘découpage’, describing the meticulous technique of pasting paper cut outs onto different surfaces. Collage is often attributed to the prolific work of Cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, but the story begins much earlier than that.
Above all, the medium of collage today is one of the most in demand and pervasive of all art-forms. During the 1960s and 1970s, anti-establishment protesters use collage to propel agenda and raise awareness of political issues. As well as this, the 20th century introduced an experimental kind of collage, stylistically evolving through each artistic movement. As an inventive and innovative medium, artists were attracted to collage for it’s individual aesthetic and unique process.
Accordingly, from the beginning of the modernist period to the contemporary art, collage transformed with the times. As time went on, collage became cutting-edge, most of all, being shaped by various movements and artists. In practice, collage can be made using a variety of different materials. Often, artists use paper, wood, photographs and newspaper, each cut and pasted forming new imagery. In particular, whilst modern artists begin to explore and play with collage, the medium mirrors these increasingly experimental ideas. Suddenly there was a freedom in mixed-media artworks, elevating them to a celebrated art form.
The First Collage
At its roots, the medium is a much older phenomenon than commonly thought. Collage is a medium that, in many ways, extends far beyond the boundaries of traditional art history. The medium conveys information, importantly, during a time of huge advances in industry, travel, trade and technology. Before this, the use of collage wasn’t used by many until the 10th century, where Japanese calligraphers would apply glued texts on paper, when writing their poems.
Japanese artists began to stick paper onto silk as early as the 1100s. During the 12th century, together with poems on paper sheets, Japanese calligraphers would adorn these pages with delicately coloured paper scraps. Together with, metallic flowers, birds and stars which were added to the composition. Finally, calligraphers would brush the paper edges with ink, their wave-like contours representing mountains, rivers and clouds.
17th century collage, markedly, was seen and used as a woman’s past time. At the time, the medium was seen primarily as an amateur craft over the art form it eventually became. Subsequently, after the introduction of industrialisation, producing paper was far cheaper. Decorative scraps, importantly, became very popular for cards, personalising objects and letters to loved ones. Additionally, collage remained a women based craft until artists such as Braque and Picasso began to experiment with cutting and pasting as an art form.
Early Victorian decoupage indicates collage techniques were used during the early 1860s. Mostly, they are recognised as memorabilia for those with hobbies. Although, decoupage collage also facilitated Victorian aristocratic collective portraiture, which acted as proof of female erudition. Finally, this presented a new type of artistic representation, all in all, questioning the truths of photography.
Many have attributed the rapid rise of collage as an art form to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Through artistic vision, collage often acts as as preparatory work. Mostly, becoming preliminary work in preparation for larger work or paintings. Initially, both Braque and Picasso invent the first phase of Cubism in 1908. As artists they were, mostly, striving to create a new form of realism, whilst undermining conventional imagery and reality. They used collage to, simultaneously, disrupt logic and imagery in their work. Although the use of collage wasn’t new, the Cubist’s use of collage inspired the word, and it’s elevation into the world of Fine Art.
In this example, Picasso’s‘Still Life with Chair Caning’ depicts an array of every day objects. Although, visually these objects are obscured, in turn they create a number of focal points for the viewer. Whilst creating this artwork, Picasso had purchased an oil cloth with a fake wood grain. This pattern caught his attention and he attempted to recreate it with pencil. Instead, after all he cut a piece of the oil cloth and used it in his painting, now a collage. Picasso changed the direction of art for the next ninety years with this particular work, ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’ became a famous catalyst for experimental making.
In a similar way, Picasso’s experimental collage work expands the interpretation of painting. Through his painting he questions existing ideas of surface and dimensionality within the medium. In particular, he attempts to merge the reality of everyday life with collage so that they become one. Picasso’s progressive painting Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass and Newspaper’ breaks down three dimensional objects into fragments, corresponding to the appearance of the object. Whats more, Picasso predominantly focuses on form in his Cubist portrayals, making them cultural mementos of the time.
For the most part, Braque and Picasso experimented with collage but, specifically, Braque invented the technique papier-colleé. Specifically, papier-colleé is a French term describing a type of collage closer to drawing than painting. During the 1930s, as the rise of fascism brought new urgency to aesthetics, important to note, questions addressing mainstream consciousness remained particularly inward-looking.
In a similar way, Braque was also at the forefront of the Cubist art movement. Within his body of work, Braque focuses on still life compositions, more often than not, he would sensitively play with perspective and texture. In his compositions, he sought balance and harmonious pairings of objects. However, Braque was first of the two to take collaging one step further through his use of cut up advertisement on his canvases. In many ways, both Picasso and Braque saw collage from a painter’s viewpoint, this influenced and informed the final results of the collages. Above all, both artists foreshadow the ideals and futures of modern art movements through their experimentation.
In contrast, through this experimentation, Braque began to use stencilled letters and pigments blended with sand within his collage work. As well as this, he also would imitate wood grain and marble, in many ways achieving new dimensional levels rather than direct representations.
Dada & collage
Equally important, Dadaist artists became inspired by the cutting-edge and eclectic collage work of Picasso and Braque. During the 1920s, Dadaists made collage work incorporating a huge array of reinterpreted figures and objects, often grounded in themes of fantasy and dreams.
In contrast to typical Dada collage, artist Kurt Schwitters created collages, montages and assemblages in his body of work. Most famously, Schwitter’s challenged and built on the initial collage making of Picasso and Braque. His method was to use three dimensional objects such as broken wood, fabric and bus tickets in his collage work. These collages were born out of a direct feeling provoked by war, he revelled in remaking and rebuilding with fragments of life before.
‘Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz.’ Kurt Schwitters
Schwitters created the concept of Merz, manifesting in “the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials”. Schwitters created the word Merz to describe his collage works, made with found scrap materials. As an artist, he used everyday found objects, feeling they were equal to the medium of paint, one steeped in history and value. Most importantly, his use of wood, plasterboard and wheels were equal in expression to paint itself.
“I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings; they suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints… It is possible to cry out using bits of old rubbish, and that’s what I did, gluing and nailing them together.”
Hannah Höch has been characterised as one of the most prolific dadaists for most of her life. Her sumptuously appealing collage work is often made up of newspaper clippings and photographs. Throughout her artistic career she would often challenge the marginalised place of women in Germany during the 20th Century. Mostly, she would take her cuttings from fashion magazines, journals and photographs, often pioneering new artworks made from everyday modern clutter.
Höch created some of the most radical works during the Dada movement, she influenced artists such as Kurt Schwitters and George Grosz. However, her prolific body of work and it’s effects on Dadaism and the art world, was often overlooked by traditional art history.
“I collect everything that seems of value or might eventually be needed – doesn’t everybody?” Hannah Höch
On the heels of Dada, Surrealist artists created collages, they were inspired by the bold presence of the medium at the time. Much of the Dadaist’s process of creating ‘automatically’ had given a whole new approach to painting, with a basis in the subconscious thought. Surrealist’s made new and surreal assemblages, often, they were made up of photographs, illustrations and newspaper clippings.
Homage to Juan Gris
In his artwork ‘Homage to Juan Gris’, Cornell lined the box with 19th Century French history book cuttings. Undoubtedly, this harks to the newsprint used by earlier collage artists, specifically, Juan Gris, the Spanish painter closely connected to Cubism. Cornell references silhouettes used in Gris’ paintings, embracing cubism’s severe edges and shapes.
In particular, the intriguing collage work of Joseph Cornell was, markedly, a nod to the rethinking of painting as a medium. Cornell, alongside Surrealist artists of the time, saw collage as a means of depicting the activity of the unconscious mind. Cornell’s work seems driven rather by traditional craft and decoupage than the famous collages of Braque and Picasso, who informed many.
French artist André Breton was the co-founder and leader of the Surrealist movement and, eventually, the author of the Surrealist manifesto which defined surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism’. Often Breton’s work was collaborate, in particular, his collage series ‘Cadavre exquis‘, meaning exquisite corpse. Breton made this work in a collaborative drawing style, firstly used by artists of the surrealist movement, often creating intuitive and strange drawings.
In this collaborative collage, Surrealist artists assemble this particularly anthropomorphic form, using everyday objects to create a overall warped form. In many ways, Breton’s uses collage to illustrate the freedom of group work, and inherently the ideals behind collaboration and collective ideas.
Drawing with Scissors
The French artist Henri Matisse’s cut out drawings depict a process almost entirely based on both aesthetic choice and subconscious decision. During the last years of his life, matisse dedicated his practice to two materials, paper and paint. But, Matisse created his cut out drawings, using collage to create layered and textural portrayals of figures and everyday scenes, as well as surreal ones.
Matisse created vibrant and colourful artistic portrayals, working across many different mediums but primarily, as a painter. Alongside Picasso, Matisse helped define revolutionary movements within the visual arts, he is responsible for significant change in the way we see sculpture and painting today.
“Cutting into colour reminds me of the sculptor’s direct carving” Henri Matisse
In contrast to artists discussed, Matisse eventually veered away from painting, using it only to create vibrant colours for his collages. Matisse created his expressive cut out collage work in a way to finally unite the two most important branches to his practice, drawing and painting. He describes the meticulous process as “cutting directly into colour” and “drawing with scissors.”
More and more, through experimentation, collage as a medium has become a refined and hugely respected art form. Predominantly, used to illustrate representations rather than realistic portrayals of the world. As a technique, collage has gradually evolved from a recognisable women’s craft into an elevated art form. Finally, by cutting and pasting, collage has progressed, ultimately, to undermine conventional portrayals of reality.
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Predominantly, artist Caro Halford creates work that spans from performance, video, sculpture to collage and photography. Much of her work, crucially, examines social and political concerns of women and their sexuality.
‘Angelica II‘ is a mixed media painting by Caro Halford. Caro retrieves a female artist from the past who has been in the shadow of their male contemporaries.
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Italian artist Eleonora Agostini’s varied practice, ultimately, encompasses photography, performance and sculpture. Firstly, it is driven by her interest in the reconsideration and redefinition of the every-day.
In Eleonora Agostini’s ‘A Study of Waitressing, 2020’, the artist uses collage as a form of exploration on rituals, repetition and the photographic process. The photographic collage is part of an ongoing series. In the work, the artist combines pre-existing materials from the darkroom. This includes materials such as contact sheets, test prints, cuts and experiments.