Pablo Picasso's 'Guitar' 1913
Collage is considered a relatively modern medium within the context of art history, but the art of cutting and pasting has been around for centuries. Japanese artists were sticking paper onto silk as early as the 1100s and it was first used by Europeans in the 1400s. It was a popular pastime during the Victorian era in the form of scrapbooks and homemade Valentine’s cards, and early photographers used the same method of splicing to distort and transform their films into dreamlike narratives- a theme later explored by the Surrealists.
The term collage- which derives from the French verb coller, meaning ‘to glue’- was first used to describe the technique of the Cubists who were appropriating newspaper cuttings and printed wallpaper into their paintings in 1912. It has since become the nomenclature for sticking different materials to a surface such as paper, board, or canvas, and applies to everything from decoupage to photomontage.
Raoul Hausman's 'The Art Critic' 1919-1920
Playful and fun, collage is a means to edit reality- the Dadaists loved the medium for this very reason. Dada artists such as Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann used photomontage- cut out photographs from journalism and advertising- to form absurd, humorous, and sometimes disturbing narratives. Dadaism was formed in reaction to the First World War by artists who rejected violence, war, and nationalism. The rebellious act of cutting up newspapers and iconography to form artworks that mangled fact with fiction was an effective means to call out the political status quo.
The art movement Surrealism followed soon after. Less politically charged but similar in its uncanny aesthetic, Surrealism transcended well beyond reality-based Dadaism. It explored the unconscious, the illogical and the non-sequitur. Collage offered Surrealist artists like Max Ernst the ability to explore psychoanalytical theories surrounding sleep and dreams. By mixing and contrasting pre-existing elements to create other worlds, Ernst mirrored the muddled formation of dreams themselves.
Eileen Agar 'Erotic Landscape' 1942
Fellow Surrealist, Eileen Agar, took her collage to a whole new level, going beyond just using newspaper and magazine cuttings. Her interest spanned decoupage and assemblage, incorporating found materials such as foliage, seashells, and amongst other elements, lino and wallpaper. She loved collage for its experimental and transformative qualities, and said, “Very early on I liked doing collage and making objects, that sort of thing. It very often frees you rather than sticking to one thing. If you stick to one, just painting, you lose ideas. But if you play about with other things they bring you into conflict with other ideas.”
The notion of juxtaposing elements to challenge ideas and create new ones is widespread within collage making. Pop-art was a movement that subverted conventional and highbrow art by using mainstream and mass culture to emphasise the banal and the kitsch. Printed advertising, cartoon strips, and shopping catalogues were popular source material for Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, Tom Wesselman and Eduardo Paolozzi, who not only used it as inspiration but cut and pasted it into their artworks.
Eduardo Palozzi's 'Meet the People' 1948
At the same time, 20th century artist Henri Matisse was busy creating his famous ‘cut-out’ series. From painting gouache onto paper, cutting it into shapes and mounting them on to underlying surfaces, Matisse had discovered his new method of exploring colour and line. He described this process as “drawing with scissors.”
Henri Matisse's 'Memory of Oceania' 1952-1953
The technique of assembling disparate elements is in many ways what collage is and always has been. Whether it’s reshaping the world we live in, reconfiguring the way we think, or offering something visually exciting to look at, collage is an indiscriminate and multifarious artform. It is still used by many artists today as a tool for expression and activism, and while many still cut and glue by hand, others have adopted the digital method of cropping and pasting. One such artist is Beeple whose digital collage sold for an impressive £70 million at Christie’s last year.
It is its zeitgeist qualities that makes collage such a popular artform. David Hockney once said, “Television is becoming a collage- there are so many channels that you move through making a collage yourself. In that sense, everyone sees something a bit different.” Today, the act of switching channels has been superseded by the visually rich and infinite act of scrolling. By the same token, the profusion and intermixture of on-screen imagery- some of it linking to lived experience, some of it made-up, some of it make-believe- is what Hockney sees as a parallel to collage. The intermingling of photography with graphics, text with visuals, the ordinary with the out-of-the ordinary is a true reflection of human existence. We are complex beings who consciously and subconsciously synthesise the world around us, forming a web (or more appropriately, a collage) of markers and symbols unique to each individual. It makes perfect sense that collage as a practice is still offering artists a way of contextualizing humanity and all its facets, and the resulting works of art continue to enthrall and excite……
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- Tags: collage, cubism, cut out, cutting and pasting, Dada, decollage, glue, matisse, photo-montage, photomontage, pop art, scissors, Surrealism