||Issue Date: 12 / 2008
Collage 's Short History
This article originally appeared under the title "A Short History of Collage". |
Collage is a technique of pasting materials such as newspaper clippings, fur, wall paper, package labels, or dozens of other possible materials onto paintings, drawings, prints, even sculpture.
"Compotier avec fruits,
violon et verre" by Pablo
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Click image to enlarge.
By adding a “collage” an artist can change the nature of what he or she is creating, providing a new dimension for a work of art. Collage also influences the perception of a viewer, thereby changing the relationship of the observer to the art object in a meaningful manner. In some ways collage is a short cut, a time saving device that might eliminate the need to paint some areas of a canvas.
Not a New-Comer
Collage has been around for a very long time. Cavemen may have used it by adding ribbons or slivers of grass to images such as mammoths drawn on a rock wall. Fast forward to more recent times, and we find school children creating collages by pasting keepsakes into their diaries or scrapbooks; housewives cutting out recipes and appending them to their cooking files; and sweethearts adorning their valentine greeting cards with rose petals, bits of lace and paper cutouts -- all examples of collage-making that have taken place for centuries, if not millennia.
Among artists throughout the ages and across the continents, collages have been used to enhance the texture of their offerings, to emphasize points of reference and to create pleasure. In Japan, artists who created poetry scrolls often added collages to make a particular point or to improve their visual presentations. Collages figure prominently in Russian icons, and in medieval Europe gold leaf overlays were often added to enhance the artistic value as well as monetary worth of presentations. We also see examples of collage in tribal and aboriginal art.
Collage in Cubism and Futurism
In Europe collage reemerged as an important component of 20th century art. In 1912, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) the great Spanish painter, attached a piece of oilcloth with a caning pattern to an oval shaped painting “Still Life with Chair Caning.” The modern day trend to employ collage had begun.
Soon after, Picasso’s studio mate, Georges Braque (1882-1963) created “Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass.” This work was highlighted with paper collage including pieces of wallpaper, sheet music and newspaper clippings.
Meanwhile, Picasso’s experiment with collage led him to try his hand at sculpture. “Glass of Absinthe” was Picasso’s first sculpture. He went on to produce prize-winning sculpture from then on, often incorporating collage elements.
The use of collage by Picasso and Braque was closely related to their experimentation with another new art form: Cubism. We can term Cubism as a way to transform a two dimensional space into a three dimensional one.
Juan Gris (1887-1927) a fellow Spaniard and a Picasso protégé gave up a promising career as a cartoonist to devote himself to painting, but he soon discovered that collage was his true métier. He was a perfectionist about the elements he used -- making sure, for example, that the wood grain he added suited the subject he was illustrating. Gris did a good job of explaining the appeal of collage to artists. “Surfaces can be recreated and volumes interpreted in a picture, but what about a mirror whose surface is always changing and which should reflect the spectator?” he asked. “There is nothing to do but stick in a real piece (of mirror).” “The Table” (1914), now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a good example of Gris’ work.
Other artists had different reasons for employing collage. Legend has it that Ferdinand Leger (1881-1955) first used collage during World War I when he couldn’t find paper at the front and produced a work of art using cartridge boxes. Henry Matisse (1869-1955) was bedridden and unable to paint during his final four years. So he turned to colored paper cut-outs, creating a joyous universe of individual art works as well as book covers and textiles. In fact he produced vestments for the priests at the chapel he had designed at Vence, France. “What I dream of is an art of balance and serenity, something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.” Because the colors of his cutouts were so strong, his doctors advised him to wear dark glasses when working.
Although modern collage as an art form was born in France, it was by no means ignored by artists elsewhere. The influence of Picasso and Braque spread beyond borders and beyond Cubist painters.
One group intrigued by collage was the Futurists. Although the philosophy of the Futurists was first articulated in the Paris newspaper Figaro, it was in an article by an Italian, Filippo Marinetti. He called for a rejection of the accepted way of doing things. The guiding spirit of this approach was to be the machine and the concept of speed. Umberto Boccione (1882-1916), Italy’s most important sculptor of the period, called for sculptural compositions to be made not only from bronze or marble “but rather from 20 different materials … glass, wood, cardboard, leather, cloth, electric light ...” In Boccione’s “Under the Pergula in Naples” a piece of paper containing a poem and a landscape illustration are prominent parts of the composition.
Another Futurist, Gino Severini (1883-1969) spent his years between Paris and Rome. His important collages include the exquisite “Homage to my Father” (1913), which features, in addition to Cubist shapes, a part of the Futurist manifesto. Carlo Carra (1881-1966) produced the elegant painting “Still Life with Syphon” (1914) in which a siphoned bottle is joined by the artist’s calling card and the announcement of a forthcoming musical performance. Futurism barely survived World War I (1914-1918). But collage as an art form continued to thrive.
Collage and Constructivism
Social change more than any other kind of change, seems to bring about new art movements. The social disruptions in Russia proved to be no exception. The Russian revolution brought Constructivism with it. The Constructivist art movement was truly revolutionary. Until the third decade of the 20th Century, Russian art had seemed to be caught in a web of romanticism. Painters appeared to be in love with a candied society featuring aristocrats in central European attire, or overreaching paintings of romantic aspects of the Russian countryside.
By contrast Constructivist art was characterized by the use of industrial materials in its creations, primarily glass, various plastic substances and metal components. The resulting art had a strong impersonal flavor, downplaying the individual and accentuating a dedication to the common good. Materials favored by Constructivist artists naturally lent themselves to collage. Collage from this period can be found in stage design, sculpture, architectural models, and painting.
At the beginning of its inception, around 1920, Constructivism was confined to Russia where it existed along with vestiges of the old romanticism, but soon the influence of Constructivist artists spread to artists and architects throughout Europe and the United States.
The four principle figures in the Constructivist movement were Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and El Lissitzky (1900-1941). Tatlin who is generally considered the “Father of Constructivism,” ran away to become a merchant seaman at the age of 14. On his return to Russia he became fascinated by Picasso’s work, went to Paris and began working in Picassso’s studio. His first designs utilized glass and wood as well as building materials. Tatlin’s contribution to the collage dialogue came primarily through structured three-dimensional reliefs.
Kasimir Malevich dramatically demonstrated his contempt for the bourgeoisie in his “Still Life with Mona Lisa” by recreating the famous DaVinci portrait, then defacing her with lines across her face. He inserted cubist elements in the rest of the canvas.
We see a waiter, guest and cutlery -- all in collage format -- in Rodchenko’s “Another Cup of Tea” (1923). Lissitzky was probably the best-known Constructivist in the West.
Russian women also played a major role in the Constructivist movement. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City recently featured the most prominent women Constructivist figures in a popular exhibition with the title “Amazons of the Avant-Garde” recently. Alexandra Exter, Liubov Popova and Natalia Goncharova were featured. Their work is less somber and more colorful than that of their male counterparts. The collages of this group are distinguished by their strong decorative quality, which in turn was easily translated into stage and costume design.
Dada and the Surrealists
Two other art movements used collages to great advantage: the Dada movement and Surrealism. Dada was born in the Swiss city of Zurich during World War I. It was the reaction of war-weary artists from many of the warring countries They turned to collage as the artistic form most effective in conveying their impatience with tradition and the traditional way of viewing life. The French artist and poet Jean Arp (1886-1966) expressed the feeling of the Dada artists most succinctly when he said, “We searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious folly of these times. We aspired to a new order that might restore the balance between heaven and hell.”
A replica of Marcel
readymade" photo courtesy of
Click image to enlarge.
Characteristic of Dada thought, artists allowed chance to play a part in the creation of their collages. Some Dadaists, it has been said, simply allowed torn pieces of paper to fall as they might without arranging them in any manner, and then simply pasted them down. Arp’s collages, however, were clearly not executed in this manner as evidenced by their meticulous geometric design.
Max Ernst (1891-1966), probably the best known of the Dadaists, was born in Germany but spent many years in France and ultimately in the United States. He is well represented in museums across the country. More than any other artist in the field, Ernst combined humor with fantasy in his collages. Many are prints, worked over with India ink and pencil. His paintings form inseparable montages with tapestry, wallpaper and other illustrative materials in prominent strategic positions.
Marcel Duchamps, of France, and Man Ray, of America, were other figures at times on the edge of Dadaism or moving into realms of their own making. For instance Man Ray developed the Rayograph, a kind of photography made without a camera; Duchamps introduced “ready mades” preparing the way for minimalism and the incorporation of everyday objects into the arts.
Regarding Surrealism, the term almost says it all. It was the imposition of the subconscious, the world of dreams on reality. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung the great psychiatrists were responsible for its existence, but substantially it was the French writer Andre Breton who in 1924 published the manifesto of the movement and who set up the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925. Almost all the artists of the 20th century practiced Surrealism in one way or another. Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Italian painter and designer, summed up the Surrealist theory in a few sentences: “To become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human limits. Logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood and dream.”
The most recognizable Surrealists are Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Marc Chagall. But there were many young disciples working in the spirit of the movement, which in many ways merged into Abstract Expressionism. Collages were very much part of the Surrealist expression. Salvador Dali in his painting “Grossly Spoken” introduced a thin panel of sand and gravel. In a collage of 1921 Marc Chagall included a number of geometrically inspired elements including all kinds of paper as well as envelope fragments, all arranged in strips or triangles.
Another artist who made contributions to the collage movement was Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), a German not strictly aligned with any of the previously mentioned schools of art but with some affinity to Dada. Schwitters believed, in his own words, that “every artist should be permitted to put together a picture out of nothing more than say, blotting paper, as long as he knows how to give it form.” True to this approach, Schwitters invented a structure that consisted entirely of items rescued from waste paper baskets, the “Merzbau.” The word is said to have originated when he tried to place the word “Commerzbank” (Commerce Bank) into a collage and found he only had room for four letters – m e r z. His “Merzbau” collage consisted of railway tickets, cigarette wrappers and cord. In 1923, he began the publication of a magazine entitled “Merz:” each issue centered on a collage-related topic. Schwitters even converted his parent’s house in Hanover into a “Merzbau” during the early 1920’s.
Collage in the artistic world has a distinguished history to look back upon, and it promises to be an important component of creativity for years to come. In that future, artists working in video, photo montage and other developing media are certain to discover their own collage-related applications and, following in tradition, create new and exciting results.