Look, look, and look again

In my first blog post I mentioned that I studied for a Master’s degree in Art History with the Open University. I had a vague notion of developing a career in the museum/gallery sector, but Covid pretty much put paid to that. My degree is of no relevance or use in my day job, but it did kickstart my side hustle as a collage artist, a pleasant but unexpected bonus.

My degree was a taught MA very much focused on art as a broad school, beyond the gallery. My dissertation topic analysed the changing appearance of a street in my hometown that is a mix of (very) old and new buildings. I looked at why the older buildings had survived in this particular street and what that might tell us about people’s attitudes towards them and society’s changing priorities when it comes to the conservation of built heritage.

Friar Street, Worcester
[Photo source: https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101389846-26-32-friar-street-worcester-cathedral-ward]

I used a multidisciplinary approach that contextualised the topic in terms of social history, changing attitudes towards identity and social class, and the role building conservation plays in society as something to be preserved both because it is historically important and also because it is aesthetically pleasing.

The discipline involved in looking closely and attentively at my chosen street meant that I was looking at everything in a new way, appreciating shapes, patterns, textures in everyday things. My Master’s course prioritised the importance of the experience of looking beyond the art historical canon and traditional notions of what constitutes ‘art’ and how we define ‘artists’.

I became interested in learning more about artists who don’t fit the stereotypical idea of what an artist is, which drew me towards artists who broke the rules or made up their own. Or just did away with rules altogether, because who needs ‘em!

I mentioned in my first post about discovering the work of Kurt Schwitters and being immediately smitten. That led me to discovering many other artists whose work was quite different but which affected me in the same this-is-the-kind-of-art-I’ve-been-waiting-for way. Very different artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Alberto Burri, and Joseph Cornell.

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II (1964). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. [https://news.artnet.com/market/rauschenberg-market-hed-tktktkktt-1547860]

I began to collect books about my new favourite artists and about the history of collage art generally. I’ll talk about some of these in more detail in another post. I’ve sourced most of my art books secondhand as they can be expensive (and even secondhand prices can be eye-watering!), but for the moment I’ll leave you with a couple of images from a recently published book, ‘Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage’.

This book was produced in conjunction with a 2019 exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and what I like about it is that, unlike many books about the history of collage art, it recognises that collage as an art form is not a rigid discipline. By its very nature it encourages experimentation, thinking and working outside the box, trying something new. The book (and, presumably, the exhibition, which unfortunately I didn’t see) recognises the importance of earlier ‘folk art’ and paper crafting as precursors to collage as a recognised fine art form. Of course it’s possible to argue that collage art ‘began’ with  Picasso and Braque in the early 20th century, but nothing happens in splendid isolation, and the visual arts – like all artforms – feeds off other artforms and earlier artists, whether famous names or ‘Anonymous’.

I believe that all artists learn from other artists. We all know the quote attributed to Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Whether or not he actually said it, I think it’s a useful quote to bear in mind, particularly for collage artists, who are surely the greatest magpies of the art world. What I’ve learned is that if you try to copy another artist’s work, you’re setting yourself up for failure. What is fruitful, however, is analysing what you like about the artist’s work and how you can apply it to your own unique style of art. It might be something as simple as a method of applying ink, or the overall ‘feel’ of the artist’s work. The key thing is to take your influences and make them work for you so that you still end up with a work that is uniquely yours.

I think the key thing I learned from studying for my MA is that history is not something that happened in the past; rather, it’s embedded in the here and now. My art work is to a large extent an attempt to reinterpret and renegotiate traces of the past that I find in bits of rusty metal and old legal documents. Every extant trace of the past, whether it’s a building or an invoice, carries with it so many narrative possibilities – they offer ways of engaging with the past in a way that I find meaningful but also visually stimulating, because it always comes back to looking: what we choose to look at, why and how we look at it, and what we feel when looking at it. What memories it stirs. What emotions.

“Look for a long time at what pleases you, and a longer time at what pains you” (Colette)

Helen Kitson, collaged book, 2022

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