The Appeal of Collage

Collage has played a significant part in just about every major art movement of the 20th century, notably Dadism, Futurism, Surrealism, and the 20th century Russian avant-garde.

Relief, Vladimir Tatlin, 1913

Pablo Picasso is usually cited as ‘inventing’ collage in 1912 with Still Life with Chair Caning. In this work (below), a piece of oilcloth with an imitation chair caning design was pasted onto the canvas.

There’s little doubt that Picasso and Georges Braque were instrumental in bringing collage into the realm of fine art, but its continued appeal has as much to do with the earlier hobbyists and folk artists as with what we know as synthetic cubism.

It can also be argued that collage became important as a response to the increasing amounts of paper ephemera produced from the 19th century onwards: newspapers, billboards, advertisements, and manufacturers’ catalogues (Florian Rodari, ‘Collage: Pasted, Cut, and Torn Papers’).

Nevertheless, the pre-20th century forms of collage art deserve not to be completely eclipsed by the achievements of Picasso and Braque, and I would recommend ‘Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage’, which tells a more complete story of collage as it was utilised in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ artworks. Even when collage was the preserve of amateur artists (often, but not exclusively, women) it involved the same process of selection of elements and the creation of new narratives that are utilised by all collage artists.

Patrick Elliott notes that Paolozzi’s scrapbooks used a method ‘very close to the Victorian one of juxtaposing apparently random images on a page’.

The key word here is ‘apparently’. However haphazard a collage might seem at first glance, the placing of each element  – and the choice of elements – is often a highly personal one. As Rodari notes, collage ‘celebrates materials, substances, textures’.  It’s a very tactile form of art making whether the collage is purely abstract, representative, or narrative in character. One of the reasons it appeals so much to me is that I’m one of those people who feel the need to touch things in art galleries. I don’t, of course, unless invited to, but what I like about making collages is that the sense of touch is as important as the visual qualities of the art.

Kurt Schwitters used his concept of ‘Merz art’ to ‘brand’ his work and differentiate it from the more overtly political work of the German Dadaists. Schwitters’ collage art practice arose from a ‘transformation in seeing’ (Isabel Schulz, ‘Kurt Schwitters: Merz Art’).  As Apollinaire put it, “You can paint with anything you like, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards, or playing-cards, candelabras, bits of oilcloth, detachable collars, wallpaper, newspaper”.

Schwitters’ collages are some of the finest examples of how everyday scraps can achieve artistic and poetic status; the beauty in the detritus of modern life. In other words, the ‘unification of art and non-art’ (Isabel Schulz, ‘Kurt Schwitters: Merz Art’). Anyone who has seen the beauty in a piece of rusty metal, or a foxed sheet of paper, or a threadbare piece of faded material, will understand.

In the 21st century more than ever we’re bombarded by images and sometimes struggle to make sense of them and of our own place in a seemingly fragmented world. Collage offers a means of investigating the present and the past using the abundance of images and text that surround us. The versatility of the technique lends itself equally well to works of pure abstraction and those which seek to interrogate the meanings and significance of the materials we use.

© Helen Kitson. Mixed media collage on paper, 20cm x 20cm

Many of the collages of Robert Motherwell (see below) are works of pure, harmonious abstraction, a celebration of shape and colour in its most stripped-down form. For me there is nevertheless something quite intimate about the work below, simply by virtue of the choice of papers Motherwell used – so mundane, so fragile, yet oddly evocative.

Robert Motherwell, Country Life No. 1, 1967, recto signed dated top left corner ‘R Motherwell/67’, acrylic and pasted papers on paper, 30 x 22 inches, 76.2 x 55.9 cm. Artwork © Dedalus / Licensed by VAGA, New York

In short, collage can be pretty much anything you want it to be. It can be used to explore issues of identity and representation; it can be overtly political, it can challenge and confront; or it can be purely aesthetic; pared-down or overflowing. It can, of course, be a combination of some or all of these things.

Hannah Höch, Tailor’s Flowers, 1920

Best known for her political collages and pioneering work in the field of photomontage, Höch was one of very few women associated with the Berlin Dada group. She also explored gender and identity in her work, often (as in the piece above) using sewing patterns she picked up in her day job.

The poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who coined the word collage (derived from the French word coller, meaning to paste), described the medium as ‘steeped in humanity’, and for me that is its greatest appeal. The act of making a collage entails getting a sense of the lives of the people who have interacted with the pieces I use. Graham Bader describes Schwitters’ practice as a ‘probing…of past traces and memories as animating forces in the present’ (‘Poisoned Abstraction: Kurt Schwitters between Revolution and Exile’). Collage necessarily involves layers of meaning. There is the original purpose of each element and its history, and the new meanings it gains from its juxtaposition with other elements, and the composition as a whole. I like to think of making a collage as a dialogue between past and present, exploring those past lives and layers of meaning, a feeling of being ‘steeped in humanity’ and in the discarded and overlooked traces of all our lives that are often more beautiful and more poetic than the things we consider important and valuable.

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