The Art of Collage
From a series of lectures


"Today, fifty years after its first serious use, collage is a major art medium whose technique have expanded, range of materials immeasurably broadened, and its use become almost universal. Collage, together with its many off-shoots emerges today not only as a major medium, but as a germinative idea that, once planted, has pointed and even led to some of the most significant, as well as astonishing developments in the astonishing art of our time."

This quotation is from the book "Collage" by Janis and Blesch, published by Chilton in 1967. Actually, the first serious use of collage occurred in 1912.

When speaking of Collage, one refers to an art style, concept and technique closely bound up with the very beginnings of Modern Art and particularly with Cubism and Surrealism. Since the mainstream of Modern Art had its beginnings in France, the term Collage, as so many other art terms, is French, meaning that which is pasted together. Other related terms are: Assemblage, which is the three-dimensional or sculptural equivalent of College; Montage, which usually consists only of pictures or photos and Deshirage, when tearing rather than cutting is used.

All these terms signify the basic difference of collage from the medium of painting. A painting is created by the progressive addition of a universally uniform substance - paint, consisting of a basic raw material - a color pigment and a medium. A collage, on the other hand, is created by the progressive addition (or also subtraction) of an unlimited variety of already finished materials, substances and objects. The range of material for collage is truly unlimited and infinite, subject only to the limitations imposed by the individual artist's imagination and discrimination.

Among the various materials successfully used in collage have been: newspaper and magazines (typographical as well as pictorial elements), wallpaper and other decorative papers as well as solid colored material such as construction and tissue paper, leaflets and posters, letters and post cards, all kinds of woven cloth (opaque as well as transparent), canvass (raw as well as primed and tinted), fragments of paintings, drawings and collages, all kinds of organic substances such as leaves, flower petals, bark, butterfly wings, sawdust, coffee grounds, potato peel as well as sand, string, etc., etc. The range is limitless.

Because of these limitless material possibilities, it becomes particularly essential for the collagist to be discriminating in choosing among this limitless array. The artist working in collage, to an even greater extent than the painter, must develop a keen sense of esthetics as the only true guide if collage is not to degenerate into mere decoration or a gaudy assembly of meaningless material. But used discriminately and judiciously, collage can be the means to go beyond the limits of painting and open up for the adventurous artist new fields of ever-expanding creativity.

It was this motivation - to explore Art beyond the limits of traditional painting - that the first experiments in collage as a serious creative medium took place. The time was the great artistic revolution we call Modern Art which began at the turn of the 20th Century. It occurred mainly in Paris - but also in Germany, Russia and Italy and after World War II has continued in the United States. What happened in Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century was a revolution, when, within a few years, more radical and drastic changes took place in the Arts than in all the centuries preceding it. This sudden upheaval of artistic creativity was part of all the other revolutions occurring at about the same time in the fields of science, technology, medicine, economics, sociology and politics. The drastic and rapid changes in the Arts of this period must be considered related to everything else that was happening all around the artist. The artist, after all, does not live in some kind of isolated vacuum, but is part and parcel of the time, place and society in which he lives. His art cannot help but reflect - to some extent - the environment in which it is created.

Again, quoting from Janis and Blesch ("Collage"):

"Through his own sense of predicament, each artist expresses phases of the general condition. The greater artists add to the personal a more general view... Other artists particularly those with war experience, feel the sense of crisis and disaster that is our prevailing climate. They, too, give us universal symbols of our time: wounds, fire, and death. Finally, there are those who go beyond the crisis, personal or universal, to seek escape. Some give us games or neo-romantic imaginings. Others are more venturesome, seek new circumstances offering safer, freer, more fruitful and satisfying lives. These men seek a new environment, a new world - even the outer galaxies that beckon to our time, as escape and as fresh start."

It is interesting to speculate on the coincidence of the explosion in the Arts which, with the advent of Cubism, Abstraction and Collage, literally blew apart traditional pictorial perspective, space and eventually all recognizable traces to reality just before World War I. Again, right in the midst of that War, in 1916, the style of "Dada", very consciously, meant to mock and shock the sensibilities of a society which could "sanctify an atrocious war". Surrealism, which followed Dada in the 1920's, destroyed the traditional "singular reality" of a painting and replaced it with a juxtaposition of several simultaneous but unrelated realities, creating thereby an uneasy unreality, or surrealism. For instance, the painting "Empire of Light" by Magritte (at the Museum of Modern Art) superimposes both night and day on an otherwise peaceful street scene - evidently an impossible, unreal view of a real scene observed at the same time and place, except by a flight of fancy of the artist's imagination.

The view of a steady, orderly world in which diverse and contradictory scenes are in obvious sequence and order, became disjointed by the surrealist's and cubist's method of simultaneous presentation. Or as April Kingsley wrote on "The Collage Esthetic" in Art Forum:

"The Collage Esthetic recognizes multiplicity of form and content, duality, contradiction, juxtaposition, complexity. . . and expansion as the essential qualities of modern life and modern art."

The influence of Freud and the new concept of the subconscious and even irrational nature of man's mind added to the imagery and process of Surrealism. Not everything, the artist realized, is preconceived, conscious and predetermined. Much of creativity is brought forth out of the subconscious and by chance. This new realization found special application in Collage where the shaping of individual pieces and their placement upon the canvass is less self-conscious, perhaps even playful, than in painting or drawing.

The relationship between Cubism and Collage is based on form as well as concept - reality appearing to have been "cut up" into new galaxies of fragments. Time, too, as in Surrealism seems to have been dislocated. A still life on a table, for instance, heretofore viewed and painted but from one single angle, is seen in Cubism from several angles simultaneously. It is as though a fourth dimension, the dimension of time, had been added to the traditional image, frozen in time as well as space. This new concept and relationship of time and space in art came at about the same time as Einstein's new Theory of Relativity and the concept of the time - space continuum.

Thus, Cubism and Surrealism can be seen to have a direct bearing on Collage. Diverse, unrelated materials - made at different times and in different places (time-space) are brought together to interact simultaneously as for instance, in the work of Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst.

Kurt Schwitters (often considered the father of collage) was one of the founders of the Dada movement and produced most of his collages in Germany in the 1920's. He would collect the junk from waste baskets and streets - bits of newspaper, tickets, stamps, wrappings, picture post cards, etc. - all the flotsam and jetsam of a civilization's discarded rubbish. From this "junk" (the French more delicately call it "objects trouvee" - found objects) Schwitters created, his delicately balanced and often exquisite little collages. What Schwitters, in fact, did was to resurrect and endow with a new and, perhaps, even beautiful life, stuff which had been considered worthless. He demonstrated that beauty can be created out of most anything. Given a perceptive and sensitive eye, beauty can be perceived in the most mundane and unlikely places. Depending what we make of it, there may, in fact, be no such thing as "junk". All things can be reused, recycled and, as can be seen, even elevated to Fine Art. It all appears to depend on a creative intelligence, perception and inventiveness.

Max Ernst, who together with Salvador Dali pioneered the Surrealist movement, was the first to cut up magazine engravings and reassemble the unrelated fragments to create collages of clever wit and non-sense. Bear in mind that the world the artist sees and reflects is not always a rational one. Historically, artists, whether painters, writers or composers, have often reflected upon the more non-sensical aspects of reality. One has but to think of the "absurd" world of Alice in Wonderland. The world the artist perceives is not as obvious as it may appear. It is full of unexplored and unexplained mysteries, incongruities, contradictions and seeming absurdities. The creative artist is not one to reflect and repeat the obvious. The artist goes beyond all that which seems ordinary to create an art that must be extra-ordinary. Art - true art - has always been extra-ordinary.

Collage, from its very beginning, has been to a growing number of artists the means to transcend the ordinary and explore ever new possibilities beyond the limitations of painting. Picasso and Braque must have been motivated by that sort of spirit of pushing art beyond ordinary and accepted concepts and explore new creative expressions when they produced their first collages around 1912. Picasso questioned the very concept as to what constituted Fine Art when he pasted a piece of newspaper on a canvass and created, with some added color and a few lines, his cubistic "Man With A Hat".

Nothing can, indeed, be considered more worthless than a dated and discarded piece of newspaper. To incorporate it into a work of "Fine Art" was unheard of and a direct challenge to all accepted notions of "refinement and taste". As proof how attitudes change, Picasso's "Man With A Hat" is by now regarded as quite traditional and refined - in fact, a "priceless" museum piece. Picasso performed a similar feat of transformation in the field of sculpture - transforming and elevating a lowly piece of junk into the realm of art by assembling (assemblage) two discarded bicycle parts - a seat and a handle bar - into the Head of A Bull.

This element of transformation - transforming one or a number of materials into a new pictorial reality or object must be considered fundamental to the concept and medium of Collage. In this kind of transformation or transfiguration a metamorphosis takes place. A head cut out of newspaper takes on a new existence. The object, and the onlookers response, to it has changed - a metamorphosis has taken place. The seat and handle bar of a bicycle are just that until, by inventive wit, they are rearranged and suddenly emerge - the seat as the head and on top the handle bar the horns of a bull. While the original nature of the material may still be discerned, the new creation has taken on a new form (transformed), a new life and a new response. Again, it must be emphasized that a successful collage (or assemblage) requires an uncommon degree of inventiveness, discrimination and even sophistication, if junk is to remain not merely a rearrangement of junk, but transformed into art and, possibly, a thing of beauty.

Another element the early collagists were conscious of was the historical problem of reality versus illusion. Traditionally concerned with realism and naturalism, artists now came to recognize that no matter how realistically they would portray nature, the only real reality they were eventually left with, was only the reality of paint and canvass (the material) - all else was an illusion. By taking a real object (like a piece of newspaper) and incorporating it within a picture, Picasso demonstrated the meaningful, or meaningless, nature (whichever one prefers) of reality. In so doing he also helped to free Art from a heretofore slavish dependence upon a too narrow definition of reality. More recently, artists such as Dubuffet have gone directly to nature and incorporated leaves, sand and bark in their pictures.

What happens, of course, in the best of these or any collage is not merely an exposition of philosophical ideas or confrontation between reality and illusion. A work of art is expected to be more than a mere reflection of nature or an intellectual exercise: It must also be an esthetic experience. To that end, much art of the 20th Century has concerned itself with "purifying" itself of all extraneous elements or reliance on nature, either as reality or illusion.

Painters like Mondrian and Albers from the beginning of Modern Art concerned themselves solely with carefully composed fields, bands or patches of color. This "pure art" of precisely defined shapes of color (looking almost cut out) bears an obvious relationship to collage. Mondrian, for instance, would make his preliminary sketches by careful manipulation of strips of colored paper until satisfied with just the right balance. Obviously, an artist has much greater flexibility in composing a work of sharply defined or "cut" shapes by actually using cut-outs rather than paint. The relationship between this kind of "hard edge" or geometric painting to the collage technique is apparent. What may be considered the greatest painting of this century - Picasso's Guernica - may also be said to bear a direct relationship to collage in its seemingly cut, torn and fragmented shapes and forms. In fact, Guernica started out as collage composed of torn wall paper fragments.

In trying to define Collage it is well to go beyond a too narrow definition of its concept, philosophy and technique. Many modern paintings may well be regarded in that sense as bearing a direct relationship to Collage. Without some of the innovative concepts and techniques of Collage much of Modern Art would not have been possible. What occurred was a kind of cross-fertilization between the various schools, ideas and techniques of Modern Art.

As inventive as the first works of Collage were, it should not be thought however that they were totally without precedence. In what may be considered the pre-history of collage, there always existed a kind of folk art of collage. For centuries it was popular, for instance, to decorate all kinds of containers with a montage of cut and pasted picture fragments. Some of the earliest Valentines were composed of bits of appropriate pictures, decoration and lace. At country fairs there was the inevitable "decoupage" artist who would cut silhouette profiles out of black paper. The popular art of patchwork quilts also bears a direct relationship to Collage, even though the effect of diverse patches being transformed into an entirely new composition and object is achieved by stitching rather than pasting. The basic concept, nevertheless, is the same as in collage.

A more sophisticated precedent to Collage can be seen in the work of a group of 19th Century artists whose work is usually referred to as "Trompe l'oeil" ("to fool the eye", an illusion) - paintings of objects so photographically realistic that one could be fooled to see them as the actual objects. To achieve this kind of effect the object would usually be two-dimensional, such as letters, cards, news clippings, etc. seemingly tacked up on a flat board or wall. An example of this is William Harnett's painting, "The Artist's Card Rack". To the 19th Century viewer's question "is it a painting or is it real?" must now be added "is it a real Collage?" To go back even further - in the 16th Century, Arcimboldo would compose portraits out of painted bits of fruit, vegetables, animals and landscape. The nose as cucumber - an intriguing metaphor! That kind of metamorphosis - whether witty or profound - is well within the conceptual nature of Collage.

As interesting as some of the results of the "prehistory" of Collage may seem, it was not until the advent of Modern Art and at the hands of some of the greatest artists of this period that the true potential of Collage became apparent. Begun as the medium to explore art beyond painting and as a possible resolution of the historical paradox of reality and illusion, the range and possibilities have grown with each new generation. More recent explorations have concerned themselves with the possible nature of Collage as a kind of "missing link" between two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculpture.

When canvass or other heavy material is combined, the result is a low or bas relief. Going one step further, when negative areas within the picture are cut out entirely, leaving "holes" within the picture, a deep sculptural space is the result. Reversing this process: cutting out the positive areas and mounting them on rigid support, produces a free-standing form. Mounted on a wall, the wall now taking on the nature of a large canvass, several cut-outs become a kind of shifting, flexible collage. The possibilities are endless.

At the other extreme, the combination and interaction between the rigidity of cut collage shapes and the fluidity of painting, provides areas of interesting esthetic exploration, such as for instance, in some of the works of Rauschenberg and Motherwell. Much of this kind of work exists on very subtle levels such as textures and the differences between, for instance, a cut, torn or a burned edge. The use of fire, by means of a blow torch, becomes in collage, an entirely new and valid tool of artistic expression.

Using transparent and translucent materials provides creative possibilities not possible with paint. If these transparent materials are glued on to another transparent background, such as insect screening, a stained-glass window effect can be achieved but with greater flexibility and range than the traditional glass and lead. A mosaic-like collage is created by cutting and arranging small bits of pre-colored paper - again with greater range of possibilities and also practicality than the traditional product. The main point of Collage, however, is not to merely improve on an existing medium and process, but to open up ever-new possibilities and expand the potential of creative expression.

The widening interest of contemporary artists in collage might not have happened without the invention of acrylic glue. It's what holds all the pieces together. Unlike other traditional glues, acrylic (as in Elmers Glue) is a "thermoplastic substance": Under heat, as for instance from an electric iron, acrylic softens, even when dry, and bonds together - permanently. Acrylic has also proven the most permanent painting medium so far. Science, the science of chemistry, once again came to assist art - as it had on many previous occasions - and opened up a new universe.

To sum up, the possibilities of the collage medium seem infinite. It is up to the individual artist to develop imagination, inventiveness, discrimination, sensibility and skill to explore and to take full advantage of these possibilities. Art, life and man's progression being constantly in flux and evolving, it may be said that the one permanent constancy in art is constant change in its search to create. Collage, as the art of change, is the newest and ideal exponent of transformation, transfiguration and metamorphosis. As such Collage may well reflect the very nature the world is made of.

Perhaps, it should also be worth noting the therapeutic possibilities of collage: During the 1970's Eric Olson, a clinical psychologist and Robert J. Lifton, a psychiatrist, investigated collage and co-authored a research paper on the "Collage Method". It describes the therapeutic effect collage - assembling and piecing together various pictorial materials - seems to have for individuals, traumatized by life-threatening events in their lives. Perhaps, this may also help explain the almost universal interest in Collage and Assemblage in the 20th Century, this most deeply troubled and traumatized century.

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