Two museum shows survey the vast terrain of collage and its three-dimensional counterpart, assemblage.
Collage is the perfect art medium for the modern age. It is friendly to free association, unconventional juxtapositions, subversion of traditional space, and subversion of the concepts of authorship and craftsmanship. The collage artist, magpie-like, can pick up found objects, recycle elements from the art of the past, or appropriate pieces of other artists’ work. Collage has served just about every strategy and agenda of post-1900 art—Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art, to name a few. Collage can stand on its own or coexist with painting, drawing, photography, and other multimedia techniques; in fact, it can be considered to be the pioneer of the whole idea of “multimedia.” And it can even spring into the third dimension with framed wooden constructions, shadowboxes, or the sculptural analogue of collage, assemblage.
This summer, two museum shows, one on each side of the Atlantic, celebrate the exuberance and diversity of collage and assemblage, affording an opportunity to reexamine a process that is familiar and yet always seems to yield something more the more you look. Through September 2, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has on view “The Art of Collage and Assemblage,” a broad sampling of works excavated from its own collection that is being presented alongside another exhibition, “Souls Grown Deep: Artists from the African American South.” The pairing emphasizes the fact that collage and assemblage were attractive and useful not only to mainstream modernists but also to self-taught or “folk” artists whose relative isolation from the art world did not prevent them from becoming aware of these techniques—or in some cases, discovering them on their own. And through October 27, the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh is mounting “Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage,” which features some 250 works and somewhat controversially advertises itself as “the first survey exhibition of collage to take place anywhere in the world.” By including a few older works, it also reignites an old debate as to whether collage began at the beginning of the 20th century or goes back much farther than that.
As far as modernist collage is concerned, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso get the credit. Each claimed primacy, and it is difficult to separate their works from each other during the period in which they co-invented Cubism and in the spirit of collaboration refrained from signing their works. In any case, in 1912 Braque decided to glue some pieces of cut-out wood-grained wallpaper onto charcoal drawings he had done, and called the resulting works papiers collés. (The term, which means “glued papers,” is now used by art historians to refer to this specific subset of the broader term “collage,” which means simply “glueing.”) As Clement Greenberg pointed out in a 1959 essay, this was a paradoxical use of illusion in an art that strove to eliminate illusionism in painting, since the glued-on wood-grain paper was used to represent actual wood in a still life. An example is Braque’s Musical Forms, in the Philadelphia exhibition, in which the wood-grain paper simulates the surface of a guitar.
Soon Braque and Picasso were pasting cut-out pieces of newspaper to drawings and paintings. This was also illusionistic, but executed so that it “gives away” the illusion and thereby negates it. In Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, in the Edinburgh show, fragments of the Paris paper Le Figaro are applied to the picture plane; do they represent the newspaper lying on the café table along with the bottle of wine, or are they external to the picture? Obviously both. The fact that we are only given fragments of the newspaper cleverly suggests the fragmentation of attention in the modern world, which was well underway by 1912. In Picasso’s Bouteille et Verre Sur un Table, also in the Edinburgh show, the newspaper clipping forms part of the bottle itself; the rest is drawn in outline in charcoal. The clipping itself contains an advertisement for a liqueur, demonstrating that playful humor has been a part of collage from the beginning.
Aside from the specific content of newspapers, labels, or faux-wood paper, the early Cubist collages all participated in the strategy of disturbing the viewer’s perception of pictorial space. In his 1959 essay on collage, Greenberg refers to the pasted-on elements as “undepicted,”meaning that they are actually, tangibly present rather than drawn or painted. He writes, “The abiding effect is of a constant shuttling between surface and depth, in which the depicted flatness is ‘infected’ by the undepicted. Rather than being deceived, the eye is puzzled; instead of seeing objects in space, it sees nothing more than—a picture.” As collage matured and became far more diverse in subject matter and technique, this dichotomy between surface and depth, between what is “in” the composition and what appears to have been brought inform “outside” it, has remained, and the key modernist strategy of perceptual disturbance runs through almost all collage.
Picasso and Braque stopped doing collage around 1914, leaving it to others to cultivate. The Dadaists eagerly took it up, more because of its potential for satirical humor and subversion of the role of the artist than for formalist reasons. Raoul Hausmann’s famous photomontage (collage with cut-out photographic prints applied) The Art Critic (1919–20), on view in Edinburgh, skewers the critic (presumably a generic representation of grouchy opposition to modernist experimentation, although it is humorously labeled as being George Grosz, a colleague and friend of Hausmann’s, and is actually not even a photo of Grosz) as blind to art, his eyes covered up by drawn-in elements and the eyeballs within the drawing obscured by what look like prison bars. The critic is distracted from his self-appointed task of evaluating art by women and fashion, represented by media images cut and pasted by Hausmann. The large words in the background are from a poem by the artist; one of the important aspects of collage, dating back to the beginning, is the interpenetration of image and text. When letters blend with pictorial elements to point where they become pictorial themselves, traditional “rational” meaning is subverted. This strategy served the aims of Dada and Surrealism particularly well.
With the rise of Surrealism, collage really came into its own. The exuberance and vitality of Surrealist collage is unmistakable, as the artists delighted in the technique’s power to create an atmosphere of weirdness and randomness, characteristic of the emptying out of psychic contents that they desired. Collage lent itself easily to Freudian-influenced free association, as well as to automatism, a beloved technique of Surrealism. Max Ernst made particularly heavy use of collage, and his style of mashing up 19th-century popular prints is on display in his Untitled (Unpublished collage for ‘Une Semaine de Bonté’), in the Edinburgh show. Ernst, no slouch at painting freehand, used other people’s imagery—anonymous, in typical Surrealist objet trouvé fashion— to tell a new, usually horror- or metaphysically-inflected story—if “story” is the right word for something so non-discursive. On the other hand, the use of found imagery made collage particularly useful to those who did not have traditional graphic skills, such as Surrealist leader André Breton, who was more of a writer than a visual artist. His collage Le Déclin de la société bourgeoise, on view at the National Galleries of Scotland, is a basic photomontage with two collaged-on prints, but it has visual and satirical impact out of proportion to its simplicity. The same show features a complex multimedia work by British Surrealist Eileen Agar, Fish Circus, which uses collaged prints and pieces of cardboard, painted abstract color elements, and a three-dimensional starfish that breaks out of the flat plane.
To take collage into the third dimension fell to the practitioners of assemblage. Kurt Schwitters, a veteran of the Dada movement, coined the word Merz to refer to his technique of attaching more or less flat wooden elements to a wooden board, as in his Merz Construction, on view in the Philadelphia exhibition. This concept of mounting objects more or less abstract or abstracted (from their original purpose) on boards or bases developed into different varieties of assemblage. Enrico Donati’s iconic The Evil Eye, also in Philadelphia, mounts an anatomical model eye, complete with trailing nerve fibers, on a glossy plinth with circular mirrors to reflect it to the viewer at different angles. This tour de force of latter-day Surrealism is absolutely collage in the round. Another approach to assemblage is the shadowbox, a specialty of Joseph Cornell. His Homage to Juan Gris, in the Philadelphia exhibition, places some of the traditional collage materials, such as newspaper clippings and wood-grain paper, against the back wall of the box and foregrounds them with a bird sculpture, a ring, and a whiffle ball. Gris is an appropriate dedicatee, given that he was among the earliest experimenters with papiers collés, after his friends Braque and Picasso, and persisted in making them long after they stopped doing so.
Later developments in collage show ever-increasing freedom in the use of materials coupled with a tendency to disregard collage conventions from the prewar period. Romare Bearden’s Blue Snake is literally a forest of colorful imagery, mostly painted by the artists and cut up and reassembled, but also including some found elements. Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance takes the simplest elements, colored squares, and sticks them to a white background to form a pixelated chromatic abstraction. And the artist known as Jess (Burgess Collins) brought collage and photomontage to the limits of what the eye can take in with large-scale kaleidoscopic works he called “paste-ups,” such as The Sun, Tarot XIX. In this reimagining and transformation of the Renaissance European tarot iconography, the traditional pair of twin children become two flayed anatomical figures from a medical textbook, while the eponymous sun itself is present as a congeries of small gold-colored pictorial elements combined in such a way that they suggest the orb and its rays. The composition is so crowded with references—all sourced by the artist in a process that could take years—that the entire Jungian collective unconscious seems to be present here. All three of these works are in the Philadelphia Museum’s exhibition.
The curators of the Edinburgh exhibition include earlier works such as 19th century collages done from commercially available kits and even some 16th-century prints that use the technique. The question this raises is whether collage is really a modern invention. While it is true that artists in many parts of the world in centuries gone by glued pictorial elements onto flat surfaces in quest of various effects, the use of collage to create new kinds of space perceptions and to transmit a new thought process about imagery came into being in the early 20th century. For the purposes of art history, collage is modernist collage. On the other hand, from a Surrealist point of view, perhaps all collage, even the most naïve, should be included, because after all, the Surrealist practice of finding new meaning in old things picked up in odd places has been integral to the whole ongoing project of modernist collage.
By John Dorfman