The term collage, derived from the French word “coller” (to glue), is the technique of creating visual art by attaching various separate objects to a support to create a unified composition. The objects used in a collage can be essentially anything, from newspaper clippings to pieces of driftwood, or whatever else may suit the aesthetic purpose of the artist. In spite of the name, the objects can be attached to their support by any means necessary (although some kind of glue is still the most commonly used method).
Examples of this technique can be found in antiquity, particularly in the pasted paper works of China and Japan, and the gold-leafing and gluing of gemstones onto a painting that was typical in the medieval period in Europe could also be considered a form of collage. In the 19th century, scrapbooking enthusiasts used collage-like techniques to create fun and interesting memorabilia. However at that time the form never gained any real acceptance within the fine arts community.
With the advent of the Modern Art movement at the beginning of the 20th century, collage as we know it today came into being. As with so many other things in the genesis of Modern Art, the legitimization of collage as a means of expression is generally credited to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques, the founders of the art movement known as Cubism. From about 1905 to 1917, these two painters developed an entirely new way of looking at art and simultaneously helped to shift the cultural perception of the meaning of it.
From a purely pictorial standpoint, the basic idea behind Cubism was to literally shatter the concept of the painted image as being untrue to the real experience of seeing the world, so the Cubist image is composed of a series of discrete glances, each one seeing just a fragment of the subject. It was this fragmented nature of the Cubist style that may have allowed the two artists to develop the idea of literally taking objects from the outside world and bring them directly into the painting.
Georges Braque is generally credited as being the first of the two to add collage elements into his artwork. He was the son of a faux finish painter and had been trained for that job himself, so he was familiar with many techniques for creating the illusion of different surfaces. While working on some charcoal drawings, most likely preparatory sketches for oil paintings, he was using a wooden table as part of his still-life setup. Rather than drawing the woodgrain surface, he decided to use a piece of faux oak wallpaper, which he glued onto the drawing where the table would appear. It’s possible that Braque was just doing this as a way to save time, rather than actually planning to use the wallpaper in his painting, but in any case, Picasso was the one who, upon seeing his friend’s drawing, realized the potential of this new means of expression.
Picasso’s first painting that included collage elements was his “Still Life With Chair Caning,” from 1912, which used another faux finish element, a piece of oilcloth with a chair caning pattern painted on it by an unknown craftsman. From that point forward, collage (as they began to call it) elements became a regular part of the aesthetic for both painters.
The collage fragments that entered into their paintings were put there for a very specific purpose: they had the effect of bringing the real world directly into the picture plane and the choice of objects was also usually very telling. Newspaper clips with text that described a story of the day were common, as well as other items that tied the paintings into the time and place where they were created. The idea behind Cubism was to create something new, something Modern, and the addition of collage served to build a context for the work that was a uniquely 20th century invention.
Braque continued to use collage throughout the rest of his career, although less so in later years. Picasso, as was his reputation, quickly left Cubism behind and moved on to explore new concepts, but his passion for using found objects continued in his sculptural work. However, the collage form itself was taken up and more thoroughly explored by others in the ensuing decades.
Collage was a foundational part of the Dada and Surrealist movements, who greatly appreciated the value of randomness and the potential for art to be found in ordinary things. The most interesting of these was Kurt Schwitters, who wandered the streets of pre- and post-World War II Berlin picking up the trash that people dropped carelessly. These seemingly waste items, ticket stubs, cigarette packages, etc., would become elements in paintings that were at once ethereal abstractions and firmly rooted in the grubby, urban reality of Germany at that time.
Today, collage is a completely accepted and regularly seen means of expression that is used by many, many artists. It still functions as it did from the beginning - to firmly root the art in its time and place.
What’s the most interesting element(s) that you’ve used in collage? Keep the conversation going!
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