Frequently overlooked when discussions about the most popular art techniques arise, collage is a medium that has been present in every major modern movement of the 20th century. Whilst its conceptual roots can be traced all the way back to when paper was invented around 200 BC, this famous technique is widely regarded as an audacious intermingling of high and low culture. This is also the key feature that is responsible for making collage art so popular with avant-garde and neo-avant-garde artists of the last century. Collage emerged as a true art form when Cubistic painters started experimenting with gluing newspaper clippings, after which the artists have been layering images and incorporating autonomous elements into their work to this day. Looking back from today’s standpoint, collage can be described as a perfectly methodical reexamination of the relation between painting and sculpture, with the pieces of this medium bearing characteristics commonly found both in painted and sculpted works. The term collage was coined by the legendary duo of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque as these painters were the ones that worked on collage from the very beginning of the medium – when translated into English, the French verb coller means to glue or to stick. The name of the method was appropriately named due to the technique’s nature of pasting pieces of colored paper and newsprint, although collage artists have been experimenting with many more materials over the years.
Origins of Collage
Although many art pundits correlate the origins of the collage art technique with the cubists, this medium’s true roots can actually be traced much earlier than the 20th century as many collage-like applications were invented much before the avant-garde art. Traces of methods similar to collage as we know it today can be found around the time of the invention of paper, in 200 BC China. However, these were only collage-like techniques and not really anything as the contemporary state of the medium. However, the notion of gluing different cut out papers in order to assemble a composition did happen in China over two thousand years ago. The first instances of artistic touch surrounding such concepts did not occur until the 10th century when Japanese calligraphers began applying pasted paper with text in order to find an alternative way of writing a poem. The European middle ages also had their own version of primitive collage art, as Gothic cathedrals required that their religious images have gold leaves imitating armor and clothing. Despite its presence, it would take centuries for the European populace to start experimenting with the concepts of collage outside religious circumstances. One of the best examples of such practice is the work of Mary Delany, an English painter who, among other things, created a lot of so-called paper-mosaics. Her beautiful intricate paper works are now held in the British Museum and are widely regarded as one of the earliest instances of European collage art as we know it today. In the 19th century, cutting out and gluing pieces of paper was popular and widespread, but that practice can better be described as a hobby than an art form – by doing so, people would assemble photo albums or additional content in books. Gluing pieces of cut out paper was but a means to an end and it did not serve any artistic purpose. This was all about to change with the beginning of the 20th century as contemporary artists decided to turn this two-millennia-old ancient technique into a full blown art method and a medium in its own right.
Cubism’s Idea of the Paper Collage
The beginnings of a genuine collage technique as a modern art form can be attributed to cubists, starting with the year of 1912 and the early stages of modernism. What separated this technique from many other similar and before it was the fact that the cubists entailed much more than the straightforward idea of gluing something onto something else. For the first time, the glued-on patches were not an addition or a detail without whom the piece would make just as much sense as if it was not present. Now, these papers offered a fresh perspective on the entire piece when it met the surface of a painting. Furthermore, carefully chosen elements of collage – which were usually chopped-up bits of newspapers – introduced fragments of externally referenced meanings. These kinds of concepts were tightly connected with the medium of painting – it was the cubist painters Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso that are largely responsible for the birth of the avant-garde collage art.
Who was the first of the two to use this procedure is debatable – some records claim that Picasso was the first to use the collage technique in combination with oil paintings, but there are also reports of state Braque taking up the notion before Pablo, applying it to his charcoal drawings. Regardless of who the initiator of the fresh subgenre was, the two worked separately on experimenting with the potential and the boundaries of collage art, as the method offered everything a true avant-garde painter could desire. A completely original concept far from any traditional technique, a direct way of expression and a lot of room for development. Collage also differed a lot from the theories behind the Analytic Cubism, a previous segment of the movement that aimed at comprising paintings by fragmenting the world into a series of basic lines and curves. The new art form was a true indicator of what ideas stood behind the next chapter in the movement’s history: the Synthetic Cubism, which involved combining particles of various materials to create a new whole. In the year of 1912, Pablo Picasso presented his Still Life with Chair Caning. This painting is a clear indicator of how early collage functioned: Picasso pasted a patch of oilcloth with a chair-cane design onto the canvas of the piece. It should be noted that despite some claiming Braque is the one due credit for the invention of a new art form, Picasso definitely implemented more novelties and experimented more with collage art than his fellow Cubist.
Experiments with Wood
Wood collage is a variation of the genre that emerged somewhat later than its paper-based cubistic variant. Although Georges Braque initiated the use of wood within his collage compositions, he would never incorporate it as a focal point of the painting. He would instead use it to imitate the oak grain surface of the background in his charcoal drawings. For that reason, it is often stated that the idea of gluing wood to a picture was implicitly there from its very inception, but wood collage as a true subgenre did not emerge for some time after the paper version was established. In the midst of the 1920s, Kurt Schwitters, a German painter, started to experiment with wood after he felt unsuccessful with his attempts to copy the cubistic feel with his paper works. It would take a few years before he would truly establish the technique, but in the mid-1920s, Schwitters presented his Merz Picture with Candle, a piece that serves as a clear cornerstone of principles behind wood collage. These pieces were considerably smaller in scale than their paper counterpart but were still intended to be framed and hung as a painting would be. Kurt Schwitters and all latter practitioners of the style would use pieces of wood, wood shavings and scraps to assemble the composition and it was precisely this feature that did the most harm for wood technique and its association with collage art. If the author uses only natural wood such as unaltered logs, branches or sticks, the cultural context of using materials originally made by people and intended for other uses would be gone – and it was this exact postulate that served as a key aspect of paper collage’s emancipation from other mediums. Unaltered, natural wood has no such contexts and for that reason, the wood subgenre is much closer to abstract wood relief than paper collage. The closest way wood technique could come to collage is if it is used as an additional material with paper and that the contextual aspect of the piece would still be present.
Collage in Later Movements Before WWII
After the initial success, collage art moved on from Cubism and found its place among the current art movements that were shaping the scene of the 1920s. Inspired by Cubist experiments with the medium, artists associated with the notorious Dada, particularly the movement’s Berlin section, began their own attempts of incorporating collage techniques to serve their own anti-art goals. Dadaists such as Hannah Hoch, Richard Huelsenbeck and John Heartfield used the results of experimental photomontage to make the materials necessary for their collages, assembling and glueing the images that sharply critiqued German society and culture in the aftermath of World War I. The concepts of Surrealism, although not a perfect match with collage at a first glance, actually served as an excellent platform for the young medium as well, arguably even more so than Dadaism. Representatives of this movement made extensive use of collage through a method better known as cubomania – a procedure based on a notion in which an author cuts an image into squares and then resumes to reassemble them automatically, without relying on common sense. This idea is obviously based on the automatism theory presented by Andre Breton in the early 20s, which claims that the artist must give up control in one way or another and create a piece at random, allowing the chance to do the actual decisions for him. Another use this movement had for collages was the role it played in the famous surrealistic games. Pretty much based on automatism as well, games such as parallel collage were based on collective makings of an accidental painting. Unfortunately for collage art and its practitioners, the glueing technique stopped being so popular after the surrealistic movement, with many artists claiming that the method was too restricted and a bit too limited when compared to the alternative ways of expression. Soon, the Nazi party started to wrap all of Europe in darkness, and all the art forms, including collage, entered a state of stagnation.
A highly popular method that is tightly connected to its older sibling – collage, represents the perfect opposite of it as well. The decollage technique is by far a less famous method, in fact a reverse concept of collage. Instead of an illustration being built up from parts of different images, it is created by cutting, tearing away or otherwise removing pieces of images that have been stacked upon each other. By doing so, the artist would construct and manipulate the stacked papers, slowly ripping his way to the final desired composition. The word itself is also French, translated into English literally as take-off or to become unglued. Wolf Vostell, a German painter and sculptor, is widely considered to be the most crucial artist to work in the decollage method due to the fact he was one of the initiators behind it, but his other activities in fields such as the Happening art and Fluxus detained him from developing the concepts of decollage further than he did. Instead, the duty of advancing this technique fell on the shoulders of a French artist Jacques Villegle.
One of the most important artists to have ever practiced the technique of decollage is Jacques Villegle, a French mixed-media creator that invented his variation of the technique in the aftermath of the World War II, spending his entire career working exclusively in this style. Many experts claim that his particular method is not genuine decollage, but instead the lacerated poster technique, although the only difference between the two is that the latter relies on posters instead of journal clippings or other paper clippings. For that reason, it is no mistake to call Jacques an artist of decollage as his technique is a perfect fit with the aforementioned concepts of the medium. Although visually stunning, what makes Villegle’s method even more impressive is that this was the first true novelty in art history after the horrors of the early 1940s, set in a time that abstraction was the only popular form of expression. It should also be noted that after the World War II, many artists and experts deemed that art was, in fact, dead and that nothing beautiful can ever come out again from the world capable of such atrocities as Auschwitz. Besides visual art, they believed the same fate awaited poetry. It was from this depressing and stagnating situation that Jacques Villegle emerged in the late 1940s with his concept of decollage when he started to gather found objects around the streets of Paris, searching for steel wires, fallen off signs, bricks from Saint-Malo’s Atlantic retaining wall and, most importantly, posters that were scattered all over the streets of Paris. He would later proceed to stack the gathered materials on top of each other, resulting in a thick piece with many layers which was subsequently damaged and drilled. Jacques would transform the torn advertising posters into striking compositions that varied in type, covering everything from humor to eroticism, presenting clever satire as well as strong political statements.
Villegle’s expression would evolve over time, as is the case with all prolific artists. In the beginning, his work was dark in color and he mostly focused on concepts close to typography, whilst the mature pieces operated with brighter colors and more imagery. Such radical alterations to his principles came mostly because Jacques was often criticized, with many claiming his work was too much alike Cubism in nature and that his decollage was not as unique as Villegle claimed. Regardless of such verbal attacks, Jacques Villegle’s work is significant both for collage art and the art in general.
His endeavors proved that the often doubted technique of collage was able to evolve and adapt just as successfully as other mediums; as well as that the concept behind it was not a dead end and that there were methods to which a collage art practitioner could advance to. This is by far the greatest artistic accomplishment this French artist managed to achieve, but one other aspect of Jacques’ work is incredibly important for the development of collage as well, especially for the future medium of urban art. Besides relying on the public surroundings to provide him with raw materials necessary for his work, Villegle was also the first artist who took the concept of collage art to the streets. His finished decollages were returned to the same locations from which the original posters used in the process of the making were taken, communicating a message Villegle managed to convey through his actions. This moment is an incredibly important one in modern art history as Jacques Villegle is the first collage-based artist that would make a practice out of placing his collage works in urban environment, available for all accidental bystanders to see and analyze. This concept was so far ahead of its time that Villegle must be credited for paving the road for future street art that will soon be fighting for its own legitimacy around Europe.
Collage Within Pop art and Mixed-Media
As the scene received an injection of rising optimism from individuals such as Jacques Villegle who proved art was still able to evolve into something new, many notable artists of the 1950s were starting to experiment, with some of them picking up collage as one of their expressive tools. Mostly attracted by the anti-art concepts of Dadaism, neo avant-garde legends such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were led to collage art and it’s invigorating simplicity that made it popular in the first place. New advancements of the medium followed, as artists such as the aforementioned Rauschenberg and Johns attempted to insert the third dimension into collage, which eventually heavily influenced modern sculpture, laying the groundwork for many later styles. Inspired by the found-object policy that followed collage from its conception to Villegle’s poster works , Rauschenberg and Johns incorporated found elements drawn from the mass media and everyday life. This aspect opened the door for the glueing technique and allowed it to become a vital part of the most significant and era-defining art movement to emerge from the second half of the 20th century – Pop art. Exemplified by collage-based works like British artist Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956), the old technique found new uses and seemed to be a perfect fit with the parodical and advertising nature of Pop art. American artists like Tom Wesselmann, Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal and Andy Warhol all experimented with collage, whilst European fellow artists such as Arman, Baj, Christo, Yves Klein, Festa, Rotella, Jean Tinguely and Schifano as well allowed collage to become an essential part of many pieces they authored.
Transforming into Mixed-Media Collage
Later uses for the medium were mostly correlated with the growingly popular method of mixed media. Individuals like John Walker, Conrad Marca-Relli and Jane Frank used collage in their works in order to convey messages to audiences, although it served a secondary role in most of their artworks. The intensely self-critical Lee Krasner, the wife of the famous activist and painter Jackson Pollock, also created collage pieces but in a way no other did before her – she would destroy her own paintings to punish herself for not being creative enough and the leftovers of the canvases were later combined and reassembled, glued into new compositions. David Wojnarowicz is another artist that must be mentioned here as his work has massively contributed to keeping the heritage of collage alive. Through works of the aforementioned artists, collage art yet again proved how surprisingly versatile and adaptive it is, but it also suffered a huge injustice along the way. Slowly but surely, the widespread use of the contemporary term mixed-media has effectively superseded the word collage as the newly formed medium, and among other things, also incorporated the concept of glued assembly of objects on a canvas. Despite the term being used less and less, the concept of collage broadened and spread away from contemporary visual arts, finding new platforms in musical and architectural arrangements, as well as many new forms that brought new aspects to the table.
Different Types of the Medium
Besides the aforementioned sorts of collage art based on paper and wood, this medium has seen its fair share of types and variations over the years. Due to its adaptive nature, artists have often chosen collage as their go-to medium for experimentation, which in return meant that this technique would be exposed to many different materials and concepts. After they’ve been established, some methods became more suitable to be classed as a handcraft, but some approaches to collage remained a respected art form. An honorable mention should go to the art of mosaics as this ancient method is based on the same principles of collage, with whom it has a special connection due to the work of Mary Delany who attempted to find the perfect middle ground of the two similar mediums.
Decoupage is one of the most popular techniques of assembling a collage piece and it is usually defined as a craft more than an artform. It represents a process of placing a picture into an object in order to achieve decoration, using cut-outs of paper, linoleum, plastic or other flat materials. Decoupage can involve adding multiple copies of the same image, cut and layered to add apparent depth, whilst the resulting picture is often coated with varnish or some other sealant for protection. Primitive prototypes of this method can be found in the 17th and 18th centuries countries of Europe, like France and Venice, but some Asian cultures already had similar practices for decades before it arrived at the Old Continent. The roots of decoupage as an avant-garde art form, as is the case with many other methods, can be traced to the early 20th century, although the practitioners of that time aimed to achieve much more abstract visuals then artists nowadays do. Pablo Picasso is often regarded as the biggest name to work in decoupage, but the famous Henri Matisse also created many wonderful pieces through this technique, like the well known Blue Nude II. As the years passed by, decoupage artists started using fewer layers than the original practitioners and the applied cutouts started to be added under glass in order to achieve a three-dimensional appearance. This is widely recognized as the most difficult method of collage art, as the decoupage pieces may take up to a year to complete due to the many coats and sandings applied.
A collage artwork made solely or partially of photographs, or fragments of photographs, is called a photomontage. Photomontage is the process of making a composite photograph by cutting and joining a number of other camera-made images. These are the most popular type of collage and its practitioners can be found all over the world ever since cameras became advanced enough and affordable to wider masses. The beginnings of photomontage can be traced to the 19th-century tradition of physically joining multiple images into a composite and photographing the results prevailed in press photography or lithography. The completed piece of collage photomontage is called the composite picture and after its completion, this newly founded image is photographed and converted back into a seamless photographic print, but the original is also kept. Due to the name of the resulting picture, this technique is referred to by professionals as compositing – this also serves as a way of distinguishing from other methods as many similar processes of combining pictures are also called photomontage. Although this technique is still practiced today, the majority of photomontage works are done via computers and image-editing software. These programs make the changes digitally, allowing for faster workflow and more precise results.
This is the procedure of using computer software tools in collage art creation. A true 21st-century form, it’s easy to make and quick to learn, whilst it also makes traditional materials, scissors and glue obsolete. Introducing collage to the digital world offered the aspiring artist an opportunity to create without any boundaries whatsoever, with his imagination being the only thing defining the limits. Nowadays, this particular method of collage- making is rarely used on its own, but rather as a segment of digital art creation. Another common name for this kind of art making is eCollage.
A three-dimensional collage is the art form in which one is putting 3D materials on a surface to form a new object. The materials available for use are virtually limitless – you can use rocks, beads, buttons, sticks, coins or even soil, whilst some artists have incorporated into this method a tradition of found objects, making a connection between this technique and the legacy of modern avant-garde art. There is only a small limit to what you can do with this type of collage as the materials on top of the surface can be of any kind you see fit. This method is also a lot closer to the concept of sculpture than paintings, so connections with the avant-garde wood collages of Constructivism and Dadaism are very common.
Collage of the 21st Century
Nowadays, collage continues to do what it has always done with much success – adapt and evolve. It still offers an alternative creative outlet for the artists who are willing to give it a chance and there are many such artists out there. Most of them do not dedicate their entire artistic effort to working exclusively in collage, rather making various pieces out of which only some have enough of this technique to be called a genuine collage work, treating this technique as a secondary one and a mean to an end. However, there are still contemporary artists whose artistic portfolios are primarily based on collage – these individuals keep the legacy of this art form alive and well, allowing collage to enjoy a stable role in the modern art scene.
Renowned as one of the most important contemporary African artists, Wangechi Mutu has been presenting us her collage works who explore topics such as gender, race and colonialism. Besides collage, Mutu also uses other mediums as well, all of which serve a supportive role and put further emphasis on her work – these mostly include video, performance and sculpture pieces. Mutu’s works are also often painted with ink and acrylic paint, accompanied by materials such as plastic pearls, 24 karat gold and latex. Inspired by a combination of movements such as Surrealism and her own personal preferences among fellow artists, Wangechi Mutu composes imagery drawn from anthropological, medical and ethnographic texts, whilst also seeking materials from pornography and tabloid magazines. Through her phenomenal collage works, Wangechi Mutu calls out attention to the issues of violence and mistreatment of women in modern societies around the globe.
Using real locations to create fictional ones in an effort to demonstrate the methodical ways in which humans have transformed the earth, Sarah Eisenlohr is a fascinating collage author that really manages to stand out thanks to her originality and vintage visuals. Additionally, her scenes often carry undertones of spirituality and faith, undertoning the concept of our presence on planet Earth: I consider the figures’ desire for shelter, warmth, and something stronger than themselves as symbols of serenity that I seek through spirituality, while the use of sublime in my work points to a relationship with the divine. Eisenlohr’s idealized images are truly one of a kind, depicting the influence of humanity through impressive aesthetics of combined modernism and vintage, whilst also bringing collage to a new expressive level.
The immensely talented Moki Mioki is a Berlin-based author whose works also explore and reveal the deeper connection between humans and nature. Her collage pieces incorporate portraits and landscapes with seamless continuity, making the images mystical and visually astonishing. In an attempt to explain her art, Mioki stated the following: The beings disappearing in my paintings illustrate the state of mind when you cannot distinguish between you and the other, that feeling of awareness for what surrounds you. Much of her assembled compositions are inspired by images of northern landscapes as these isolated Scandinavian and Icelandic terrains are some of the last remnants of untouched nature in the world.
Kara Walker is a contemporary American artist known for her courageous collage-based investigations of race, stereotypes, gender, inequality and identity throughout the bloody history of the United States. Conducted by the idea that her assignment as an artist is to shock viewers straight out of their comfort zone, Walker has been using her rebellious spirit, sharp language and an uncompromising relentlessness in saying the right thing to make fascinating black and white collage works. These unique huge pieces have been provoking the public ever since young Kara presented her Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War As It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart in the year of 1994. Walker’s work is straightforward, ambitious and unprecedented, as well as surpisingly graphic when you consider the fact that they are made solely from black silhouettes placed atop a white surface. Battling and soaring above the frenzied storm her artwork always manages to generate, Kara’s art ultimately stimulated greater awareness and pushed conversations about racism in visual culture forward, simultaneously proving that collage is a fantastic medium who still has a lot to offer.
Keeping the legacy of Jacques Villegle’s outdoors collage art alive, Madame (also known as Madame Moustache) is a French street artist whose work is not really comparable with any other artwork out there. What makes Madame so incredibly unique is the very thing associating her with Jacques Villegle – she exclusively uses collage, blending its aspects with street art by working outdoors, still representing fundamentally uncombinable matchups Villegle did in the 1940s and 1950s France. This woman veiled in mystery is responsible for covering urban surfaces with huge clippings from old newspapers and magazines, making pieces that are among the most instantly recognizable works of the Parisian street art scene. However, such a recognition did not come because of the Madame’s use of collage, which is undoubtedly a rare occurrence in street art, but rather because of the retro aesthetics – she works hard at making her pieces seem as they were straight out of the magazines from 1960s. Madame achieves such results by mixing old materials such as paper, cardboard, engravings, drawings, pictures, fabric, metal and wood. Through the clever use of humorous statements and her playful style, Madame tackles issues such as gender identity and stereotypes, while allowing the misappropriation of the pictures to take center stage. And under every artwork she leaves a unique signature that became a real trademark for her art – a black mustache. In order to highlight human qualities such as compassion, sharing, solidarity and love, Madame created a whimsical world inhabited by strange women, cats with fishlike characteristics and housewives with bodies of male athletes. All the pieces this mysterious street artist authors are based on strong humor, which makes a lot of sense when you realize much of her artistic efforts were inspired by the concepts of Dadaism. Another thing separating Madame from the rest is the undeniable fact that the street art scene is mostly dominated by males, so the presence of such a successful and unique female artist is a true breath of fresh air.
The Future of Collage
Nowadays, many question where the rightful place of collage art is in the contemporary scale of genres and techniques. When compared to the original concepts of Picasso, or even Richard Hamilton’s works from the 1950s, collage has definitely lost its most precious asset from an art history standpoint – treating and presenting it as fine art is no longer as unexpected to the current audience as was the case earlier. It seems that this technique is not the same without that shock-value, with many artists turning to more provocative methods and leaving collage aside. However, it may not be the right time to leave collage in its well-deserved pages of art history, despite it looking as if it’s on the way to the archives. It can still offer a lot to an aspiring author, much more than just a traditional stop along the way to another medium. The juxtaposition of images and ideas, the unique relation between high and low art form, re-appropriating material into new aesthetic and conceptual contexts – these are the features of collage art that no other medium can successfully rival.
Another misconception of collage’s nature seems to be holding it back in contemporary times, and the roots of this misunderstanding can be found inside the very concept of the medium – if you, a creator, desire to make, or better yet, assemble something by the method of collage, you are instantly agreeing to build something out of already completed smaller parts. Many see this as losing control over your work from the very beginning and such a concept does not sit well with some who for that reason see collage as too restricted, too limited. Unfortunately, this illusion, although a false one, has hurt this technique rather badly over the recent years with many people pursuing other mediums instead, seeking more control over their art.
Finally, it may look as though collage art might not have the brightest of futures. But do not yet despair – this medium has been in this same situation for decades already, refusing to become a thing of the past. As we’ve established already, there are still artists out there that are working tirelessly on exploring and expanding this technique, both on a formal and conceptual level, keeping it progressing and alive. No matter what the current artistic style or movement is the most popular, collage will succeed to adapt to it and carry its part down the road, offering expressive solutions to those brave enough to experiment and see what this method offers. So, despite the fact collage will hardly achieve the status of the leading medium, this technique is far from being endangered. At its core, collage art is supposed to be the supporting role on, sitting in the quiet spot of the art scene, far from the prying eyes of popularity. It was never supposed to be the main visual language in general, but rather one word inside a vocabulary, an option that is always there and waiting for the special chosen few to carry its legacy on.
Written by Andreja Velimirović