The Art of Collage
In the world of contemporary art, it seems that the collage genre isn’t given the respect it deserves. Many people aren’t aware of the part collage has played in art history, or of the many contemporary artists using collage as their primary medium today. These artists have each used this art form to express their own unique vision, and have forever changed the definition and perception of what the art of collage can be.
Still Life with Chair Caning, Pablo Picasso, 1912
“Collage is the twentieth century’s greatest innovation.” — Robert Motherwell
left: Bottle of Rum, Georges Braque
“I have always tried to exploit the photograph. I use it like color, or as the poet uses the word.” ~ Hannah Hoch
Early Pioneers: Hannah Hoch and Kurt Schwitters
The Big Step, Hannah Hoch
If Hannah Hoch was the queen of photomantage, Kurt Schwitters was king of the found object and ephemera. Unlike Hoch, his work rarely contains photographs, but instead is filled with detritus he found on the streets in Germany after World War I.
“The concept that attaching small objects (not to mention – garbage) to the surface of the canvas could be considered art was radical. Yet Schwitters was convinced that the act of taking broken fragments and unifying them into a whole demonstrated art’s potential to remake and reimagine a fractured world.” (The Art Story: Modern Art Insight)
Schwitters’ collages are completely abstract. He did not wish to engage in the “illusionism” of realistic art. His references to reality are contained only in the materials themselves.
Kurt Schwitters, 1926
The Birth of an Art Form
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that people had never glued papers to other papers before. There are many early precedents for the art form, going back to 10th century Japan. Decorative items were applied to books and panels in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Decades later, Victorians used photomontage (combining photos) and decoupage as techniques for creating memorabilia. Perhaps the first well-known collage artist was Mary Delany (left), who created beautiful botanical illustrations from cut paper.
Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were the first to coin the term ‘collage’, which comes from the French word for glued paper, ‘colle’. Around 1912, Picasso began to add newsprint to his oil paintings, to reference current events. Both he and Braque composed works from pasted pieces of colored paper, newsprint, and found objects. At the time, this was “considered to be an audacious intermingling of high and low culture. It revolutionized modern art.” (A Cut-Down History of Collage, Lauren Wallach)
Money Worries, Hannah Hoch
Dada Dolls, Hannah Hoch, 1916
Revolving, Kurt Schwitters, 1919
Merzbuild, Kurt Schwitters, 1919
The Block, by Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden was another artist who did much to advance the use of collage as a primary form of artistic expression. Originally a painter, Bearden started to experiment with collage in the 1960s, when he helped to found an artists group in support of civil rights. The content of his work focused mostly on the daily life of African-Americans in the rural south where he grew up, and in the city where he lived as an adult.
“Bearden’s work became more representational and more overtly socially conscious. He used clippings from magazines… to incorporate modernity in his works, trying to show how not only were African-American rights moving forward, but so was his socially conscious art.” (Wikipedia)
She-ba by Romare Bearden
Serenade, by Romare Bearden 1969
Henri Matisse painting, Dessert (Harmony in Red)
Henri Matisse collage, Man Studying Poster of Sorrow of the King, 1952
Henri Matisse was known as a great painter, sometimes called the greatest colorist of the 20th century. He was a leader of the Fauve movement in Paris, as well as a contemporary and sometimes rival of Picasso.
Due to illness in his later years, Matisse could no longer stand at the easel. He began using paper cut-outs to design murals and other large works, having his assistants pin the shapes to the walls to form compositions. But then, what he called “drawing with scissors” itself became a medium for creating the artworks. Unlike other modern collage artists, he did not use photographs or found materials, but paper which had been painted with the colors he chose. These collages are considered one of his most important bodies of work.
Check out the video below to see why.
Of course, these are not the only early influencial collage artists. They’re just the ones that stand out to me as the artists who did the most to change the way that people saw the art of collage. They legitimized it in the eyes of the the art world, and through the galleries, it came to be accepted by the public as well. Collage could now be considered “fine art”.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of some of the important originators of the art of collage. In my next post, I’ll look at some of the artists who continue to push the boundaries of this ever-expanding art form.