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

Hannah Höch

While Picasso and Braque were the first in the age of modern art to use collage, it was not their primary medium, nor did they use it extensively. Hannah Höch was a German artist and member of the Dada Movement, and was perhaps the first to use photomontage as a primary technique.
“…This strategy of combining formerly unrelated images to make sometimes startling, sometimes insightful connections was one that came to be adopted by many Dada and Surrealist artists of her era… Höch also helped expand the notion of what could be considered art by incorporating found elements of popular culture into “higher” art.”
Much of her work questioned political and societal norms.
“Her active interest in challenging the status of women in the social world of her times motivated a long series of works that promoted the idea of the “New Woman” in the era.”
(Quotes from The Art Story: Modern Art Insight)

The Big Step, Hannah Hoch

Kurt Schwitters

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

Romare Bearden

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

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.

Stay tuned…

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.


  1. T Hoover

    Loved this overview! As you saw I worked on a collage yesterday. It is what I do when painting is just too hard. Yesterday was one of those days. It is interesting, while working it brought me back to my childhood… I made hundreds of collages as a teenager.

    • Sharmon Davidson

      Hi Teri, thanks for visiting! I did see your collage yesterday, but had no idea that was something you did. So cool that you did so many collages as a teenager! I think it’s a wonderful art form, for so many reasons. Welcome back to collage! xo

  2. Marguerite

    Highly energetic article, I enjoyed that a lot. Will there be
    a part 2?

    • Sharmon Davidson

      Hi Marguerite! thanks for reading. Yes, I’m working on a part II, just not sure when it will be finished!


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