A Short History of Collage

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, December 2008 | Go to article overview

A Short History of Collage


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Collage is a technique of pasting materials such as newspaper clippings, fur, wall paper, package labels, or dozens of other possible materials onto paintings, drawings, prints, even sculpture.

By adding a "collage" an artist can change the nature of what he or she is creating, providing a new dimension for a work of art. Collage also influences the perception of a viewer, thereby changing the relationship of the observer to the art object in a meaningful manner. In some ways collage is a short cut, a time saving device that might eliminate the need to paint some areas of a canvas.

Not a New-Comer

Collage has been around for a very long time. Cavemen may have used it by adding ribbons or slivers of grass to images such as mammoths drawn on a rock wall. Fast forward to more recent times, and we find school children creating collages by pasting keepsakes into their diaries or scrapbooks; housewives cutting out recipes and appending them to their cooking files; and sweethearts adorning their valentine greeting cards with rose petals, bits of lace and paper cutouts--all examples of collage-making that have taken place for centuries, if not millennia.

Among artists throughout the ages and across the continents, collages have been used to enhance the texture of their offerings, to emphasize points of reference and to create pleasure. In Japan, artists who created poetry scrolls often added collages to make a particular point or to improve their visual presentations. Collages figure prominently in Russian icons, and in medieval Europe gold leaf overlays were often added to enhance the artistic value as well as monetary worth of presentations. We also see examples of collage in tribal and aboriginal art.

Collage in Cubism and Futurism

In Europe collage reemerged as an important component of 20th century art. In 1912, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) the great Spanish painter, attached a piece of oilcloth with a caning pattern to an oval shaped painting "Still Life with Chair Caning." The modern day trend to employ collage had begun.

Soon after, Picasso's studio mate, Georges Braque (1882-1963) created "Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass." This work was highlighted with paper collage including pieces of wallpaper, sheet music and newspaper clippings.

Meanwhile, Picasso's experiment with collage led him to try his hand at sculpture. "Glass of Absinthe" was Picasso's first sculpture. He went on to produce prize-winning sculpture from then on, often incorporating collage elements.

The use of collage by Picasso and Braque was closely related to their experimentation with another new art form: Cubism. We can term Cubism as a way to transform a two dimensional space into a three dimensional one.

Juan Gris (1887-1927) a fellow Spaniard and a Picasso prot[e']g[e'] gave up a promising career as a cartoonist to devote himself to painting, but he soon discovered that collage was his true m[e']tier. He was a perfectionist about the elements he used--making sure, for example, that the wood grain he added suited the subject he was illustrating. Gris did a good job of explaining the appeal of collage to artists. "Surfaces can be recreated and volumes interpreted in a picture, but what about a mirror whose surface is always changing and which should reflect the spectator?" he asked. "There is nothing to do but stick in a real piece (of mirror)." "The Table" (1914), now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a good example of Gris' work.

Other artists had different reasons for employing collage. Legend has it that Ferdinand Leger (1881-1955) first used collage during World War I when he couldn't find paper at the front and produced a work of art using cartridge boxes. Henry Matisse (1869-1955) was bedridden and unable to paint during his final four years. So he turned to colored paper cut-outs, creating a joyous universe of individual art works as well as book covers and textiles. …

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