I want to incorporate into my painting any objects of real life.
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Summary of Collage

A common technique practiced by decorators, advertising agencies, and hobbyists alike, collage upended the fine-art world when Cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso incorporated bits of newspaper and printed wallpaper into their paintings, subverting traditional definitions of what is important art. Combining painting, real-world objects, images, and ephemera into a single work, collage directly questions the tendency to separate fine art from everyday objects, the delineations between so-called high and low culture, and the status of the artist.

Adopted by subsequent artists, collage became a dominant technique in the Dada, Surrealist, Pop Art, and Neo-Dada movements, each using the technique to explore different subject matters. Because collage often incorporates mass-produced images, the practice is often inseparable from its historical and political context, making it a mode of powerful social commentary. Contemporary artists continue to explore the richness of collage in their efforts to question assumptions, biases, and pressing political crises.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Whether purposefully or randomly composed, the juxtapositions between images and objects created by the collage technique have long intrigued artists. Because images can take on new meanings in new contexts, collage can subvert traditional meanings and at the same time multiply meanings, creating works that don't easily settle into single, fixed analyses.
  • From the French meaning "to glue," collage describes the technique of composing an artwork by gluing a wide range of materials - including pieces of paper, fabric, newspaper clippings, and sometimes readymade objects - to a surface. Art historians make technical differentiations between collage techniques based on the materials an artist uses. Papiers collés are collages made only with bits of paper; decoupage, which means cutting, consists of cutting out colored paper or images and then gluing them to an object; photomontage uses photographs and images from mass-media sources, while assemblage is a three-dimensional accumulation of objects.
  • Many avant-garde artists, from the earliest days of modernism to contemporary postmodernism, use collage to question the traditional role of the artist. By using found, often mass-produced, images and objects that the artists themselves don't make, collage undermines the traditional importance placed on the presence of the artist's hand in an original work of art. Additionally, often relying on chance to create compositions, many artists use collage to subvert the importance placed on the artist's creative genius in composing works.

Overview of Collage

Collage Photo

By the 12th century, both the Chinese and Japanese routinely glued brightly colored pieces of paper to various objects, sometimes applying a layer of lacquer to seal the surface for more permanent effect. The technique spread to medieval Europe, where additional materials, such as shells, gemstones, or gold foil, were incorporated into compositions. By the 18th century, decoupage, from the French "to cut out," had become a popular pastime among the European aristocracy, including Madame de Pompadour, Marie Antoinette, and Beau Brummell. An 18th-century letter described the trend: "We are here in the height of a new passion for cutting up colored engravings.... These cuttings are pasted on sheets of pasteboard then varnished. We make wall panels, screens, and fireboards of them."

Key Artists

  • Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
  • Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
  • Juan Gris was a Spanish painter and sculptor, and one of the few pioneers of Cubism. Along with Matisse, Léger, Braque and Picasso, Gris was among the elite visual artists working in early-twentieth-century France.
  • Francis Picabia was a French artist who worked in Dada, Surrealist, and abstract modes, often employing language and mechanical imagery. He published the Dada journal 391 in Barcelona and America.
  • Kurt Schwitters was a German artist who was particularly influential in the development of Dada movement and his own offshoot of Dada that he called Merz. Schwitters was heavily involved in the international avant-garde, with artists like El Lissitzky, Hans Arp, and Tristan Tzara.
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Do Not Miss

  • Assemblage is a style of sculpture inspired by the idea of introducing pre-existing, non-art objects into an art context. Although one can find precedents for the approach in the work of Duchamp and Picasso, it flourished as a tendency in the 1950s and 1960s, and continues to be a prominent techinique today.
  • Photomontage is essentially a single artwork combined of two or more original or existing photos, produced to encourage audiences to consider the relationship between the grouped images.
  • Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
  • Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.

The Important Artists and Works of Collage

Fruit Dish and Glass (1912)

Artist: Georges Braque

In this work pioneering work of collage, Braque combines faux-wood wallpaper with a Cubist depiction of a fruit dish and glass. The intersecting planes of the drawing and the collage elements upend traditional notions of perspectival space but still suggest a table top and a door, perhaps even suggesting a café. For Braque, Cubism's emphasis on still life was primarily concerned with depicting space, as he said, "What greatly attracted me - and it was the main line of advance of Cubism - was how to give material expression to this new space of which I had an inkling. So I began to paint chiefly still lifes, because in nature there is a tactile, I would almost say a manual space.... It was that space that attracted me strongly, for that was the earliest Cubist painting - the quest for space." While the papier collé still explores how we perceive and feel space, the addition of the glued-on bits of wallpaper emphasize a shallower space that is more an exploration of shapes, their tactility, and how they relate to each other.

Braque created this example of papier collé, which uses bits of paper instead of found images, while staying in Provence, after discovering a roll of wood-grain wallpaper in a shop window. He began cutting and pasting the paper into his drawings and shared the discovery with his friend and collaborator Picasso, who soon adopted the technique. During this period of time, the two men were working so closely together that Braque described them as "like two mountaineers roped together." Braque's papier collé became foundational for the proliferation of the collage technique.

Still Life with Chair Caning (1912)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

One of the first examples of Cubist collage, Still Life with Chair Caning depicts a multi-faceted view of a café table, chair, and various items - a knife, a napkin, part of a piece of fruit, and a wine glass. Instead of painting the chair, Picasso attached to the canvas surface a piece of oilcloth printed with a pattern of chair canning to suggest a chair, and used a length of rope to frame the canvas, suggesting a playful take on a table's customary carved edge. At the upper left, one sees the painted letters "Jou," both the French word for "game" and also an evocation of Le Journal, the daily newspaper that seems to be folded up on the table with a pipe resting atop it. While engaging in wordplay and visual punning, Picasso's collage makes viewers question their own perceptions of what constitutes an artwork as well as the relationship between art and ordinary objects.

Though he famously mastered subsequent styles, Picasso turned to collage throughout his career, as seen in his Maquette for the cover of the journal Minotaure (1933). Considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Picasso's collages and collage constructions had a noted impact on subsequent art, not only in the mixing of high and low culture but also in its questioning of what constitutes art in the first place.

Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance) (1916-17)

Artist: Hans Arp

This abstract collage consists of blue and white torn squares in various sizes arranged on a grey background. Made of heavyweight paper, bits of the paper's fiber soften the edges of some of the squares, giving it more a hand-made feel while at the same time the loose grid of shapes feels more mechanical and mathematical. The artist Hans Richter described how Arp, after tearing up a drawing he'd been working on, "let the pieces flutter to the floor of his studio.... Sometime later he happened to notice these same scraps of paper as they lay on the floor, and was struck by the pattern they formed. It had all the expressive power that he had tried in vain to achieve.... Chance movements of his hand and of the fluttering scraps of paper had achieved what all his efforts had failed to achieve.... He accepted this challenge from chance as a decision of fate and carefully pasted the scraps down in the pattern which chance had determined."

Arp made this work in Zurich, the center of the emerging Dada movement. In the aftermath of World War I, Dadaists felt that traditional social systems and the emphasis on reason were responsible for the war and, as a result, they sought to free art from rational and intentional strategies and to create a new anti-art that was concrete and eschewed traditional notions of artistic genius. Closely working with his partner Sophie Taeuber, Arp said, "We painted, embroidered, and made collages. All these works were drawn from the simplest forms and were probably the first examples of concrete art. These works are realities pure and independent with no meaning or cerebral intention. We rejected all mimesis and description, giving free reign to the elementary and spontaneous." Arp's experiments with chance and collage were readily incorporated into other Dadaist techniques and later Surrealism and subsequently influenced a host of post-World War II artists who sought to subvert authorial intention and control.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Collage Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 31 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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