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."

Mary Delany's decoupage <i>Pancratium maritimum L.</i> (1775) exemplifies her approach of botanical accuracy within an aesthetic presentation.

In the late 1700s, Mary Delany became famous for her works depicting flower specimens, which made her a favorite of the British court. After careful study of a particular flower, Delany often cut up hundreds of pieces of paper to create her life-like compositions. In 2019, art critic Claudia Massie declared that Delany's "Paper Mosaiks," as she called them, "pop off the walls with a vibrancy that belies the fact they were created 250 years ago from tiny shards of hand-tinted paper by an 'amateur' artist in her seventies."

Using paper clippings to create a variety of inventive and imaginative works became a dominant cultural trend by the Victorian era. Though the Royal Academy of Art did not recognize the art form, decoupage artists nonetheless often had a popular following, and their work feels more contemporary than ever. As Maisie wrote of the Victorian decoupage, "Presages of modernism abound. Photomontage is used extensively to create space-defying group portraits or deceptive illusions. A scrapbook of sliced-up words and portraits by Mary Watson, from 1821, reads like the chance poetry practiced 100 years later, and looks like some punky contructivist graphic." Simultaneously, by the end of the 1800s, popular magazines frequently combined images and fragments of images for advertisements. Culturally, the use of clippings for scrapbooks, cards, and decorative screens was ubiquitous by the dawn of the 20th century, though the practice was considered akin to a hobby, craft, or affiliated with the domestic realm, as seen in its widespread employment in women's fashion magazines.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque

While decoupage had a long history in Western folk art and decorative crafts, it was not until the experiments of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in the early 20th century that collage entered the lexicon of fine art. The two artists met in 1907 and worked closely with each other and together developed what would come to be known as Cubism. They experimented with still lifes and landscapes, breaking the composition into complex multifaceted perspectives.

Pablo Picasso's <i>Tête (Head)</i> (1913-14) exemplifies his approach to <i>papier collé.</i>

By 1912, more interested in the flat compositional aspects of the pictorial plane, Picasso and Braque began to explore collage, papier collé, and three-dimensional assemblages. In May 1912, Picasso incorporated a strip of oilcloth printed with a chair caning pattern into a painting and used a rope to frame the oval shaped canvas, and the resulting Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) pioneered collage as a fine art and launched a new phase of Cubism. In the summer of 1912, Braque and Picasso worked together in the South of France, when Braque, while wandering through Avignon, noticed a roll of wallpaper with a wood grain displayed in a shop window. Braque cut and pasted pieces of the paper into his Fruit Dish and Glass Sorgues (1912). After sharing the papier collé with Picasso, he said, "I felt a great shock and it was an even greater shock to Picasso when I showed it to him." A month later Picasso created Violin and Sheet of Music (1912), and for the next two years the artists' new Synthetic Cubism, as it came to be known, incorporated bits of paper from daily life into paintings and drawing, exploring the convergence of high and low, art and life, and the flatness of the picture plane.

Juan Gris' <i>Le Petit Déjeuner</i> (<i>Breakfast</i>) (1914) extends the pasted papers to the edge of the pictorial plane.

While Picasso and Braque took diverging paths in life and art after World War I, their discoveries were adopted widely by artists. Fascinated by Synthetic Cubism's use of papier collé, Juan Gris began experimenting with the technique in 1914. Incorporating paper with wood grain print, wallpaper scraps, and bits of newspaper, Gris created surfaces with multiple textures that played on the materiality of the work of art and the flatness of the canvas. He said of his papier collés, "I try to concretize that which is abstract.... My art is an art of synthesis.... I consider that the architectural side of painting is mathematical, the abstract side, I want to humanize it."

Dada and Collage

Incorporating leather, metal, cork, and chicken wire he scavenged from the streets, Kurt Schwitters' <i>Das Undbild</i> (<i>The And-Picture</i>) (1919) is an early example of his pioneering <i>Merz</i> works.

Following World War I, Dada emerged as one of the more radical European art movements. Declaring the Cubist emphasis on aesthetic formalism a dead end, Dadaism embraced and radically transformed collage. Hannah Hoch pioneered the avant-garde use of photomontage, a technique that, rather than using clippings of paper, employed images cut from mass media publications. In contrast, Hans Arp emphasized random chance to arrange torn squares of paper in abstract collages. Kurt Schwitters pioneered collages that he called Merz drawings, saying "merz" was a word he invented to mean "the combination of all imaginable materials for artistic purposes." Schwitters collected the detritus of everyday life, from candy wrappers to movie tickets to three-dimensional items, and composed entire works from these apparently "worthless" bits of ephemera to challenge the traditional values and perceptions of art and importantly moved ideas of collage into the realm of assemblage sculpture and installation.

Marcel Duchamp's concept of the readymade, in which he combined utilitarian objects to create art objects, can also be linked to experiments in three-dimensional collage, or Assemblage. Man Ray explored rayographs, a camara-less photographic technique of making collages, whereby he laid everyday objects directly on photo-sensitive paper and exposed it to light, thus creating ghostly silhouettes that seem both representational and abstract.

Rather than emphasizing still life as the Cubists had, Dadaists expanded the subject matter of collage to create portraits, multi-figure scenes, and social panoramas that pointed out the absurdity of political systems and figures. Dada collage had an extensive influence on Pop Art and post-World War II movements, including Assemblage, Happenings, and Performance Art.

Surrealism and Collage

Coming out of Dada, Surrealism also took up collage in its exploration of automatism and stream of consciousness in creating works. In many ways, collage as a medium was able to encapsulate André Breton's description of Surrealist dislocation, which he took from the writer Comte de Lautréamont: "the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. " Max Ernst experimented with various forms of collage to create eerie, dream-like compositions. He explained, "The collage technique is the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level - and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together." For the Surrealists, the juxtapositions created by collage created exciting new meanings, provided a way to explore the unconscious workings of the mind, and tap into new subject matter.


Robert Rauschenberg's <i>Bed</i> (1955) is an early example of his “combines.”

In the early 1950s, Neo-Dada marked a shift away from traditional painting in the postwar art world as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Allan Kaprow turned away from Abstract Expressionism to emphasize the use of mass media, found objects, and performance. Their works often employed the technique of collage to challenge the distinctions between art mediums and to question artistic conventions. Influenced by Kurt Schwitters, Rauschenberg created Untitled (Man with White Shoes) (1954) by combining parts of old furniture, a taxidermied hen, various photographs, shoes, and gestural mark-making. Though it looks like a fairly straightforward encaustic painting, Johns' Flag (1954-5) was in fact a collage of newsprint, taken from advertisements and non-political articles, and strips of fabric. Neo-Dada's exploration of collage and Assemblage was consequential for contemporary experiments in Performance Art as well as Pop art.

Pop Art

Eduardo Paolozzi's collage <i>I was a Rich Man's Plaything</i> (1947) is considered the first Pop Art work.

British Pop Art began in 1947 with Eduardo Paolozzi's collages, more accurately described as photomontages since they were composed of images cut from mass media magazines. Along with Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake, he explored, critiqued, and sometimes celebrated post-war consumer culture. Hamilton's Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956) is at once a parody and celebration of postwar domestic interiors, filled with new consumer goods and technology that promised a brighter future. American Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein also drew on popular imagery, primarily emphasizing consumer and celebrity culture. James Rosenquist's painting President Elect (1960-61) combined partial images of a stale piece of cake, an automobile, and a smiling President John F. Kennedy to question the role of advertising in culture and how one takes in and processes the bombardment of images experienced everyday in the growing consumer culture.

Concepts and Trends

The nature of collage allows it to be incredibly versatile. Once artists began incorporating parts of everyday life into their paintings and compositions, there were no strictures on which materials they used, and as a result, various tendencies, or techniques, in collage developed and proliferated.

Collage and Sculpture: Assemblage

Pablo Picasso's <i>Maquette for Guitar</i> (1912), using paperboard, string, twine, coated wire, and other materials, is the earliest surviving example of a collage construction sculpture.

Braque pioneered collage construction sculptures with painted cardboard, but these works were lost during World War I, and so his contribution to this technique was overshadowed by Picasso, whose 1912 Maquette for Guitar is one of the earliest surviving three-dimensional Cubist collages. Throughout his career, Picasso made similar constructions, exploring new materials, such as wood, as seen in his Bull (1958) and metal, as in his Chair (1961).

With its taxidermied eagle, as if emerging from the painting, Robert Rauschenberg's <i>Canyon</i> (1959) exemplifies the evolution of three-dimensional collage into what art critic Roberta Smith called a “multimedia hybrid.”

Later artists adopted and innovated three-dimensional collage, and the technique informed assemblages and works that blurred the boundaries between sculpture and painting. Kurt Schwitters developed his Merzbau (Merz Construction) (1923-37) from a column composed of newspaper clippings, detritus, and cardboard into a multi-room installation in his studio, creating an early immersive environment. Influenced by Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg created what he called "combines," hybrids of painting and sculpture that incorporated everyday materials, as seen in his Canyon (1959).

In the 1940s, Louise Nevelson began creating works that have been variously described as sculptures, assemblages, and wood collages. Using readymade materials, such as crates, parts of discarded furniture, and architectural elements, she made large rectangular works, often painted in monochrome, exemplified by Sky Cathedral (1958).

Canvas Collage

Canvas collage involves gluing pieces of painted canvas patches to another canvas, Many Abstract Expressionists, including Lee Krasner and Conrad Marca-Reilli, employed this technique. In the early 1950s, frustrated with her painting process, Krasner tore up much of her current painting and drawing, but in the months ahead, she began creating new pieces out of these shards, gluing them onto other canvases and adding additional painted passages, as seen in Milkweed (1955). Marca-Relli's created canvas collages, in which he glued cutout pieces of painted canvas onto much larger canvases so that the interlocking curves and angles would emphasize what he called "the architecture of the human figure." Created on a monumental scale, his work influenced several of the Neo-Dada artists.


The German Dadaist Hannah Höch broke new ground with her photomontages, collages composed not of bits of plain paper but of various photographic images taken from mass media publications. The photomontage technique derived from fin de siècle popular culture when postcards and prints often combined images, and as art historian Kathy Halbreich noted, the Dadaists "enjoyed the mechanical - and proletarian - connotations associated with the term and used it to distinguish their work from Cubist collages, or papiers collés, whose formalist abstraction they considered a dead end." George Grosz, along with other Dadaists employed the technique, usually combining clippings of newspaper photographs and texts.

John Heartfield's photomontage, <i>Adolf the Übermensch: Swallows gold and spouts junk</i>, AIZ 11. no. 29, July 17 (1932) combines a photograph of Hitler with an anatomical x-ray.

As Halbreich further noted, since the Dada movement "the term photomontage has often come to have a more restricted meaning: a seamless, composite image achieved either by manipulating negatives in the darkroom or re-photographing a collage of photographs, techniques favored by such disparate artists as John Heartfield and the Russian Constructivists, on the one hand, and the Surrealists, on the other." As a result, photomontage has become considered an independent art form, though artists have continued to explore the boundaries between photomontage and collage, as seen in Romare Bearden's Projections, which are enlarged black and white photostatic copies of his color collages.


Décollage, a French word meaning to take off or lift-off, was first credited to Leo Malet, a Surrealist detective novelist, in the Dictionnaire Abrege du Surrealisme (1938) and defined as "the procedure that consists in tearing off parts of a poster in order to reveal fragments of the poster or disorient and lead astray." However, the term became primarily associated with Nouveau Réalisme, a 1950s French art movement, that included Raymond Hains, Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé, François Dufrêne, and the Italian artist Mimmo Rotella. Billboard posters, glued over one another and often torn or fragmented, were a common sight in urban environments. Of the posters in Rome, Rotella said, "I was literally spellbound, and even more so because at that time I was convinced that painting was finished, that something new had to be unearthed, something alive and modern." Artists tore away layers and fragments of these posters and then glued them onto a surface, as Rotella said, "leaving them exactly the way they were, exactly the way I saw them." Also called the torn poster technique, décollage both referenced society and evoked abstract, textured art works. Wolf Vostell, a German artist, connected the term to an airplane crashing during lift off, meaning that art should break down past signifiers to create new realities. In 1962 he launched De-coll/age: Bulletin Aktueller Idee, an experimental art and theory magazine, and in 1963 created his Nein 9 Decollagen (1963), lifting images from the television screen to place them in a new context.

Later Developments

The formal and critical power of various collage techniques continues to reverberate throughout the art world. By the 1960s, Duchamp's readymades and Schwitters's concept of Merz had profound consequences on the development of Assemblage and, later, Installation Art. And while not strictly engaged in collage, a collage aesthetic also informed much of the work of Photorealists like Audrey Flack, whose work often juxtaposes disparate, painted images, and the artists of the Pictures Generation, like Richard Prince, who appropriated mass-media imagery to create photomontages.

In the 21st century, college continues to be a vital technique for innovation, as seen in British Conceptual artist John Stezaker's work combining cut-up photographs from the 1950s in startling juxtapositions that challenge artistic and cultural conventions. Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu' The Bride Who Married a Camel's Head (2009) uses collage to examine pressing contemporary concerns, including colonization, gender, and the environment. In his series of fantastical houses, Matthias Jung uses collage to reimagine architecture and its place in the landscape, and Jean-François Rauzier's work exploits digital technology to created altered images of cities and places, creating surreal and illogical compositions.

As artists continue to explore and push collage into new realms, the 2019 exhibition Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage held at the National Galleries of Scotland brought together modern and contemporary collages with works from the Victorian era and earlier, showcasing the deep history of the technique and attesting to the long, abiding fascination with collage's potential for play, discovery, critique, and questioning.

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.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Collage Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 31 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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