A scrap-work screen by William Macready and Charles Dickens. Photo: Josie Elias, National Galleries of Scotland.

How the art of collage is making a comeback

Embraced by the Dadaists, surrealists and even Victorians, the art form has proved itself to be a flexible and effective tool
September 5, 2019

In 2015, the National Galleries of Scotland acquired Picasso’s Bottle and Glass on a Table (1912). This swiftly executed charcoal drawing includes a rectangle of newsprint cut off at an angle; stencilled on top are the letters OLD /JA/ R, or Old Jamaica Rum. The cut edge of the newspaper is sharp against the softness of the hand-drawn line, while also playing between the imagined three-dimensionality of the scene and the flat paper. Deft and witty, the piece makes no attempt at a straightforward rendering of the bottle.

This is a pivotal work not just in Picasso’s oeuvre, but in the history of modern art. It is one of about 30 papiers collés (pasted papers) that he made at the end of 1912. He was responding to some trials made by Georges Braque a few months earlier, who pasted pieces of wood-grained paper into his drawings to represent wood. This was during the period when Picasso and Braque between them were essentially inventing Cubism. It was part of their interrogation of the relationship between the real world, caught up in space and time, and the fictional realms of painting and sculpture.

Braque later reported: “After having made the [first] papier collé, I felt a great shock, and it was an even greater shock to Picasso when I showed it to him.” Rapidly papiers collés became part of the essential armoury of modernism, taken up in turn by Juan Gris and Henri Laurens, Russian constructivists, Italian futurists, Swiss Dadaists, German satirists, French and British surrealists and American abstract expressionists. With its subversive approach to conventional image-making and readiness to recruit any material or medium to its purpose, it has been hailed as the quintessential method of the disjointed 20th century. It was only with the arrival of digital media that “cut and paste” became so ordinary an idea that collage lost its force.

Cut and paste

The National Galleries of Scotland are not only proud owners of Bottle and Glass and a number of other important works by Picasso, they also have substantial holdings of surrealist art, making collage an obvious subject for investigation. But its new exhibition Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage challenges the conventional story. This is, we are told, the first comprehensive museum survey of the history of the technique. It looks behind and beyond the dividing curtain of 1900 and finds a rich and varied backstory. For although the OED dates the first use of the term “collage” in an art context to 1919, neither Braque nor Picasso invented the practice.

The idea of cutting paper and sticking it on silk can be traced back to the 1100s in Japan, while in Europe collage on paper originated in Germany in the 1400s, when paper was first manufactured in any quantity. For 400 years people cut and stuck in inventive ways: from lift-the-flap anatomies in the 16th century to the craze for scrapbook making in the 19th; from botanical clippings to cut-out silhouette portraits; from costume plates with removable fabric clothes or children’s fuzzy-felt picture games to the exquisite “paper mosaicks” of artist Mary Delany, which depict plant specimens using both cut paper and dried petals. What this exhibition seeks to prove is that although for centuries these practices had been excluded from the hierarchies of fine art, they express fascinations and compulsions which would later become driving forces in contemporary art.

The early history is all contained within the first of the six rooms of the exhibition. What impresses is the playfulness of these works—how collage enables practitioners to move reality about, to bring it forward or push it back, to change the time of day or compound multiple realities. A late 17th-century engraving of a dancer at the Paris Opera is adorned with carefully spliced fabric, bringing the flat image on the page into the three-dimensional, living world of the viewer just as a child brings to life a paper doll by dressing her in paper clothes.

An anonymous Victorian “paper transformation” picture of figures with boats on a lake—created through the multiple layering of cut silhouettes of different shades and weights of white and grey paper—appears in daylight to be sunlit; but shot through with candlelight it becomes a moonlit scene. In the centre of the room stands a folding scrap-work screen (1860), covered in engravings of scenes from Shakespeare, actors and actresses, famous paintings and celebrity portraits—the amusing weekend-venture of Shakespearean actor William Macready and Charles Dickens.

Nearby, the first photomontages—executed by Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson and Gustave Le Gray, and where the collage of different negatives allowed photographers to overcome constraints of time and place—hint at the central creative potential of photography that will ultimately lead to Photoshop. From the most apparently frivolous tinsel prints to an exquisite collaged engraving and drawing by Ingres, The Gatteaux Family (1850), the curators seek to impress on us the continuities between folk and fine art, between children’s play and subtle existential probing into our place in the world.

Cubism and Dada

Thus primed, we are ready to embark on the journey through modernism with different eyes. In the room dedicated to Cubism and Dada, we encounter Picasso’s intriguing Head of 1913, an almost abstract composition of different pieces of scissor- and knife-cut coloured paper strips with just a few chalk lines to indicate the back of the head, nose and eye. Even though the extraneous strips are stuck down they have an air of improvisation about them, suggesting the possibilities of revision. There’s a feeling for the dialogue between the two-dimensional world of the paper and the three-dimensional world of the maker—harking back to the folk art and children’s games of the century before. André Breton bought Head in 1923 and made it the first illustration in his 1928 book Le surréalisme et la peinture. In 1936 the English surrealist Roland Penrose bought it from Breton.

Meanwhile, the exhibition reveals how swiftly and variously artists in Paris seized on the so-called invention of Braque and Picasso. Vanessa Bell visited Picasso in his studio in January 1914. She wrote back to her lover, Duncan Grant, of Picasso’s collages: “They are amazing arrangements of coloured papers and bits of wood which somehow give me great satisfaction.” By the end of the following year she had completed her carefully spliced, beautifully toned collaged portrait of fellow traveller Molly MacCarthy, while from 1914 Duncan Grant also began to use collage in his paintings. A vibrant still life, Fruit Dish with Grapes (1913), by the Russian artist Alexandra Exter, who was in Paris from 1912-14, incorporates fragments of newspaper in a way that reveals her grasp of the achievement of Braque and Picasso. The painting was later exhibited in the landmark show Tramway V, The First Exhibition of Futurism, held in Petrograd in 1915.

If these were formal experiments, the Italian Futurists and Russian avant-garde saw the more political connotations of the method, later picked up by the satirical artists of Weimar Germany. Yet even here there are variations. Kurt Schwitters’s well-known Merz works—using a wide assortment of different materials from bus tickets, ribbons and playing cards to lace, stamps and cloth, dating from 1918—represented a rebellion against everything the old bourgeois order stood for; but they have a delicacy and poetry that belies this stringency. For him, “the medium is as unimportant as I myself.”

Collage was a means of cancelling the human element in the picture, as indeed Man Ray found in 1917, using thread, screws and cut-out metal for his cool Involute. It was this thrilling sense that the unconscious could work more freely with collaged materials than with purposefully drawn, painted or sculpted elements that attracted the surrealists. One of the major highlights of this exhibition is the array of works from English and Scottish surrealists, from well-known artists like Eileen Agar, Roland Penrose and John Piper to lesser-known figures John McHale, Edith Rimmington and Margaret Mellis.

A flexible tool

In the hands of women, collage carries a different charge. The magnificent Hannah Höch, who discovered collage through meeting Dada artist Raoul Hausmann in 1915, takes what a century earlier would have been dismissed as a medium for ladies of leisure and transforms it into a potent tool for social commentary. Yet even while she makes sly feminist digs with her photomontages and collages, those on display here also have a pure sensuous beauty. Histories of domestic obliteration are recalled but surmounted.

In a different mood, Cindy Sherman’s film, Doll Clothes (1975), made while she was still a student at Buffalo State College, transformed the childhood game of paper dolls into a searching investigation of gender, representation and identity. The artist, whose retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery runs until 15th September, explained in 2008: “I wanted to bring the doll to life, so I shot myself doing all the poses, and it became this goofy little film. It completely ties in to everything I’m doing now because I decided that I liked the cut-out figures more than the film.”

For later artists on display in this exhibition, it was precisely their excitement about amateur art forms that fired their embrace of collage. British artist Peter Blake’s enthusiasm for folk art amplified his interest while, as senior curator Patrick Elliott writes in the catalogue: “Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was a prodigious maker of scrapbooks, and his method was very close to the Victorian one of juxtaposing apparently random images on a page.”

One of the admirable aspects of this exhibition is the way that it pursues the evolution of 20th-century collage beyond the often-cited cut-off date of 1970. Yuval Etgar, who in 2017 curated the provocative exhibition The Ends of Collage (2017) for the Luxembourg & Dayan gallery in New York, writes in the exhibition catalogue: “In 1970 collage witnessed both a hiatus and a crisis.”

Yet this isn’t the whole story. There are many discoveries and surprises as you progress through the Edinburgh exhibition. In every instance, however, the art works chosen make the cut because they exploit the technique with wit, intellectual purpose and creativity. Found to be necessary in 1912, collage has ever since proven a flexible and effective tool.