Embraced by the Dadaists, surrealists and even Victorians, the art form has proved itself to be a flexible and effective toolby Emma Crichton-Miller / September 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
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,…