Some two thousand years after paper was invented in China, collage artists and the art of collage found their true form in the early stages of modernism - through Pablo Picasso, it is widely believed, and his 1912 Still Life with Chair Caning - a canvas onto which there was a patch of oilcloth attached. Coming from the French verb “coller”, meaning “to clue”, the term was coined by the Spanish artist together with Georges Braque, describing a technique which arose as a response to the First World War and a powerful tool in the making of even more powerful statements. Little less three-dimensional than assemblage, Collage art allowed artists to engage with existing materials, to which they could assign new contexts in order to create a brand new artwork.
Ranging from newspapers and magazines to maps, tickets, propaganda, photographs, ribbons, postage stamps, paint, text and found objects, the elements of Collage participate in a handy creative process of putting artworks together and even breaking them apart, in an artistic explorations unto the unknown.
As such, Collage was popular among artists belonging to movements like Surrealism, Dada and Nouveau Réalisme - in fact, legends like Jean Dubuffet, Kurt Schwitters and Man Ray are among those who had helped form the very definition of the medium with their influential artworks - and let us also not forget the contributions of one Henri Matisse, whose collages are still very popular on the market. The wide use of Collage also inspired the birth of Cubomania, a Surrealist method whereby an image is cut into squares, which are then reassembled automatically or at random. Aside from Cubomania, the technique evolved into other categories as well, including decoupage, involving decorative paper cut-outs, collage in painting and on wood, photocollage and, most recently, digital collage.
Editors’ Tip: Masters: Collage: Major Works by Leading Artists
This superb new collection offers a stunning look at contemporary collage work from approximately 40 leading artists, including Cecil Touchon, Jonathan Talbot, Lynne Perrella, Lynn Whipple, James Michael Starr, and many others. It features a breathtaking mix of techniques from traditional cut-and-paste to digital to collage with paint or encaustic, and styles ranging from wildly playful and colorful to evocative, almost monochrome images. Each highlighted master takes center stage in an informative eight-page feature that includes nearly a dozen gorgeous, high-quality photos plus a short essay by curator Randel Plowman placing the impressive work and its creator in context.
Although she is not Contemporary and is very much Modern, Hannah Höch has to be mentioned, as she is one of the most important collage artists with a great influence on all later generations. One of the originators of photomontage, a type of collage made of actual photographs or photographic reproductions, she created her most notable artworks during the rule of Weimar Germany. She worked hard to eliminate the sexist and racist codes ruling the country, challenging the marginalized place of women in the society and questioning beauty standards of the early 20th century by putting together clippings from fashion magazines and illustrated journals - thus creating a strong, independent woman ready for a treatment of equality. Many of her collages also depicted same-sex couples and broke down the concept of traditional gender roles. Hannah Höch was also the only woman among the Berlin Dada group, but her contributions to the movement are still considered crucial.
Featured images: Stefan Moses - Portrait of Hannah Höch, 1975, via theredlist.com; Hannah Höch - Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, via Flickr.
To say that Mimmo Rotella was an experimenter is a great understatement. The Italian artist left an incredible legacy of artworks ranging an impressive number of media, but perhaps his most famous pieces are his “double décollages”, semi-abstract compositions made of mass media imagery such as movie and advertising poster art he would rip from the streets and affix to canvases. Linked to Nouveau Réalisme, Mimmo Rotella’s décollages were the exact opposite of collage and composing, as this process consisted of tearing up and cutting off. This act of rebellion had a symbolic meaning, representing a protest against “a society that has lost its taste for change,” as Rotella said himself. Linked to this process were also the “retro d’affiches”, where he would focus on the back side of the posters, leaving it untouched after taking them off walls.
Featured images: Mimmo Rotella, via Getty; Mimmo Rotella - La Donna e il Mito, 2002, via artsy.net.
Arguably the most famous collage ever created by Sir Peter Blake was the sleeve he created for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the eighth studio album by The Beatles released in 1967. At the time already a renowned Pop artist, Peter Blake designed the front of the LP, which included a colorful collage featuring the Beatles in costume as the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, standing with a group of life-sized cardboard cut-outs of famous people, including actors, sportsmen, scientists and gurus. In total, the collage includes 57 photographs and nine waxworks. In 2008, he created an updated version of Sgt. pepper for the campaign for Liverpool to become the European Capital of Culture in 2008, with famous figures from the city’s history. Continuing his work as a collage artist, Sir Peter Blake created other album covers as well, often in form of collages made of cut-out photographs and objects.
Featured images: Peter Blake, via the-talks.com; Peter Blake - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967, via vam.org.uk.
As a member of the Surrealist group which saw many other females like Gala Dali and Lee Miller as muses, rather than members, Eileen Agar shared the movement’s love of jokes, puns, and uncanny juxtapositions. Her collage work consisted of classical heads, antique jewelry magazine pages, layers of paper, parchment and marbling, for instance, although she also worked with painting alone. The British collage artist and painter was inspired by the English romantic painting as well, which could be seen in the poetic references of her pieces. Often leaning towards abstraction, Eileen Agar sometimes also depicted topics like death, life, seasonal cycles and the passing of time, for which she uses physical symbols to create found object art, for example.
Featured image: Eileen Agar, by Matthew R Lewis; Eileen Agar - The Fish's Tale, 1979, via redfern-gallery.com.
An artist and feminist, Nancy Spero mainly addressed war and female sexuality in her work, having constantly being interested and involved in contemporary political, social and cultural events. Often referencing women from prehistory, her artworks feature scenery from mythology, iconography, pagan goddesses, fertility figures, Amazon warriors and much more. One of her most famous collages is the 1979 Notes in Time, which is inspired by Grecian scrolls and the story of Troy. It is made of a total of 24 panels, each nine feet long, punctuated by 96 quotations and multiple female figures, usually nude. It is described as “a grand non-narrative celebration of the female form, but also [a document of] a female struggle against political stereotype”.
Featured image: Nancy Spero, via firstrunfeatures.com; Nancy Spero - Notes in Time, 1979, via MoMA.
His photographic collages are, to say the least, disquieting. Collage artist John Stezaker has been making them in private for over four decades before they finally found their way to major galleries, and even the Sydney Biennale. Working in the realms of conceptual and appropriation art, he is clearly influenced by the Surrealist artists, as he cuts found photographs, usually glamorous portraits from the 1950s movie stars, and combines them other faces or shots of landscapes, but also pornography, vintage postcards and book illustrations - usually resulting in eerie hybrids that almost make us look away. The fact that John Stezaker received the prestigious Deutsche Börse photography prize for his collages, causing mixed reactions, proved that this form of art is very much alive and well, but also quite controversial.
Featured image: John Stezaker, via photographyschool.nl; John Stezaker - Pair IV, 2007, via Guardian.
One of the most important contemporary African artists today, Wangechi Mutu works across a variety of media, including video, performance, sculpture and of course collage, through which she investigates topics like gender, race and colonialism. Inspired by artists like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, as well as movements like Surrealism, she composes imagery drawn from anthropological, medical and ethnographic texts, pornography and and even Vogue magazine, calling out the violence that women, and black women in particular, endure in today’s society. Wangechi Mutu’s works on paper are often painted with ink and acrylic paint, and accompanied with materials like plastic pearls, 24 karat gold and latex.
Featured image: Wangechi Mutu, via Guardian; Wangechi Mutu - Non je ne regrette rien, 2007, via rfc.museum.
Aside from the marvellous, 40-ton Sugar Baby, which turned out to be her most famous artwork to date, American artist Kara Walker is also known for her black and white silhouettes that have been pasted on the walls of many galleries worldwide to address African American racial identity. These figures are often involved in scenes of slavery, violence and conflict, inspired by traditional African illustration and folklore of the pre-Civil War United States. These cut-out collages and paste-ups actually represent a part of a larger idea, as there are also light projectors that cast the viewers’ own shadows straight into these narratives. This way, they would inevitably become a part of the artwork, unable to ignore it or walk away.
Featured images: Kara Walker, via AP; Kara Walker - Grub for Sharks- A Concession to the Negro Populace, 2004, image via Tate. All images used for illustrative purposes only.