Collage is a simple technique, at least on the face of it. You take a medium – canvas, sculpture, a digital canvas even – and stick all sorts of bits and pieces to it: newspaper clippings, photos, pieces of paper, fabric and so on.
These fragments are reconstituted into a new image, often with fresh and surprising results: they take on new meanings that can be stunning and at times unsettling. This is the art of collage!
Collage is a relatively recent invention, barely a century old. Legend has it that the technique was devised by cubist Georges Braque, who was inspired by a wallpaper shop in Avignon. But is this really what happened?
Today we’re going to present a brief history of collage with the help of lots of examples. Prepare to be inspired!
The very first collage: Braque’s wallpaper
Emerging out of the avant-garde art movement at the turn of the 20th century, the technique of artistic collage has two founding fathers: Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Many claim that the first-ever artistic collage was “Still life BACH”, created by Georges Braque in 1912.
Some say that this new artistic form was inspired by a wallpaper shop that Braque stumbled across on the streets of Avignon. It was here that a particular wood-grain paper caught his eye. He bought a roll and immediately began experimenting, cutting and gluing a few pieces of it onto large charcoal sketches.
The technique – which was then known as papier collé (literally “glued paper” in French) – was something completely new and marked a sudden break with figurative art. Braque showed his work to his friend Pablo Picasso, who was immediately taken with it and began his own experiments with collage.
The collages of Pablo Picasso: rope as a frame?
Pablo Picasso wasted no time in pushing the boundaries of this new technique: he used layer upon layer of paper, adding musical scores, body parts, faces, wallpaper. In one piece – Still life with the caned chair, 1912 – he even used a rope as a frame. It was the start 20th century and nothing like this had been seen before.
The use of items from mass culture – like newspapers, wallpaper, musical scores and other everyday objects – inspired many avant-garde painters: the futurist Giacomo Balla created what he called coloured papers, while Umberto Boccioni depicted scenes of war directly onto newspaper.
Exquisite corpses: collage as a creative process
Collage is also a powerful creative process, which is why the technique was also used by surrealist painters. On one particularly productive weekend in February 1938, surrealist artists André Breton, his second wife Jacqueline Lamba, and Yves Tanguy got together and played the game exquisite corpse (or cadavre exquis as it is known in the original French).
The creative process involved in this method is most playful: artists – usually three or four of them – would sit around a table and compose a sentence or picture by each adding a word or a cutting without seeing what the other had already added.
There are also examples of collage in other avant-garde painting movements. One of the few female Dadaists, German artist Hannah Höch, used this technique as for political provocation, producing some outstanding work in the process.
Collage becomes pop art: the second half of the 20th century
The technique continued to inspire artists after the Second World War, especially exponents of Pop Art, the artistic movement that made a point of using images and objects from everyday life.
Famous examples include the collages of American artist Robert Rauschenberg. He would pick up interesting objects that he found on the streets of New York and take them back to his studio, where he would incorporate them into his work.
A few years later, in the eighties, British pop artist David Hockney was one of the first to experiment with photo collage, creating a number of pieces that are now iconic. To make them, he cut out and overlapped a series of smaller images to create a much larger image.
Around the same time, collage was also influencing film-makers, assuming its rightful place as one of the most bizarre cinematographic techniques. Probably the best examples are the animated collages of Terry Gilliam that accompanied Monty Python’s surreal sketches and films [we’ve already talked about Terry Gilliam and his collages here].
Contemporary collage: the technique lives on
The technique of collage does not seem to have fallen out of fashion. In fact, it still has the creative power to bring together and reinterpret aspects of our everyday lives.
There are, for example, the typographic collages of Italian designer Lorenzo Petrantoni, or the imaginary beings of American illustrator Johanna Goodman: eccentric and surreal creations that take the shape of dresses fashioned from clouds, landscapes, rocks – even trains.
Greek artist Charis Tsevis uses images, advertisements and magazines from the fifties and sixties to create pieces that express a certain nostalgia for the era. This type of collage is also known as photomosaic. French artist Julien Pacaud produces hypnotic digital collages by blending retro images with geometric art and surreal landscapes. Deborah Stevenson uses old-fashioned paper collage to humorously combine iconic works of art with fragments of everyday and commercial images.
Lastly, one of Africa’s leading contemporary artists, Kenyan Wangechi Mutu, employed collage to create mysterious faces of women that seem to combine starkly contrasting signs, languages and desires. Everything can be found in these collages: cultural identity, fashion, politics and colonial history.
Are you a fan of collage? Which artists would you add to this list?