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Matilda Bentley

"This article is written by incoming third year History of Art/ English BA student Sam Berlin, whose writing interests include puppetry, collage, and the intersections between mass production and art, and between high and low art. 'A History of Collage' follows on from the Norman Rea Gallery's earlier exhibition, Collage, curated by Jessica Jenkinson and fellow members of the committee. By exploring the contemporary phenomenon of the 'meme', Berlin seeks to trace and underpin its roots in traditional collage, as founded and contributed to by early 20th Century artists including Picasso and Höch. The article helps encourage the modern reader to assize the evolution of collage, and it's percolation into modern day culture. "

A History of Collage

Sam Berlin

The term collage is not much more than a hundred years old, having been coined by the Cubists painters from the French coller (to glue or stick). However, they simply gave name to what had long existed in various forms in the West: namely, the use in drawings and paintings of objects and materials from an altogether different context – the mass-produced and discarded ephemera that emerges like an organic by-product from the living organism of modern society.

Collage can be best understood therefore as a creative tendency that develops in reaction to capitalism and mass production, but also feeds on the carrion these forces leave behind. It is, therefore, a fundamentally modern medium – if we understand the ‘modern’ as having begun for Europe in the 15th century with the invention of the printing-press. Since this period, modes of mass communication and information dissemination have been increasing generation by generation – playing a seismic role in societal change, wars and belief systems.

Since the industrial revolution this process has become significantly more acute.

The decline of the church as a source of artistic patronage, combined with greater access for common people to the written word and to an increased supply of quickly-circulating imagery, served to throw the privileged status of the art-object into crisis. It was in this crisis – most importantly within the context of the invention of photography – that collage grew.

Victorian upper-class women hobbyists were some of the earliest practitioners of collage in this new industrial world. In scrap-books and photo-albums they pasted images cut from magazines and cartes-de-visites, in strange and whimsical collations.

Unidentified, Untitled (Victorian Collage), 1880-1890, collage on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Though light-hearted in tone, these early practitioners grasped a fundamental concept in collage that was to prove important in the works of avant-garde movements: that by removing printed images and photographs from their original context, one could also appropriate the idea of ‘reality’ that was associated with them – and in doing so subvert that notion.

Throughout the early 20th century, collage proved a central medium in the works of the avant-garde. For the Cubists, it was a tool to subvert the painting’s dimension and subject matter; for the Futurists the interest lay in the relation between typography, the non-verbal, and the ‘mechanised’; for the Russian Constructivists it formed a key element of a new public art in the wake of the 1917 revolution; for the Surrealists, it was linked to a fascination with the subconscious nature of the found object.

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, oil on oil-cloth over canvas edged with rope, Musée Picasso.

Central to the concerns of all these movements were questions of taste and artistic value. Within collage, a complex and critical interrogation of capitalist modes of production combined with an equally complex examination of the ways that the same process had sought to preserve ‘art’ as a privileged category, separate from and superior to the ‘non-artistic’ object. The best collages of this period brought these categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ into direct collision.

Nowhere was this stronger and more fundamental than within the Dada movement. Disgusted with the bourgeois culture that had allowed the nonsensical violence of WW1 to occur, the Dadaists sought to rebel against the entire legacy of Western art and culture with simultaneous nihilism and idealism. Collage – with its potential for shock, humour, and its appropriation of the vulgar object – formed a key element of this artistic insurrection.

Kurt Schwitters’ Merz collages were composed of the detritus he came across in daily life; Jean Arp dropped squares of paper from a great height in order to foreground chance and gravity over the expression of the artist. In dada literature too, this desire to destroy individualist notion of the artist’s ‘genius’ was central. Tristan Tzara, co-founder of the Zurich Dada group, wrote this ‘recipe’ for creating a dada-poem. The approach to poetry that it sardonically advocates is, essentially, one of collage:

Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Choose an article from this newspaper which is the same length that you want your poem to be. Cut the article out. Then carefully cut out each of the words of the article and put them in a bag. Shake softly. Take out each word one after the other. Copy them down conscientiously in the same order that they came out of the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are, a writer of infinite originality and charming sensibility.”

One practitioner of photomontage – a form of collage developed in the Dada period, was Hannah Höch, of the movement’s Berlin group. Long ignored in the histories of a male-dominated movement, her work is now increasingly being recognized for its striking subversiveness.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic, 1919, collage of pasted papers, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Höch’s work demonstrates the potential for political satire that photomontage enables. Like the political caricatures before them, the ability to distort and abuse the likeness of a public figure, is both visually potent but is also seems an act of vengeance, thoroughly empowering for the artist. Indeed, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930s, they were painfully aware of the threat posed such agitprop photomontages as those of former Dadaist John Heartfield, whose works were increasingly censored.

John Heartfield, Hurrah, die Butter ist alle! (Hurrah, the Butter is All Gone!), photomontage from Arbeiter–Illustrierte–Zeitung, 1935.

After WWII, collage continued to prove a central medium of the neo-avant garde movements, most famously perhaps in the work of members of the Pop Art movement. The critical relationship between these artists and the socio-economic systems whose products they appropriated changed, however. The fascination with ephemera in the works of Peter Blake and Andy Warhol is a strong as it was before, but the distinct impression is that they choose to merely depict capitalism – in contrast to the complex and uneasy (though by no means singular) relationship of earlier movements with this system of production.

The plethora of images that existed in the early 20th century feels like a drop in the ocean compared to today, where a morass of readily-available visual information is accessible at practically any time or place. This new world of digitally-disseminated images is significantly more fragmented and overwhelming than that of our forebears. Social media applications like Snapchat actively encourages a temporality in the images its users send out (some choose for an image to last for only three seconds before forever disappearing). Individuals are now constantly making and destroying, making and destroying visual information at an unprecedented speed.

What is the nature and legacy of collage in light of this? Indeed, the project of the avant-garde has not materialised – the appropriation of ‘non-artistic’ objects in art, which was largely intended to destroy the artistic ‘aura’ of genius, has instead become a crutch for a reborn individualism that exists in the service of preserving an ever-inflated art market.

Visual culture in the internet age, however, is alive and kicking. Nowhere is this embodied more than in the meme. For those who are unaware, memes are largely digitally-disseminated, often anonymous, humorous images – though sometimes video, music, and phrases are involved in their effect. In their cannibalistic approach to their source-material, memes prove themselves the true descendants of collage. Internet stock images, cartoons, film stills – the meme envelops all these for its own purposes.

One example of a stock image that have been deployed as popular templates for memes, circa 2016-18.

It is difficult (and moreover uninteresting) to try to determine who is it that starts the trend for a particular meme. Indeed their power lies in the extent that they have no one author. They are “mimetic”; the layers of meaning at which they are appreciated (then distributed) rely on their relation to every other example of the same category or form of meme. They are very anti-auratic: in their disposability (a particular template of meme will come and go very rapidly); their execution (often very crude and valued for being so); and in the fact that they do not as yet possess much potential for commercial exploitation. I would argue that, for better or for worse, they have quietly become the central cultural mode in the past decade. They dominate conversation, and already have a significant history of use as a tool of propaganda across the political spectrum. When Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States in 2016, for example, elements of the far-right claimed his success had much to do with their extensive online “shit-posting” and “trolling”, at the centre of which were their use of memes.

The question of collage and its relation to our daily lives is one that is yet to be fully answered. I encourage the reader to continue it.

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