THE HISTORY OF COLLAGE
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term collage was coined (more about that shortly.) Nevertheless,Japanese calligraphers in the 12th century glued paper and fabric onto their written poetry as a background. This technique could by defined as collage. 15th and 16th century artisans in the Near East applied intricate paper designs for their handmade books. In medieval times, around the 13th and 14th centuries, artists enhanced their spiritual images and icons painted on panels with a variety of materials including gold leaf (paper thin sheets of gold attached with glue), fabric, jewels, relics and hand-colored papers. Nuns were creating beautiful and intricately design bookmarks for their prayer books. All of these artful applications are aligned with the collage technique.
In the early 19th century, with the advent of the camera and photography, families were gluing photos into scrap books. Commercial screens and lampshades with photo images of popular tourist attractions and European landmarks were mass produced and became very popular decorative household items
It wasn’t until the 20th century that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque first glued material on to their paintings. It was then “collage” became a word that refers to a specific kind of art form. The term collage is derived from the French “coller” meaning “to paste or to glue.” Soon collage became the word for describing a new and exciting artistic process.
The scene was set and Picasso and Braque were the players. The traditional, idealistic, classical subject matter of the Renaissance and Romantic Eras was on the wane. The Impressionists had helped pave the way for this movement by choosing to paint local subject matter–public gardens, cathedrals and country lanes. Claude Monet, a famous Impressionist, painted many studies of haystacks under the continually changing light of day. So, it wasn’t surprising that artistic forerunners like Picasso and Braque, were using theatre tickets and fragments of posters and newspapers, in their paintings. Ultimately, their use of mass media materials established the contemporary wide-open guidelines for modern art:
(1) Any material can be used to make an artwork
2) Any idea can be used for an artwork.
(3) Any technique can be used for making artwork.
Today, collage is an established art form that presents an imaginative, provocative, and often humorous perspective by employing common, everyday objects as subject matter. Collage transforms the usual into the unusual. The skills required for making a collage are both visual and physical. The physical skill involves combining objects to create a composition. The visual skill requires an eye and mind sensitive to meaning and context of the objects.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A COLLAGE?
Collage begins with collecting a variety of materials to produce a “visual vocabulary.” This should be anything that attracts you. Ransack your dresser drawers, go to yard sales, page through your old photos or dumpster dive. Believe in your attractions to the objects you have found. Keep in mind that materials used in collage can be anything: papers of any sort, scraps of fabric, leaves, drift wood, plastic containers, grasses and seeds, old appliances, driftwood, leaves, etc. The possibilities are limitless! So begin collecting! Next, start exploring and experimenting with how your found objects might be combined in composition to create a collage. Remember, that the ultimate goal of collage is to assemble a collection of materials to make a new visual form. What could your collage represent? It could talk about your life using photos and other materials that reflect your personal history. It could make a statement, for example, it could show how you feel about global warming and the environment. Or your collage could take you to a place your always wanted to go to: a paradise of tropical beauty or a utopian city. Your imagination will be activated by collecting the materials and your assembling of them. And then your thoughts and feelings will be revealed.
Collage is far more than just cutting and pasting things down on mat board. It takes skill to see beyond the obvious image. For example, if you were to go through magazine pages and cut out all of the images of eyes, then arrange them into a pattern, this would be a new way of seeing a familiar image in a different way. The image, repeated many times, gives itself up to the collage composition. Why? So you can see something else! When you look at the composition, the pattern will be evident first, then, you will identify the eye images. The eye images have become modules or units of design in a collage composition.
Here’s another example. How could a group of photos and other materials you collected from of, say, your trip to Las Vegas, be composed into a collage to represent a desert sunset? You would have to go beyond the virtual material of photos and memorabilia and translate it into the desert sunset idea. You would have to adjust your eye to perceive the photos another materials as just colors and shapes. Once you can do this, you can leap the reality of your collected materials to another reality and create the sunset!
What if you want to make a collage which evokes the feeling of, say, the 1950’s. Using photos and images of that time would be an effective, journalistic way of defining that period. However, it might be even more effective to choose a 50’s type color combination through collecting many pink and black colored papers and then constructing a picture of a big-finned automobile or a poodle skirt from those found papers. Why? Because, the use of 1950’s related images is usual. Choosing a 1950’s color scheme and making an symbol or icon from that period of time is more creative, more demanding and more visually exciting.
Here’s another example. You want to make an entire cityscape collage from the letters and logos of well known products: Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, Palmolive and John Deere,etc. which you have cut out from magazines. This project would be interesting and effective. However, it would be more of a challenge and a more provocative commentary,to depict a woodland scene using those commercial images. The combining of commercial, highly identifiable subject matter into a pastoral image is much more provocative and engaging to the viewer. Imagine the effect if one sees a lovely landscape, only to discover, upon a closer look, that the entire landscape is made from big corporation logos!
THE MAGIC AND POWER OF COLLAGE
Taking collage skills one step further brings the magic of collage to another level: the mysterious interaction between objects to form a new collage concept. For example, the a famous artist, Joseph Cornell, created small boxes that housed compositions of curious objects including old toys and parts of toys, mirrors, sea shells, trinkets, fragments, posters, theatre tickets and post cards. These boxes, which are now in many museum collections world wide, are tiny worlds, magic environments that often evoke a mysterious and sometimes frightening feeling in the viewer. This reaction is caused by the combination of the objects in the box. For example, a 19th century playing card is interesting as subject matter, but combined with a stuffed crow and an old wrist watch, the meaning of the composite objects changes. What does this combination of items evoke? The crow, by itself, is simply a stuffed crow. But in the combination with the other objects, it might be seen as vulture-like. The wrist watch, just an old, discarded wrist watch by itself, could be seen as a symbol of stopped time in the context of the other objects. And, the playing cards, just antique playing cards by themselves, in the context of the combined objects, can symbolize fate.
Artist Robert Rauschenberg placed a stuffed goat with a tire around its middle on one of his paintings. The combination was startling, not just because of the oddness of the goat wearing the tire, but because the painting became a platform, or pedestal, for these curious objects. In collage, the combination of two or more objects or images can produce a subconscious reaction. The viewer cannot quite grasp why the collage is compelling, but reacts strongly, nevertheless: either confused, fascinated, repelled, frightened or awe-struck.
Here’s an example: In the famous artist Lucas Samaras’ artwork, the artist uses a simple chair as his subject matter. But, he has glued pins on it and covered it entirely. A chair, in itself, basically signifies comfort and rest. Covered with pins, however, the chair becomes an anti-chair–an object that has become off-putting, evoking a negative connotation. This, the viewer may think, is not a chair I would like to sit on, thank you.
THE USUAL TO THE UNUSUAL
Ultimately, the power and magic of collage are most effective when there is a tension in meaning between the objects or images that comprise the collage. Honing collage skills one travels from the usual to the unusual. A beginner might paste pictures of cars in a certain way on a mat board. The collage will not be much more than ad copy. However, developing skills in using collage can bring new perceptions. For example, pictures of cars arranged one on top of the other and in many rows translates the image to another connotation: that perhaps all of these lovely new vehicles will end up in the scrap lot. This makes the image much more provocative to the viewer and carries with it a larger, more interesting statement.
The real power and magic of collage is in learning collage skills, so that whatever one is working with, the translation of the images creates a strong and provocative composition.
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