It’s remarkable the leap a post can prompt. In Wonders are Collectable I noted the theory that the wunderkammern (Cabinets of Curiosity) were, in part, a response to a deeply-held Renaissance belief that all things were linked, and that these links might be revealed through a combination and juxtaposition of disparate objects that might inspire wonder, encourage comparisons, and the finding of analogies and parallels.
And that got me thinking about collage – I know – it’s a bit tangential, but in the same way that in wunderkammern juxtaposition can reveal previously unforeseen revelatory associations, interactions and unexpected relationships the same might be said for the narratives that can be set up by the juxtaposition of images, colours and textures in a collage.
Collage (from the French: coller, “to glue”) is the simple technique where new images are made from an assemblage of magazine and newspaper clippings, ribbons, paint, bits of colored or handmade papers, portions of other artwork or texts, photographs and other found objects, glued to a piece of paper or canvas.
Techniques of collage were first used at the time of the invention of paper in China, around 200BC. The use of collage, however, wasn’t widely used until the 10th century in Japan, when calligraphers began to apply glued paper, using texts on surfaces, when writing their poems. The technique of collage appeared again in medieval Europe during the 13th century when gold leaf, gemstones and other precious metals were applied to religious images, icons, and also, to coats of arms.
In the 18th-century an example of collage art can be found in the work of Mary Delany who, in 1771 (in her early 70s) began to create cut-out paper artworks (decoupage). Her works were exceptionally detailed and botanically accurate depictions of plants. She used tissue paper and hand colouration to produce these pieces, in all she created 1,700 works, calling them Paper Mosaiks.
The Oxford English Dictionary, defines a scrap-book as a blank book in which pictures, newspaper cuttings, and the like are pasted for preservation and suggests that 1854 is the earliest known date of the word scrap-book being used in print. The origins of the scrapbook however can be traced back to the commonplace books of the fifteenth century which people used to preserve facts and ideas such as herbal remedies, prayers, proverbs or letters. By the eighteenth century these albums also contained printed material, paintings, poems and original writing.
In the Victorian period there was an explosion in the popularity of scrapbooking as a pastime. Disposable ‘scraps’ – paper items such as trade cards, die-cuts and greeting cards – were pasted into often complex designs in decorative scrapbooks. Sheet of scraps with stamped embossed reliefs, chromos or die cuts of small paper images could also be purchased.
Scrapbooks fulfilled a variety of functions historical, autobiographical and social as memoire, memento, documentary record, collection, enthusiasm or basic craft project. They were a labyrinth of memories often puzzling to everyone except their owner, preserving curious bits of information, poems which had brought them comfort or strength, stories, drawings, and other memories that without a scrap-book would have been lost. These were a personal art-form. They were private, simple, ephemeral and they became a window into the social history of the 19th century.
Collage moved from the Victorian parlour to cutting-edge modernist practice at the beginning of the 20th century and soon became a distinguishing characteristic of modern art. Picasso and Braque breaking with traditional orthodoxy began work on Cubist collage around 1908 directly attaching reality to the surface of their canvases through applying newspaper cuttings, bottle tops, old tickets, buttons, pre-existing materials rather than representative designs or paintings that illustrated them.
The Dadaists used scissors and glue rather than paintbrushes and paints to express their views of modern life through images presented by the media. A variation on the collage technique, photomontage utilised actual or reproductions of real photographs printed in the press. Whilst the cut-up technique was a Dada extension of collage to words , Tristan Tzara describes it in his revised (1918) Dada Manifesto or here (the original anti-art manifesto having been written by Hugo Ball in 1916):
TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though
unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
Arguably collage achieved a creative high point in the work of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), a key figure in European Dada, who originally lived in Hanover but after being labelled as degenerate by Hitler, fled first to Norway in 1937 and then to Ambleside, UK, where he died unknown and in penury in 1948.
His art, like his life, was both bizarre and epic, he made deft collages from found and thrown-away materials – feathers, tram-tickets, skittles, cut-out words from magazines, shoe-laces, feathers, dish-cloths, stones – which he affectionately returned to a place in life through his art; wrote Dada poetry, ‘anxiety plays’ and bizarre stories; published a periodical; gave exuberant Dada performances; and painted bad portraits which he ripped apart to make materials for his collages.
“One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together”.
From 1919 Schwitters used the term Merz to describe his own artistic contributions and attitude of openness towards artistic styles and media. He stated that it was Merz’s nature to be a means to observe connections within the world. The term Merz was derived from a collaged fragment of the word “Kommerz” (commerce) in his work Merzbild 1. Schwitters indicated that the word Merz itself was an example of the process by which he worked ie. it was a scrap component of language that had no meaning until he, the artist, gave it meaning.
Schwitters worked by collecting discarded materials and re-assembling them into new creations, and in doing so he did more than merely document the tattered remains of his post-war environment: he allowed the pieces to take on a new meaning, through forming them into a new creative inter-relationships.
Schwitters saw all the basic units that comprised his works as pieces that were unique and meaningful in themselves, and felt that it was his duty to bring them together and amplify their interconnectedness.
“Schwitters made no strong distinctions between his various media–collage, painting, sculpture, constructions, architecture–and his literary efforts: All were Merz.” Janis & Blesh Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques
Schwitters’ ultimate Merz project was his Merzbau, a work which he began in 1923 and continued to work on until 1937. This work demonstrates Schwitters’ total devotion to his Merz ideals, it became for him both a way of living and an identity. Merzbau began as a series of sculptures in his studio space, and grew into a construction that eventually overtook much of his living space.
The Merzbau was destroyed in a bombing raid during the war but the photos that remain show a massive, angular, white construction, bizarre and disorienting, comprised of a series of grottoes, shelves and columns with many inserted objects – collages, found things, personal items, artworks. The grottoes were dedicated to fellow painters (eg. Arp, Mondrian), themes (eg. war, love), writers (eg. Goethe) and family members. The Merzbau was more a living, changing document of his and his friends’ lives than a sculpture, which he constantly added to – a lock of hair, half-smoked cigarette or child’s watering can here, a china egg, lump of string or artwork there. The Merzbau was part folly, part temple, part modernist fantasia.
End of Part One