THE HISTORY OF THE COLLAGE
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term collage was coined (more on that shortly). However, 12th century Japanese calligraphers glued paper and cloth to their written poetry as a background. This technique could be defined as collage. 15th and 16th century artisans from the Near East applied intricate designs on paper 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 (thin gold sheets of paper glued together), fabrics, jewelry, relics and hand-colored papers. . The nuns were creating beautiful and intricately designed bookmarks for their prayer books. All of these nifty apps are aligned with the collage technique.
In the early 1800s, with the advent of the camera and photography, families were pasting photos into scrapbooks. Commercial displays and lampshades with photographic images of popular tourist attractions and European landmarks were mass-produced and became very popular home décor items.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque first pasted material onto their paintings. It was then that “collage” became a word that refers to a specific type of art form. The term collage is derived from the French “collage” which means “to paste or paste”. Soon collage became the word to describe an exciting new artistic process.
The scene was set and Picasso and Braque were the protagonists. The traditional, idealistic and classical theme of the Renaissance and the Romantic was on the wane. The Impressionists had helped pave the way for this movement by choosing to paint local subjects: public gardens, cathedrals, and country roads. Claude Monet, a famous Impressionist, painted many studies of haystacks under the ever-changing light of day. So it was not surprising that artistic precursors like Picasso and Braque used theater tickets and fragments of posters and newspapers in their paintings. Ultimately, his use of media materials set contemporary open guidelines for modern art:
(1) Any material can be used to make a work of art.
2) Any idea can be used for a work of art.
(3) Any technique can be used to make works of art.
Today, collage is an established art form that presents an imaginative, provocative, and often humorous outlook by employing common, everyday objects as its theme. Collage transforms the ordinary into the unusual. The skills required to make a collage are both visual and physical. Physical skill involves combining objects to create a composition. Visual ability requires an eye and mind sensitive to the meaning and context of objects.
HOW IS A COLLAGE MADE?
The collage begins with the compilation of a variety of materials to produce a “visual vocabulary”. This should be anything that appeals to you. Loot your dresser drawers, go to yard sales, flick through your old photos, or take a look in the trash. Believe in your attraction to the objects you have found. Note that the materials used in the collage can be anything: papers of any kind, scraps of cloth, leaves, driftwood, plastic containers, herbs and seeds, old appliances, driftwood, leaves, etc. The possibilities are limitless! So start collecting! Next, start exploring and experimenting how the objects found in the composition can be combined to create a collage. Remember that the ultimate goal of collage is to put together a collection of materials to create a new visual form. What could your collage represent? You could talk about your life using photos and other materials that reflect your personal story. You could make a statement, for example you could show how you feel about global warming and the environment. Or your collage could take you to a place you’ve always wanted to go: a paradise of tropical beauty or a utopian city. Your imagination will be activated as you collect the materials and assemble them. And then your thoughts and feelings will be revealed.
Collage is much more than cutting and pasting things on a board. It takes skill to see beyond the obvious image. For example, if you were to go through the pages of a magazine and cut out all the eye images and then arrange them in a pattern, this would be a new way of looking at a familiar image in a different way. The image, repeated many times, is given to the composition of the collage. Why? Then you can see something else! When you look at the composition, the pattern will be apparent first, then you will identify the images of the eyes. The images of the eye have been converted into modules or design units in a collage composition.
Here is another example. How could a group of photos and other materials that you collected from, say, your trip to Las Vegas be put together into a collage to represent a sunset in the desert? It would have to go beyond the virtual material of photos and memories and translate it into the idea of the sunset in the desert. You would have to adjust your eye to perceive photos of other materials such as colors and shapes. Once you can do this, you can jump the reality of your collected materials to another reality and create the sunset!
What if you want to make a collage that evokes the feeling of, say, the 1950s? Using photos and images from that time would be an effective and journalistic way of defining that period. However, it might be even more effective to choose a type 50 color scheme by collecting lots of pink and black papers and then constructing an image of a car with large fins or a poodle skirt from the found papers. Why? Because, the use of images related to the 50’s is common. Choosing a color scheme from the 50s and making a symbol or icon from that time period is more creative, more demanding, and more visually exciting.
Here is another example. You want to make a complete cityscape collage from the letters and logos of well-known products: Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, Palmolive, and John Deere, etc. that you have cut out of magazines. This project would be interesting and effective. However, it would be more of a challenge and a more provocative comment to depict a forest scene using those commercial images. The combination of a highly identifiable business theme in a pastoral image is much more provocative and attractive to the viewer. Imagine the effect if one sees an enchanting landscape, only to discover, on a closer look, that the entire landscape is made up of logos of large corporations!
THE MAGIC AND POWER OF THE COLLAGE
Taking collage skills one step further takes collage magic to another level: the mysterious interplay between objects to form a new collage concept. For example, the famous artist Joseph Cornell created small boxes that housed compositions of curious objects such as antique toys and toy parts, mirrors, seashells, trinkets, fragments, posters, theater tickets, and postcards. These boxes, now found in many museum collections around the world, are tiny worlds, magical environments that often evoke a mysterious and sometimes terrifying 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 a theme, but combined with a stuffed crow and an antique wristwatch, the meaning of composite objects changes. What does this combination of elements evoke? The crow, by itself, is simply a stuffed crow. But in combination with the other objects, it could look like a vulture. The wristwatch, just an old and discarded wristwatch by itself, could be seen as a symbol of stopped time in the context of the other objects. And the cards, just old cards by themselves, in the context of the combined objects, can symbolize destiny.
Artist Robert Rauschenberg placed a stuffed goat with a tire around its center in one of his paintings. The combination was surprising, not only because of the goat’s rarity with the tire, but because the paint 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 understand why the collage is compelling, but reacts strongly anyway: confused, fascinated, repelled, scared, or astonished.
Here’s an example: In the artwork of the famous artist Lucas Samaras, the artist uses a simple chair as the subject. But he has pinned it and covered it completely. A chair, in itself, basically means comfort and rest. However, covered with pins, the chair becomes an anti-chair, an object that has become unpleasant and evokes a negative connotation. This, the viewer may think, is not a chair that I would like to sit on, thank you.
FROM THE USUAL TO THE UNUSUAL
Ultimately, the power and magic of collage are most effective when there is a tension of meaning between the objects or images that included the collage. To hone collage skills, one travels from the usual to the unusual. A beginner can paste pictures of cars in a certain way on a carpet board. The collage will not be much more than an advertising copy. However, developing collage skills can bring new insights. For example, pictures of cars placed one on top of the other and in many rows translate the image into another connotation – that maybe all these beautiful new vehicles will end up on the junk lot. This makes the image much more provocative to the viewer and carries a bigger and more interesting statement.
The true power and magic of collage is in learning collage skills, so whatever one is working with, translating the images creates a strong and provocative composition.