Given the assumption that collage abruptly entered advanced art practice in September of 1912, we are now presumably celebrating the procedure’s centennial.
It was in September of 1912 that Georges Braque, in his Still Life with Fruit Bowl and Glass—widely acknowledged to be the art world’s first papier colle—substituted pieces of wallpaper for passages of paint and charcoal, thereby not only achieving a few suddenly disorienting effects of grain and texture on the picture’s surface, but also infusing the new work with an electrifying kind of torque, by which the flat and the “round,” that is to say the “innocence” of normal studio material (paper, paint, pencil, charcoal) and the “experience” of material-from-the-world-at-large (wallpaper, for example, and faux woodgrain trims) found themselves in vigorous contention. It’s as if, in the willful, albeit highly self-conscious bringing together of two or more disparate materials onto one plane, Braque had suddenly infused his picture with the charged force of a battery.
Collage is the pret-a-porter of art-making.
The collage-battery was suddenly hot stuff. Picasso, who was away for two weeks when Braque first stuck the wallpaper on his drawing paper, quickly joined the collage-race. Less cautious than his fellow cubist pioneer, he affixed not just patterned papers and shards of newspaper to his pictures, but also explored the effects of using labels from bottles, visiting cards (today’s business cards), bits of cloth, scraps of sheet metal and even, in one epoch-making dalliance into faux-textures, a patch of (in the words of Douglas Cooper (The Cubist Epoch, 1971, p.58) “American cloth over-printed with a design of chair-caning,” using it to represent the seat of a chair, painting a still life on and around it,” thereby, in a wicked, brilliant moment of visual ambiguity, radically energizing the painting’s surfaces. This latter work, which was also “framed” with a length of twisted rope, was titled, appropriately—and with charming duplicity—Still Life with Chair Caning (1912).
Suddenly, collage was everywhere. But in a sense, it always had been.
The term papier-colle (cut paper)—as the central procedure of collage—may well evoke the balmy days of early cubism in Paris, but the collage idea is, of course much older, having manifested itself centuries ago as decoupage and bricolage. Decoupage, the gluing of coloured papers and other substances to otherwise unadorned objects, is very ancient, attaining a sort of zenith of subtlety and skill in 17th century Venice.
Among its stellar 18th century enthusiasts was the remarkable Englishwoman, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788), who, beginning her practice at age 72, proceeded to decoupage her way through the making of 985 exquisite, mixed-media collages—cut-paper flowers so astonishingly fresh and delicate you can scarcely tell them from the real thing (you can see them in the British Museum). Mrs. Delaney’s decoupage passion is entertainingly recounted, by the way, in poet Molly Peacock’s charming book, The Paper Garden (2010).
As for Bricolage (from the French verb, bricoler, “to fiddle” or “to tinker”), it is collage carried on by other, larger means—specifically by the bringing together of a usually wider, often unexpected range of materials in a surprising, cheeky, do-it-yourself-ish way.
Assemblage is bricolage, as is Installation. Among its most illustrious advocates in the 20th century, it seems to me that Kurt Schwitters reigns supreme, especially in his Merz constructions and, ultimately, in his various architecturally-scaled Merzbau assemblages—that reached a sort of tragic zenith with the proliferating structure that entirely took over his Hannover house, the “Cathedral of Erotic Misery,” on which he worked from 1923 until about 1930. The surrealist Max Ernst was of course entranced with collage (especially in his collage novel, La Femme 100 têtes from 1929), and wielded the bricolage idea with great poetic subtlety in his assorted construction-pictures, most centrally, perhaps, in his exquisitely troubling Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale from 1924 (officially described as being of “oil on wood with wooden elements”).
Later, Robert Rauschenberg, acting “in the gap between art and life,” was to make very pure works of bricolage in his long series of “combines”—such as his famous Monogram (1955-59) which lists as its ingredients, ‘oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas, with oil on angora goat and rubber tire, on wood platform mounted on four casters.”
Collage (and bricolage), though now antique as a procedure, remains an utterly dependable way of surprising yourself. The willed bringing together of heterodox elements into a single theatre of aesthetic action trades powerfully in the surrealist-engendered delight that always lay in the juxtaposition of unlikely substances, objects and events, representing, as it almost has to, a legislated letting-go of the kind of total control over an art object’s making that can so easily result in slickness, over-determination, predictability and (thus) bathos.
I use collage all the time in my own practice. I pick up and press into service diverse, messy, previously painted-on scraps from my worktable, pieces of packing material, the papers that come wrapped around cut flowers, hunks of corrugated cardboard (I love corrugated cardboard), all kinds of stuff. I do it, I suppose, for two reasons: to align myself with history, and to keep myself gratifyingly derailed into the utterly unexpected.