Collage: The Exploitation of Chance and Deliberation

Collage is the juxtaposition of disparate things and the twentieth-century mode of manifesting paradox ‘par excellence’. — Lebbeus Woods

Collage is an art form and a technique in which the work of art is made by gluing pre-existing materials or objects attached as part of a two-dimensional surface, exploiting both chance and deliberation, it is used to heighten visual engagement in the presentation of an idea and, more importantly, to release hidden associations in the issues of a design project.

Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City by Lebbeus Woods
Lebbeus Woods, San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City, 1995; graphite and pastel on paper; 14 1/2 in. x 23 in. x 3/4 in. (36.83 cm x 58.42 cm x 1.91 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Estate of Lebbeus Woods

The word collage derives its name from the French verb coller, which means to glue. Max Ernst, the author of a collage graphic novel, Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), once said:

Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.

Violin and Pipe, ‘Le Quotidien’ – Georges Braque

Historically, collage is closely associated with 20th-century art, in which it has often served as a correlation with the pace and discontinuity of the modern world. The technique owes its creation to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque during their Synthetic Cubist phase, which involved the introduction of cut-out pieces of newspaper and pre-printed material into their painted compositions. The technique was later adopted by Dadaist artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst. However, this latter use was associated more with notions of chance and randomness. The Dadaists also used ‘found’ images to create irrational conjunctions, deliberate spatial disharmonies, and incongruities of scale. Sigfried Giedion questions the idea that collage was invented by the Cubists. He describes Antonio Gaudi’s mosaic of broken pieces of glazed tiles on Barcelona ‘s Guell Park seating as exemplifying a form of collage that predates that of Picasso and Braque by more than a decade. However, the use of collage in architectural design is widespread.

Antonio Gaudi’s mosaic of broken pieces of glazed tiles on Barcelona ‘s Guell Park

Other artists associated with the Berlin Dada group used photographs and newspaper cuttings in a political, satirical and socially critical fashion. Max Ernst also began experimenting with collage and developed the ‘collage–novel’, pasting paper on old engravings of narrative scenes to create the visual, dream-like ‘text’ of La Femme 100 Têtes (1929), for example.

Joan Miró (1893-1983)

Another important Surrealist collagist, especially in the late 1920s and 1930s, was Joan Miró (e.g. Painting–Collage, 1934; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), while at the same time abstract collage was further developed by El Lissitzky and other Constructivists. More recently the possibilities of fantasy and disjunction on one hand (in the work of Joseph Cornell, for example) and a recurrent interest in material texture and shape on the other (in the work of Ann Ryan (1899–1954) and Jean Dubuffet) continued to attract the attention of 20th-century artists. In the USA Robert Motherwell used collage extensively in the 1940s and 1950s, while Lee Krasner produced important collages by cutting up and reusing her paintings and drawings. In Europe in the 1950s Raymond Hains and other artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme, such as François Dufrêne (b 1930) and Mimmo Rotella, experimented with Décollage, a process of stripping away layers of glued paper. In the 1960s Robert Rauschenberg and many artists associated with Pop art also used collage extensively to reflect the omnipresence of the printed word and image in modern society, as well as Richard Hamilton, who continued to apply paper and objects trouvés in his works.

Robert Nickle, Black Collage

In the decorative arts, the influence of collage was reflected in embroidery. Although pure sticking techniques only replaced stitching briefly during the 1960s, embroiderers continued to produce combinations of fabric, paper, and other materials.

Furthermore, the maneuvering of painted paper elements, their trial arrangement, and ultimate sticking down in the manner of Henri Matisse, has been associated with those architects who exercise a type of free- form planning. The ability of collage to transform old meanings into new ones has, in the words of Lebbeus Woods, become a convention,’ … permeating consumer culture, advertising, fashion, movies, and post-modern architecture’.