Analytic Table of Contents

Chapter 3: From Papier collé to Digital Collage

Picasso, Gris, and Braque and a host of other young artists in the European avant garde began using small objects, pieces of newspaper, wallpaper and various other papers to make works of art just before World War I. After the war these procedures were carried even farther by the Dadaists and Russian Formalists by including parts of photographs as well, making it a generously inclusive multi-medium, one that has been widely practiced ever since by professional and amateur alike. Collages are even a regular project for art classes in the schools. Today we might even call it image recycling, but it is more than that, since it seeks to transmute the common materials, even the detritus, of daily life by selection and arrangement into a meaningful whole. 1


Alexandr Rodchenko: Maquette for Mayakovsky's ProEto

Figure 3.1
Alexandr Rodchenko: Maquette for Mayakovsky's ProEto (1923)

If we take collage to refer to the combining of pieces of diverse materials and media (such as tissue paper, newspaper, gum wrappers, tickets, fabric, stamps, bank notes, photographs, paint) 2, then a major portion of what the Dadaists called photomontage is simply collage, albeit collage making substantial use of photographs clipped from newspapers, magazines, and catalogs of the time. The terms photocollage might be appropriate for such works (and is used by the Museum of Modern Art in an online Aleksandr Rodchenko exhibit). When a composition begins to become seriously three-dimensional, it is assemblage. These days, the cutting and pasting are often done digitally, so that the term digital collage is used, but this is odd, since no diversity of materials is involved. So some artists prefer the term composition with mixed media. For others, all digital things are similacra, so if it looks like a piece of window screen, it is a piece of window screen and counts as a piece from a different medium. The digital medium does allow collage to be gravity free, so that everything does not have to be affixed to the backing and supported by it, and it dispenses with glue (from when collage takes its name).

There is in fact a great deal of collage displayed on the Web, some of it digital and some scanned or photographed copies of work in traditional materials. Some artists use the Web as a marketing medium, posting up small teasers to induce purchase of the work (as a an IRIS inkjet "original"); others offer larger images, as if the Web is their primary way of being seen. Yet others have constructed sites with collage that is not for sale or available elsewhere: the Web is their gallery, and some, such as Shirin Kouladjie, construct Flash display engines for their work. Some introduce animation into their collages. Finally, as the furthest extension into the new medium, some have developed interactive and randomized collages.

It is very helpful to distinguish collage in these senses from photomontage (as defined in Chapter 2). The crucial difference is that the fragments combined in a collage retain a separate visual identity. They have edges, often torn or jagged and usually cutting across the shapes both of the piece in its original, uncut state and across other pieces in the composition. The fundamental compositional relation is juxtaposition, not merging/emergence as in photomontage. The space of a collage is very abstract, rarely that of a representational frame, whereas in photomontage, the blending images somehow inhabit a single world.

Collages differ according to whether several fragments are simply placed in the frame, leaving us with the general impulse to connect the items, whether they are organized around a central image, or whether they are more numerous and intensely crowd together or pour down in a cascade, usually interrupting the shape beneath them. These different organization patterns are fundamental to we understand collages and will be described in the first section; individual artists tend to concentrate on one pattern. We will unfortunately have little to say about large collages with an abundance of images, for these are very difficult to capture and see in a single screenful. The smaller, less populated types are easier to see and to grasp by the mind from a computer screen, and the limitation in contents is sometimes compensated for by developing a series or suite of collages.

Figure 3.2
Bernie Stephanus (www.stephanus.com)

The way the edges are made and placed may be of particular interest. As noted, paper-based collage typically includes torn edges which are very distinctive visually and convey some vehemence and disregard for precision. Even smooth, scissored edges can be central to a composition if they break forms in interesting ways. The effect can be of displacement or slippage in a Cubist fashion rather than disruption, as when a face or other good form is broken into planes as if viewed from several angles. We will take up edges and grafts as the second topic.

As fragments, the pieces are parts of something else, sometimes quite identifiable, other times only identifiable by provenance ("this looks like a handwritten note, quite old"). The fragment, one might say, drags its original context with it; it points back to it as a hypertext link points to a more extensive "elsewhere." Diane Waldman cites Apollonaire's remark that the objects used in Cubist collage were "soaked with humanity" 9322). Since they have been used already, it is easy for collage to take on a "retro" look; this has been developed extensively in recent years with collage artists visiting used shops for old books and magazines to cut up (or scan) and by the heavy use of old photographs. The prolific young collagist Shirin Kouladjie says she thinks of herself as an artist rather than an illustrator and therefore oriented not toward what the next thing will be but toward making sense of what she sees around her. To put it another way, each fragment has a history, and to take it out of its context and re-use it is an appropriation which readily supports critique (Kouladjie, 2001). This was the key realization of the Dadaists and it distinguishes Dada from Cubist collage. Dada carried Cubist collage further in the use of fragments from the popular media, especially photographs and catalog drawings. It thus overturned the High/Pop hierarchy, making gallery art out of the disposable clippings from magazines, newspapers, catalogs, wallpaper swatches, and sundry small objects. And it also violated the gallery decorum by handwriting on the canvas, making personal inscriptions that went far beyond the one authorized marking, namely the author's proprietary signature. And correspondingly, it mocked the hierarchies and pieties of the political and social order that was trying to reassert itself after the catastrophic (for Germany) Great War.

Georges Braque: Violin and Pipe (Le Quotidien)(1913)

Figure 3.3
Georges Braque: Violin and Pipe (Le Quotidien)(1913)

I do not mean to imply that all fragments are semantically full and rich or are chosen for that reason: we might rather describe a visual/semantic scale: some fragments are rich with cultural codings and overtones, others are used it would seem mainly for their shape or texture. A piece of newspaper, for example, might be such a texture in the classic cafe-society collages of Picasso, Braque, and Gris, or it might contain some words or an incident with some bearing on a theme, or it might be a special fake newspaper every word of which was on topic. The different ways fragments contribute meanings is the topic of the third section.

Animated and interactive collages would seem to be pushing the notion of collage pretty far, as if it were not already pushed with non-material "materials." These will be the subject of the fourth section.