Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
“The scissors have become more or less an extension of my fingers. It appears to me the same as with the brush and the painter…”
– Phillip Otto Runge, cut-paper silhouette artist, b. 1777
In 1938, Peggy Guggenheim, always ahead of the curve, organised the first ever UK exhibition entirely dedicated to collage. The 94 works on show at her London gallery, the Guggenheim Jeune, included pieces by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró, as well as a pleasingly large number of women artists – Katherine Church, Gladys Dalla Husband and Mina Loy amongst them. Five years later, an equivalent New York show included work by many of the same established artists, plus new up-and-comers like Jackson Pollock.
Even this brief initial roll-call suggests collage as a medium where wildly disparate artists converge. Three-quarters of a century later, a vast and totally absorbing show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art sets out to survey collage with a broad historical perspective, beginning in the 1530s in the form of sophisticated ‘pop-up’ anatomical flap-prints with dozens of movable parts revealing our inner workings, right up to the computer-generated images of the present digital era. The collection takes over the entire Modern Two building and is described by the gallery as “the first survey exhibition of collage ever to take place anywhere in the world.” There are 250 pieces displayed, and many supplementary materials for context. It is fastidious, broad and fascinating.
The show divides into six rooms: ‘1550–1900’, ‘Twentieth Century’, ‘Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism and early Pop Art’, ‘Collage and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s’, ‘Post-War Abstraction and Pop Art’ and ‘Collage Now’. Including works by many of Guggenheim’s pre-war names, ‘Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage’ adds Claude Cahun, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Peter Blake, Christo, the Chapman Brothers, and Chantal Joffe to the artistic A-list of collage. It also carefully demonstrates how the development of collage pre-dates these artists, originating in book work and photographic innovation, and in craft, hobby and folk arts, often practiced by women and children, and therefore routinely dismissed. Mary Delany (1700–88), for example, supplemented her astoundingly life-like botanical collages with fragments of the actual flowers she was simulating. Only the decay of the centuries gives away the difference between paper and petal today. Delany’s full body of work now resides in the British Museum.
Popular craft pastimes often done in the home, such as silhouette, quilling, mosaic, découpage, and ‘scrap work’, were all different names for the same essential practice – collage. Curator Patrick Elliott told me:
“An interesting thing to note is the social history of paper production. You have to have paper in bulk for collage to take off as a popular pursuit. That happens with industrialisation in the UK in 1800–50, when paper manufacture multiplied. Cheaper paper, cheaper printing, lithographic printing, photography ... it all contributes to the mass production of printed imagery, which feeds into collage.”
Collage has its origins in paper first and foremost. The word draws on the French verb ‘coller’, meaning ‘to stick’, and so paper stuck onto paper is the first and still most widely recognised form. For the purposes of an historical exhibition of this scale, however, the definition naturally broadens, as Patrick explained:
“I don’t see a hard boundary around collage, it’s in or it’s out – it’s blurred. This is an issue when trying to find collages in museum websites – the older collections won’t use that term, it’s only in common use after WWII. In fact, it is a technique rather than a medium, so some curators still won’t use it. That ambiguity and confusion can be interesting … The word ‘collage’ only comes to be used as a technique definition in the 1920s, and the first show of collage is 1930 … Collage exists well before the ‘invention’ of collage by the Cubists. They just called it something different.”
“Collage is a vital and moving part of Surrealist art … a form of inspired correction, a displacement of the banal by the fertile intervention of chance or coincidence.”
– Eileen Agar, photographer, painter, collagist, b. 1899
As collage began to be more widely utilised by artists – not always in a movement, sometimes in isolation, from necessity, or with little or no knowledge of its prior histories – different materials inevitably began to appear alongside paper; including fabric, hair, glass, feathers, coins, string, leaves, pills, crustaceans, insects, jewels and buttons. The sheer array of forms, techniques and cultural movements in which collage has played a role is staggering, and beautifully exemplified in ‘Cut and Paste’. It was collage that enabled the ‘recording’ of various forms of Victorian supernatural hokum, including ectoplasmic manifestations and the infamous Cottingley fairies. It was there at the birth of Surrealism, Futurism, Cubism, Pop Art, Psychedelia and Punk, friend to Communism and Feminism.
Collage is also in bountiful evidence as a means of creative development and artistic problem-solving, rather than always an end in itself. Here we see collage in the development of photographic technique – if the sky and sea look their best at different times of day, you can simply splice two images together (Gustave Le Gray, Solar Effect: Ocean, 1857). Absent people can’t be photographed collectively, but you can assemble a group portrait using collage (Barclay Brothers, Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1901–02). Collage is ingeniously employed to correct errors and make decisions in painting and drawing through image relocation, resizing and cover-up. It creatively prototypes everything from ballet costumes and movie sets to animation and large-scale masterworks. After all of this visually arresting evidence, it’s difficult to imagine where collage has not made itself preternaturally useful, one way or another.
“Collage is not just a technique, it represents an approach to reality.”
– Penny Slinger, photographer, filmmaker, collagist, b. 1947
All roads lead to or from Picasso, and his adoption of collage in 1912 sent a tidal wave of influence through his peers. Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Juan Gris and Man Ray were also highly influential in their own right. As the practice of collage grew and became politicised, collagists made bold claims for a revolutionary new approach to form and realism, “the painter’s answer to photographs,” as Eileen Agar described. In 1921, the ‘5 x 5 = 25’ show in Moscow announced the end of painting altogether, producing bespoke collage brochure covers to celebrate. George Grosz set about ‘correcting masterpieces’ using collage with a Communist underpinning in the 1920s. Nothing is sacred in collage; everything can be purposed. (Grosz’ approach would be revisited by Jake and Dinos Chapman in the early 2000s, ‘defacing’ dozens of Goyas with their own paper and glue additions, also included in the exhibition). John Heartfield’s collages were street propaganda aimed at fighting Nazi ideology in the 1930s. A decade earlier, Kurt Schwitters saw collage as a distinct rebellion against the kind of corrupt order that could produce a world war, but little could he know what was yet to come.
Picasso, Braque and the Cubist revolution in collage traditionally dominate narratives of the technique – even now their work in the show looks like a tremendous leap forward of the imagination – but it’s worth focusing on lesser-known impactful pieces too. Erwin Blumenfeld’s Charlie (1920), depicts Charlie Chaplin, icon of the Dadaists, crucified and surrounded by paper cuttings and messy religious iconography in an early expression of what would come to be known as Pop Art. Valentine Penrose’s work in the 1930s perfectly embodies the dream-like juxtapositions that many associate with both collage and Surrealism at its beautiful absurd best. In Military Strategy (1934), maps, furniture and torsos merge in odd ways and float dreamily over a disconnected landscape. By the 1950s it seemed collage was the perfect form with which to confidently confront and convey the sensory assault of the new multi-media image-driven world. John McHale’s Virginia Imported (1956) – a cloudy human face fragmented, scattered, subsumed, assembled – represents “media-fed man … defined by what they consume” and seems to speak intimately to that same experience even now.
As well as claiming revolutionary intent, collage has also been used by artists as simply another available technique, and many people more commonly associated with other creative disciplines have their collage work included here. Architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray; documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings; and photographer and painter Humphrey Spender all have brilliant and entertaining work on show. Many collagists were untrained as artists, continuing its earliest tradition as a self-taught skill, and perhaps unknowingly maintaining a useful distance from the traditional fine arts of painting and drawing. Some of the most joyful exhibits are the bastardised library book covers by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, a practice that landed them in jail, where Orton began the playwriting that would make his name. One gallery corridor reproduces an entire wall of Orton and Halliwell’s London flat; a floor to ceiling array of collaged images pilfered from Islington library books.
“What is the smallest addition I can make to the found image that will effect change?… what is that one addition and where must it lie?”
– Linder (Sterling), performance artist, photographer, collagist, b. 1954
The roots of collage in women’s craft made it ripe for feminist reclamation. Linder’s work brought together feminist politics with a punk DIY aesthetic. Female models with appliances for heads neatly summarised the commodification of women’s bodies in a blunt language that spoke to punks and theorists alike. Annegret Soltau’s 1970s collages are made from torn and stitched-up images of herself with disturbing layers that show the woman trapped within the woman, tapping into ideas of pregnancy, surgery and containment. The same tactics occur a decade later in her piece GRIMA - self with cat (the scream) (1986), inviting human/animal hybridity into the picture.
Collage can pose a threat to the very point of art in the first place. Why reproduce a life-like telephone when one can simply cut out the image of a phone and stick it where we like? Some of the most effective pieces in ‘Cut and Paste’ draw their power from the simple pleasurable cognitive dissonance created by placing objects of distinct origin side by side and enquiring – why? The answer can be political, structural, humorous, or can simply lead to more questions. The fact that wonderful oddities like Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python titles or The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album artwork (by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth) also take their place in this lineage only makes it all the more populist, dangerous and fun. In collage, everything on the page – from a newspaper cutting, to a starfish, to a souvenir Titian postcard – has equal merit. The technique itself is available to each and every one of us; rainy-day Victorian children, punks, or Picasso. Perhaps what’s so appealing about collage in the end is that it represents something that feels so rare in the world of art – a true democracy.
Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage runs until 27 October at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
After seeing ‘Cut and Paste’, I had a strong desire to make some collage work of my own. My partner Oisin Share is a graphic designer and we decided to use collage techniques to capture our experience of the show, and to somehow weave the writing of the article into a new piece of visual work. The digital collages we produced (images below) show me standing in front of a replica wall of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s flat which the couple had decorated with collages made from stolen library book pictures. My substituted head is taken from Natalia Goncharova’s Costume Design for One of the Three Kings in 'La Liturgie’ (1915), which features on the front of the exhibition guide. The second image substitutes the background wall for an image of the notes I made as I went around the show; the notes that eventually became the article above.