Sam Francis

Untitled, 1984

106.7 X 73 inch

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Art, Rock, Paper, Scissors and Various Materials: A Brief History of the Art of Collage

Art, Rock, Paper, Scissors and Various Materials: A Brief History of the Art of Collage

By Andrew Bay, UK


In the realm of contemporary art, few mediums have demonstrated the versatility and longevity of ''Collage art'' and remained as constantly adaptable and flexible as it has. Collage was first utilized over a century ago by some of the great visionaries of the early 20th century, such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who pioneered this art form. The medium has continued to evolve over the years, as artists using a wide array of techniques and materials to create works that continue to challenge and inspire. 

At the heart of collage lies the idea of using heterogeneous elements to create a cohesive whole. While conventional techniques involving the use of cutting tools and adhesive materials are still a popular choice, technological innovation allows modern artists to take their work to a whole new level of conceptual creativity. Regardless of the techniques and methods employed, collage has proven to be an effective means of exploring a broad range of themes and ideas.

It should be noted again that, it was the Cubists' daring imagination which disrupted the pre-existing paradigms. By innovatively exploring form and space, they helped to lay the foundation for the development of collage as an art form. The Dada movement, with its emphasis on anti-art, also gave artists the license to incorporate everyday elements into their works, to subvert established norms regarding what constitutes art. Random items and artifacts remain an essential component of collage art, allowing artists to blur the lines between reality and the imaginary, between art and debris. The medium is perfectly suited to delve into political and cultural topics such as consumerism, the fracturing of cultural identity and the intersection and blending of international communities.

One of the most significant contemporary artists working in the medium is Hannah Höch, a member of the Berlin Dada movement. Through the use of photomontages, her work examines themes of gender, personal identity and self-conception. Her compositions are surreal and thought-provoking, and create vivid imagery which challenges viewers to look at the world from a different perspective.

Robert Rauschenberg is another artist who has pushed the boundaries of collage. He extensively used mixed media that incorporate found objects like tires, rubble and furniture. These blurred lines intertwine painting and sculpture, challenging viewers to re-evaluate how they quantify their relationship to art and to the world they have framed around themselves. Rauschenberg combines where artworks like nothing the art world had seen before: a wild combination of newspapers, cardboard boxes, paintings, taxidermied animals, pretty much anything that Rauschenberg could get his hands on. These found artifacts would subsequently be attached to canvasses or plain surfaces, and layered with paint or other textural materials. The resulting artworks were often densely layered and highly textured, a glorious, chaotic explosion of ideas, with a sense of breadth and intricateness that was atypical for contemporary art at the time.

Rauschenberg was pushing the boundaries of what art could be, and his creations were putting equal emphasis on the material they were composed of, and the physical quality of the images they depicted. ‘Bed’ (1955) was one of Rauschenberg’s most famous ’combines’. It essentially featured a mattress, a pillow and a quilt, covered in paint and pencil marks and then attached to a canvas; Canyon’ (1959) was a taxidermied eagle pinned to a synthetic platform, and ‘Monogram’ (1959) features a stuffed goat wrangled up inside an automobile tire (clearly, activism against Animal cruelty was still in its infancy!).

In retrospect, Rauschenberg accomplished something really important with his ‘combines’. He broke new artistic ground by discovering an unheard of way of making art out of taxidermy and old newspapers, and helped to pave the way for new art forms such as installation art and assemblage, which later emerge in the art world.

At its best, collage is a medium that allows artists to simultaneously create personal and political works. By drawing on a wide range of influences and multi-disciplinary techniques, collage art continues to be an enduring form of contemporary art that is poised to continue to flourish for many years to come.

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