The Poetry at our Fingertips: Part I

Emily Owens
April 26, 2024
April 26, 2024

The history of collage is often told to begin with Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning of 1912. In the most widely accepted textbook for any Modernist scholar, The History of Modern Art by H.H. Arnason, Picasso is oft regaled as the inventor of the medium you and I have come to love, “collage.” The word, from the French Collé (and the name of this newsletter) comes from the French, “to stick.” Like any good history, Picasso’s friend and Cubist co-conspirator, Georges Braque takes second place in a movement of which he was an equal contributor. And, like any history, the white-western-male euro-centric history of collage is also one that is up for debate.  

Still Live with Chair Caning, 1912
Pablo Picasso

The moment, however, in which Picasso and Braque arrived at their ideas was one of vast technological changes—the industrial revolution of the late 1800’s would indelibly shift both the artist and common citizens’ relationship to print material. The usage of commercial prints; be they street and magazine advertisements, news cuttings, and other ephemera of cultural material is one that becomes heavily explored by artists during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, leading to the use of collage as a form of visual-poetic interpretation to the rich and varying fabric of our shared humanity. 

The assembling of disparate two-and three-dimensional forms began with the invention of paper in 200 BC China, and gained popularity in 10th Century Japan, when calligraphers began including illustrative artworks with various adhesives. During the now-questionable “dark ages,” (now referred to as the “Middle Ages,”) ornate items were crafted from two-dimensional illustrations and paintings altered by the inclusion of gems and religious icons. One could surmise that much of Byzantine Catholic iconography was a predecessor to the three-dimensional technique, “assemblage,” as paintings were literally housed inside of barriers shaped like asps and ambulatories; a smaller version of what a life-sized cathedral might offer. In the 1500’s, interactive paper works of anatomical structures would allow the viewer to reveal the internal processes of the body by lifting pieces of illustrated paper surprisingly akin to those used by armchair anatomists and young medical students today. This image from a German anatomy book from the 16th century, shows the complexity as well as delicacy of the paper craft. 

Work historically deemed to belong to women such as dried flower presses, scrapbooking and the crafting of holiday cards could also arguably count as early forms of two-dimensional collage. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, illustrated reproductions became more common in the average home. Advertisements, and the products and models therein were rife with opportunity for Victorian aristocratic women to weave her own narrative with imagery available through the modern printing press.  

This collage of watercolor and album silver prints by Lady Filmer from the mid-1860’s may remind the viewer of Richard Hamilton’s Just What Was it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing? of 1956. The similarities when seen side-by-side show the complexity of vision and advanced handicraft of the Victorian women’s “craft” work. 

According to the Metropolitan Museum of New York City for their exhibition “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage,” Lady Filmer “depicts herself as a collector of photographs, standing close to her albums, pot of glue, and paper knife. Prince Albert (a coveted guest whose presence was an impressive coup for any society hostess, leans jauntily against the table in the center of the room.” Based off a real-life romance, the image works as a self-portrait of a “well-known flirtation” between its’ maker and the prince.  

In Hamilton’s image, we can see a similar depiction of the couple as “collectors” of mass-produced objects available in the 1950’s, including those external to the home such as the theater marquee outside the window. Prince Albert could be likened to the well-chiseled man with a blow-pop covering his genitalia, or the beautiful housewife, preparing herself in their ornately consumerist home with such modern technologies as a television and tape recorder. 

Disparate images from various photographs, advertisements and the like compose both images which speak to the modernity of their times, albeit 100 years apart. 

Lady Filmer’s work is partially composed of albumen silver prints (an early form of paper, rather than glass-affixed photographs using eggs as a “fixer.”) This is noteworthy as photography came into popularity, replacing the illustrated catalogs that had long supplied popular imagery before it. Walter Benjamin in his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” of 1935 states: “For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.  Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech.”  This accelerated speed and mass production of imagery caused a veritable explosion in our forms of communication—and offered a perfect vehicle for the art of collage.  

A distinction, however, between the historical treatment of the Victorian “craft” of collage, and that of the established narrative of collage by Picasso/Braque, is that theirs had the delineation of the final product as “fine art.” Like many of women’s domestic crafts, works such as Lady Filmer's have only recently come to popular consensus as worthy of viewership. Craft and fine art have wavered their centuries-long-battle, with craft finally being understood for its “canonical merit.”  

Early photomontage can be viewed as early as 1857 in the monumental effort of Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life. A critical examination of vice and virtue, Rejlander photographed each of his models and the background separately and proceeded to meticulously splice more than thirty negatives together to create a single print. Photo “montages” as they would become known most popularly with Dada and Surrealism’s John Heartfield were used by many artists. Rejlander’s choice to do so in 1857, is nonetheless the earliest, if not the most labor intensive. 

Photography, and the invention of mass-produced print media allowed for our most popular conception of collage to become a mode of artmaking. 

While contemporary art historians search forgotten histories of marginalized identities and place them into the canonical narrative of the History of Art, it does not necessarily erase the vision nor importance of those more historically revered. Pablo Picasso is not an artist that should suffer the charge of “irrelevance.” The casual viewer may be unaware of Picasso’s brilliance. A nine-year-old Picasso could run proverbial laps around any lay person or burgeoning artist. He and George Braque’s invention of Cubism was far beyond its time, and an exploration of the 4th dimension (time), a leap in Modernist art history borne of Paul Cezanne’s own experiments with the concept, distilling, as Arnason puts it, “observed experience.” 

Synthetic Cubism and the cubist paintings of Picasso and Braques were examined as a part of what 20th century poet and art critic Apollinaire would call “the simultaneity of experience.” In the case of one of Appolonaire’s poems composed “simply by using fragments of overheard conversation,” Dada and Surrealism writer Matthew Gale explains this act as “rejecting the role of the versifier and becoming the reporter of the poetry of the street.”  

It is this poetry of experience, this use of disparate images culled from our urban landscape that can create a vocabulary to shift narratives and question the status quo—giving collage its greatest strength as a visual communicant.