Uni Archive: Collage vs Painting in the Modern World

Written circa 2008 (first year of uni - WHAT is with the size of that paragraph down there?rabi). Typed from hard copy, so no intext/footnotes, see references at the end. (Also.... typed at midnight in bed – expect typos)

Featured Image Hannah Höch Bouquet of Eyes


It is often argued that collage is a mode of representation that is more in keeping with the experience of the modern world than painting. Do you agree?


Collage is a compositional technique that calls attention to the diverse origins of the elements affixed to a particular surface. The materials retain their inner former identities, which, when juxtaposed, created meaning and can be used to reflect the social, political and historical context of the artist. This essay will explore the differences between the established tradition of painting, and the relatively young art form of collage. It will also attempt to determine which medium is more in keeping with the experience of the modern world.


Modernity, as defined by Baudelaire in his 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life refers to the urban landscape, of cities made up of strangers, of some of these strangers interacting purely for commercial reasons, of the fleeting, the ephemeral and the fugitive. As the twentieth century wore on and industry and technology advanced, the everyday lives of artists changed. These changes – caused by growing mechanisation, industrialisation and urbanisation also changed the face of art itself. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, awareness was growing of the role that the machine and mechanical reproduction had begun to play in the realm of fine art.


Painting as an art form was beginning to adapt to the changing circumstances that the modern world now presented to artists. Manet’s scandalous Olympia (1863) explored the role of the prostitute in modern life (the prostitute was considered by Baudelaire to be a symbol of modernity, as she represented the ephemeral, as well as relationships based solely on commercial transactions) and it was finally accepted into the Louvre in 1907, the same year Picasso painted his own scandalous brothel scene, Demoiselles d’Avignon. Demoiselles, an extremely radical work, grossly distorted the faces and figures of the prostitutes, symbolising a radical parting from the tradition of painting, which had for so long been the primary mode of representation in fine art. Modern painters had used techniques such as subject matter (rain transport, the flâneur, Haussman’s boulevards), brushwork (the feathery strokes in Renoir’s La Loge, 1874, suggest the fleeting), and style (with the growing popularity of naïve painting and Primitivist works such as Gauguin’s The King’s Wife, 1896, celebrating the return to nature and the ‘noble savage’) to convey their experiences of modernity as well as their opinions on the course that modern life was taking. As the twentieth century continued, more and more painters turned to abstraction in an attempt to convey their ideas of modernity and its progress. Balla’s Dynamisn of a dog on a leash, 1912, and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase 2, 1912, were attempts at simultaneity, representing frantic and chaotic activity through a motionless medium – a “static representation of movement”. What paintings such as these failed to do, however, was incorporate parts of everyday life in the modern world into the composition.


As the century progressed, however, some artists began to feel that painting was losing its relevance. The invention of collage in 1912 coincided with a growing awareness of the role that the machine and mechanical reproduction had begun to play in all areas of life, especially visual arts. “Prior to the changes wrought by the revolution in lithography and photography during the course of the nineteenth century, the authenticity of works of art was guaranteed by their unique physical existence… their singular presence and connection to tradition were diminished by the sheer multiplicity of copies, which could be placed and viewed in a variety of previously unforseen situations” (i.e. Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., 1919). Severed from tradition and cult practices, original works of art now took on a new status as objects to be exhibited, or as commodities to be bought and sold. Poggi suggests that individual paintings also now lost their sense of originality. The “industrialisation” of such artists as Cézanne and Gauguin seemed to cast doubt on the “prevailing styles of authenticity, which demanded sincerity and an unmediated, spontaneous response to nature but produced so many paintings that looked alike. Furthermore, Poggi reasons that to artists such as Picasso, originality could then only be sought elsewhere, in the “imaginative reordering of signs, in the gestures of the mind rather than in those of the hand”.


In 1912, Picasso began to create “two-dimensional works made of trompe l’oeil papers glued or pasted together. Deadly serious and at the same time tongue-in-cheek, they [Picasso and Braque] methodically re-examined painting and sculpture and gave each medium some of the characteristics of the other. In the process, they invented collage”. Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning is considered “the first work of fine art in which materials appropriated from everyday life, relatively untransformed by the artist, intrude upon the traditionally privileged domain of painting”. Described by Daix as “the irruption of industrial representation in painting”, the still life is a collage of oilcloth and newspaper, with some painting and charcoal, on a rounded surface framed with rough rope. Some areas of the canvas are left exposed, highlighting the artificiality of painting, pointing out what centuries of painters attempted to hide: that painting was not real, it was not a window onto the world, it was merely a representation of the real world. “He first found it senseless to slavishly parrot something which had been already imitated, and then to imitate something when it was possible to put the object itself in its place. He also liked to stick on a bit of old newspaper and add a few lines of charcoal and leave the picture at that”. Picasso and Braque used collages and papiers collés to only to represent everyday scenes from modern life such as still lives in cafes (which became more common in Haussman’s modern Paris), but also to represent the everyday happenings of the modern world. In 1912, Picasso embarked on “a series of papiers collés in which newspaper reports of the progress of the [Balkan] war were a central feature”, and advertising too was used in works, contrasting the ‘high’ cultural discourse of cubism and the ‘low’ discourses of publicity and “commodified leisure”. According to Picasso, this new art form challenged the relevance of the established tradition of painting, “colour became clearly disassociated from form”, and “space no longer play[ed] with illusion. The papier collé is at once concretely and absolutely flat. It is an infinite open space where meaning can be formed and yet remain in abeyance, allowing the artist’s absolute right over his chosen subject to be assumed”. In a modern world where technology and urbanisation were changing what people saw in their everyday lives and how they saw it, the innovative medium of collage and papier collé gave artists a new and more free way to explore their modern surroundings. The years following collage’s invention witnessed “one of the most astounding revolutions in the history of art”. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Vladimir Tatlin, Jean Arp, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, and Max Ernst have made collage, photomontage, and assemblage an integral part of their art-making process. According to Waldman, collage “revolutionised our ideas about the nature of art and influenced virtually every major movement of our time”, expanded the language of art, allowing greater formal diversity as well as capturing “some of the most momentous shifts in culture, politics, and economics and can thus be said to present a compelling historical record of our time”.


As the Great War shattered the world of many young artists, they turned to the “violent and nihilistic” forerunner to Surrealism, Dada. The movement, which began almost simultaneously in Zurich, New York, Berlin and Paris “manifested the despair and disillusionment felt by so many young artists and intellectuals in the face of the Great War”. Dada was born out of the politics of the war, and was composed of a group of writers, artists and intellectuals who aimed to break free from the traditions of art and articulate their disgust at and unwillingness to rebuild a society “that had proven itself so morally bankrupt and they rebelled against the accepted values because these had all succumbed to rabid militarism”.


The majority of Dada artists eliminated painting and drawing from their work and substituted them with photography and reproductions from mail-order catalogues and magazines. For the Dadaists, painting was no longer an accurate way to critique society’s obsessive consumerism, the behaviour of society before, during and after the carnage of war, and the terrifying efficiency with which human lives were ended by technology and machinery. Hannah Höch’s 1920 collage Cut with a Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer Belly, reveals the “sensibility and originality of her vision”. A collage of newspaper and magazine cutouts with photos, letters and words, is arranged to fill the entire surface of the support in such a way that “no one motif emerges against a background”. However this does not mean that the elements of Cut with a Kitchen Knife are chosen at random. Höch mixes photographs of people, cities, modern buildings and machinery to create meaning and convey her experience of modernity – it acts as a critique of the city and modern mechanisation. Grosz’s The Guilty Party Remains Unknown (1918) combines drawing and collage, and depicts symbols of modernity in a chaotic, mismatched setting. A “bourgeouis German, fat and ugly, and a very aggressive-looking prostitute are depicted …while the still life in the upper-right hand corner is still quite Cubistic in style and the port of Hamburg is represented in a Futuristic manner”, pictures, letters and numbers are also inserted into the composition. These two Dadaist works take advantage of collage’s ability to include a huge number of images suggesting the modern experience. These features are generally unique to collage and are a successful means of conveying the chaos, mechanisation, urbanisation and class structure of modern life. In Hanover, Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Merz’ art was redefining the medium of collage, giving it a new moral value. “When he rejected painting as an expression of the old order, he turned to small supports onto which he glued scrap materials, the rubbish of 20th-century society”. He produced these small collages very quickly and they did not demand much technical skill, removing the artist from his pedestal. By using “scraps and rubbish to construct his art, Schwitters left a record of a state of civilisation”, even if his work was less politicised than that of the Berlin Dadaists.


Collage’s unique ability to take everyday modern objects and experiences and fix them to a surface indicates its strong capacity to represent modernity and the new sights, experiences and politics that it brought with it. Modern technology’s mass reproduction and distribution of images had, according to Poggi, diminished the sense of originality in paintings, and lessened their relevance to modern viewers. The huge influx of images in newspapers, magazines and advertising also provided artists with the means to produce many collages, for example the works of the Dadaists, some using collage to ridicule society’s indulgence and lack of morals, others to convey their political stances, and others to produce decorative art. Modern life presented artists with new technologies and political and social issues to explore, while also causing compression in time and space (with new technology, transport and urbanisation). Collage was a new medium, which offered artists the opportunity to use objects from real modern experience, and create meaningful compositions, which expressed these new ways of experiencing time and space. While painting still played an important role in such movements such as Futurism, Cubism and Surrealism, many artists revelled in collage’s disregard for traditional perspective, subject matter, colour, form and composition. According to Waldman, collage revolutionised the idea of fine art, increasing diversity and capturing social, political and historical changes throughout the twentieth century, providing artists with a superior means with which to produce their own historical records of their experiences of modernity.


Baudelaire, C., The Painter of Modern Life and other Essays, Phaidon, London, 1995

Blistène, B., A History of 20th Century Art, Beaux-Arts S.A., Paris, 2001

Cottington, D., Cubism in the Shadow of War, The Avant-Garde and Politics in Paris 1905-1914, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998

Lemoine, S., Dada, Art Dada, England, 1987

Lewis, H., The Politics of Surrealism, Paragon House, New York, 1998

Poggi, C., In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism and the Invention of Collage, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992

Rhodes, C., Primitivism and Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994

Waldman, D., Collage, Assemblage and the Found Object, Phaidon, London, 1992

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