A thought-provoking exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art puts forward an alternative history of collage, as Meredith Etherington-Smith discovers
The exhibition, Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage, is curated by Patrick Elliott and is inspired by the Scottish National Gallery’s 2015 acquisition of Picasso’s Bottle and Glass on a Table (1912), one of the very earliest of all Cubist collages.
The alternative history of collage that the show presents is one that stretches back to the 16th century. I say ‘alternative’, because some critics have found the time frame hard to accept.
One critic gave the show a positive review but, says Elliott, ‘didn’t buy the thesis that collage pre-dates Cubism’. According to the curator, he’s isn’t presenting a thesis, however, so much as a fact — ‘and there are two rooms in the show to prove it’.
Elliott believes the Cubists, and Picasso in particular, deliberately borrowed from the world of amateur art ‘as a way of attacking conservative, academic tropes’. A self-confessed auction junkie, the curator reveals his research saw him poring over the online catalogues of obscure regional auction sales in which he found all manner of ‘quirky and fascinating’ examples.
‘There are earlier collages,’ he explains, ‘but it really takes off in the Victorian period, coinciding with the mass production of paper.’ As to exactly when collage starts, that really depends on your definition of it.
‘If you see collage as paper stuck on paper, then it probably starts in Japan around 1100, but these were really poems produced by calligraphers,’ Elliott explains. The earliest artistic print with collage elements that he came across was a German woodcut print of about 1450, which has tiny bits of tinsel stuck on it.
‘We have anatomical flap prints in the show, dating from the 1500s,’ he continues. ‘They involve scissors and glue. And the first framed collages we have are what are termed “adorned prints” of the early 1700s, which are engravings of figures with fine cloth and lace stuck on and under them, to imitate clothing.’
The most surprising thing that emerged from Elliott’s research was that nobody had previously done a show, a book or an article about the history and origins of collage. One of the reasons for this, he maintains, is the fact that the word ‘collage’ only became a common descriptive art term in the 1930s.
In the 19th century ‘collage’ was known by terms such as ‘découpage’, ‘scrapwork’, ‘adornment’ and ‘mosaic work’. Dictionary definitions of the word refer not to art, but to wallpaper pasting and bill-posting. One of the many highlights of the exhibition is a three-metre folding screen dating to about 1860, which, it is claimed, was partly découpaged by Charles Dickens.
‘[Collage] was regarded as a hobby, a craft — what we now call folk art — and was practised by amateurs, mainly women and children,’ the curator explains. ‘It simply wasn’t thought of as “proper” art. But you can see that Max Ernst’s work, for example, comes straight out of the Victorian hobbyists’ obsession with cutting and pasting.’
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Among Elliott’s other discoveries were Victorian DIY collage kits known as tinsel prints. ‘They are quite something,’ he says. ‘You bought a ready-painted background, cut out the engraving, stuck it on the background and then bought all the little tinsel details, like gloves, boots, hats and so on to stick on the figure. It’s just like a kid’s sticker book. It’s real and very democratic and I think that every visitor to the show can easily identify with the type of work, which was massively popular in the Victorian period.’
Dada, Surrealism, and Pop would all go on to draw from collage — witness Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python and Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper album cover. They were far from being the only ones.
It also became a form of protest, as evidenced in works by feminist artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Linder and Hannah Wilke, and was appropriated by Punk artists, such as Jamie Reid, whose original collages for the Sex Pistols’ album and posters feature in the exhibition. It was even indirectly responsible for seeing certain practitioners being sent to jail: in 1962, the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were given six-month sentences for doctoring library books with comical cut and pasted images.
Sadly, the exhibition will not tour because so many of the works are extremely delicate, but there is an excellent and well-illustrated publication to accompany the show, and many websites to explore. I’d personally recommend The Edinburgh Collage Collective as a good place to start.
Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage is on show at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art until 27 October