There is here a triad of fundamental elements--a fragment of gray paper, likely taken from an already existing work, pasted down over a section of an antique-style decorative scrolling vine wallpaper, both affixed to a buff paper ground--and a fourth substratum if one includes the board on which Picasso mounted these several pieces and on the reverse applied his signature. There is a smear of white gesso or paint on the central paper fragment, which had been drawn over in forceful strokes of thick, silvery graphite. As the final step in creating this composition the artist added lines to the top of the glass and right edge of the ace of clubs playing card. This is all Picasso the magician required to here conjure an entirely new kind of pictorial reality. A revolution, in fact, had been underway, in which he and Braque, his trusty "pard[ner]" in cubism--and most recently during 1914, Gris, too--had detonated a mine under centuries of conventional practices in picture-making. Their choice of explosive: the cut and pasted paper, papier collé.
Picasso made the first collage in May 1912 when he glued a piece of oilcloth printed with a chair caning pattern to an oval cubist canvas he had been painting, for a trompe l'oeil effect (Zervos, vol. 2*, no. 294; Musée Picasso, Paris). He did not follow up this idea until Braque achieved a further giant leap during early September in Sorgues, while Picasso was away in Paris for a couple of weeks. Braque took some imitation wood-grain paper he had purchased in a local decorator's supply store, and from it cut and pasted several pieces down on paper, then drew on and around them, producing the first papier collé. Braque recalled having at that moment "felt a great shock, and it was an even greater shock for Picasso when I showed it him" (quoted in W. Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 40). Picasso could instantly foresee the vast range of possibilities that this new technique held in store, and sometime later that fall he photographed a wall in his Paris studio showing two rows of his own drawings with papiers collés pinned up above his bed.
An early paper maquette of a guitar, one of Picasso's key projects during late 1912-1913 received pride of place in this same photograph. Braque had also been making paper constructions of objects, which no longer exist. For many years commentators had assumed that an important purpose in making papiers collés was that they would serve as studies to prepare the way for these paper constructions, and also those wall sculptures assembled from scrap wood and other roughly hewn found materials that Picasso began making in 1913-1914 (fig. 1). Now that the chronologies of works in each medium relative to the other are more clearly understood, it has become clear that the papiers collés actually stemmed from the constructions and assemblages, that is, Picasso and Braque were working from three dimensions into two, in which the papiers collés occupied a crucial middle ground as a kind of thinly layered relief, in which one paper was set down directly on or around another. It was in this way that sculpture, in the manner as Picasso then conceived it, came to the rescue of cubist painting, at a time when increasingly ingrown and hermetic tendencies had threatened a deadly dull end for the analytic phase. Papiers collés set the stage for the new synthetic phase in cubism, providing new grounds for future development, while making color once again a key element in the modernist mix. In the exhibition Picasso & Things organized for the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1992, curator Jean Sutherland Boggs subtitled the period 1914-1921 "Cubism Enjoyed."
The impact of these papiers collés and paper constructions on the very idea of modern art was profound and pervasive, for once Picasso and Braque had initiated their "papery procedures" (as Picasso had once then called them), the modern work of art had unassailably achieved the privileged state in which it was no longer a mere simulacrum of something in the real world, but had become an object in and of itself, existing in the world like anything else, possessing a distinctive factuality and integral reality all its own.