The Art of Collage: Paper & Scissors Rock!

Hannah Höch - Mrs To and Daughter

Max Ernst, the author of a collage graphic novel, Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), once said: “Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”

Max Ernst collage

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing an exhibition devoted to the work of Hannah Höch, a German Dada artist, at the Whitechapel Gallery. Höch is one of the major figures in the history of collage, yet the Wikipedia only credits her for photomontage. The exhibition presents approx. 100 works, including collages, montages, and watercolour drawings which were created over six decades. Höch, a bisexual “degenerate artist,” spent the years of the Third Reich living in the outskirts of Berlin, in a tiny suburban cottage, where she stayed for the rest of her life. She was a bold, anarchic, politically engaged woman, a contributor to 1920’s First International Dada Fair but it didn’t take long before she got written out of the movement’s history and labelled a “bob-haired muse of the men’s club in one of obituaries. In her earlier work, such as her Ethnographic Museum series, she used collage to comment on inflation, political tyranny, Nazi ideals of racial purity, and general perceptions of beauty. Later on, she turned to abstraction. Her artistic practice also incorporated graphic design and embroidery – some of those works, like the Rohrfeder Collage (below), I personally find most interesting. With her collage work, I particularly enjoy those complex and carefully arranged compositions of architectural motifs and patterns. But in my opinion some of the cutouts lack precision and appear a little random. I am also not keen on her late semi-abstract work which somehow loses the spirit of her early work.

Hannah Höch - Rohrfeder Collage (fragment), 1922

Hannah Höch, Fremde Schönheit (Strange Beauty), 1929

Having seen the Hannah Höch exhibition, I thought that I’d use this opportunity to write about some other collage artist that I like. The first name that comes to mind, and immediately fills it with sorrow, is the name of a brilliant Polish artist who died tragically in the Tatras Mountains three years ago – Jan Dziaczkowski. He was one of those rare artists with an absolute coherence to his work, regardless of what mediums he used. His paintings, collages and photographs were of equal quality, and really complemented each other. In his first series of collages, Greetings from vacation Dziaczkowski used archival postcards from various places in Europe. In another series, Polish Art of the Twentieth Century, he was altering the reproductions of famous works of art to create a completely new work where those sacred museum pieces got a voice of their own. In the Keine Grenze series, Dziaczkowski created an alternative history of Europe after World War II using postcards from European metropolis: Paris, London, Barcelona. His fantastic cityscapes of famous tourist spots incorporated silhouettes of socialist architecture taken from Russian periodicals. He also did a series inspired by Japanese horror films (Japanese Monster Movies) and a series on the life of Nigeria inhabitants, Black Market of Art (2009).

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Polish Art of the Twentieth Century

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Keine Grenze

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Japanese Monster Movies

Another fantastic collage artist is Terry Gilliam, famous for his work as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, and for several films he directed after the break-up of the group. Gilliam began his career as animator and cartoonist. In the beginning of his Monty Python period, he was credited as an animator and it was only later when he was considered a full member. His surreal cartoons provided an important link between the show’s sketches, and defined  Monty Python’s overall visual language and aesthetic. In the collages, he would create backgrounds and moving cutouts from antique photographs, mostly from the Victorian era, and mix them with his own work.

Terry Gilliam collage

Another artist who incorporates collage into her own work is a London-based painter Kirsten Glass whom I discovered many years ago. While studying foundation at the Camberwell College of Arts, I went to see her solo exhibition at One In the Other Gallery which really blew me away. Her large scale collages are a mixture of oil paintings with a range of materials and objects like rabbit skin glue, sand, mannequins and dripping paint. Those complex and striking compositions make one think of film noir, Gothic imagery, fairy tales, as well as pop art, and mass media. From what I have gathered looking at her recent work, she now limits herself to oil paints, though the subjects are still very similar.

Kirsten Glass - Snakeskin (love's a 2 way dream) 2006

Collage is an interesting form, for it lends itself to creative people who have no practical drawing or painting skills such as writers who either create collages alongside their work, or use collage in the actual process of writing.

I’ll begin with Wisława Szymborska – a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. This incredibly talented poet with a great sense of humour created a relatively small body of work, explaining that the reason she hadn’t published more was because she had a bin at home. Described as a “Mozart of Poetry,” Szymborska identified three areas of interest: serious poetry, light-hearted poetry and collages. The thousands of collages she created in her lifetime, were postcard-size minimalist compositions, juxtaposing images with words which resulted in ultra-economical visual poems. She also used to send very humorous collage greeting cards, cutting out letters of words expressing what she was wishing the recipient. (In Poland, unlike the UK, it is considered rude to limit yourself to writing “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas” on a card. Both verbal and written greetings are usually a list of things we are wishing the other person to receive, such as good health, love, joy, success etc. The closer we are to the person, the more detailed and personalized the wishes ought to be.) For those unfamiliar with Szymborska’s literary work, here’s one of her poems:

The Three Oddest Words
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Wisława Szymborska collage ("Thinks too much")

Wisława Szymborska collage

Another writer and Nobel Prize winner (2009) who used collage in her work, albeit in a different way than Szymborska, was Herta Müller. This German-Romanian novelist, poet, and essayist used cut out letters to “write” the poems with and since the subject of her work, like in the case of Hannah Höch, was the political regime, her poems resembled ransom letters addressed at the communist government. According to an article in the Guardian, during Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania, Herta received death threats after she refused cooperate with the secret police.

Herta Müller

Jiri Kolář, a Czech poet, writer, painter and translator, was another poet who incorporated collage and visual art into his literary work which was very much influenced by the political situation in former Czechoslovakia. In Robert B Pynsent’s obituary in The Guardian (2002), we can read that even though Kolář never learned to draw or paint, he “claimed that his training as a carpenter enabled him to cut the straight lines he needed for his collages, or ‘picture-poems’, as in his 1969 montage Birds For Hans Sachs.” His collages were created by superimposing images over one another using grids, using some elements as windows into other elements, crumpling paper or by placing elements side-by-side to create a narrative. He first exhibited his collages in a theatre corridor in Prague in 1938 and during the war, he was the leader of an avant-garde art and literature society called Group 42. He later exhibited in London (1963), Canada, South America and Japan, and his retrospective exhibition took place at the Guggenheim in New York in 1975. In his poems he expressed disintegration and unhappiness of individuals; in his collages he manifested “both ironic wit (for example, his one-eyed self portrait of 1980), but also his horror at cultural and political disintegration – the best-known examples being his scenes of a distorted Prague.”

Jiri Kolář - Homage to stars of the silver screen

Jiri Kolář - Crumplage newsprint collage, 1971

The great thing about collage is not just the variation of its forms (photomontage, confrontage, froissage, rollage, etc.) but also of the tone and message. The same letters or images cut out from magazine can be put together in a way that makes us laugh, like in the case of Szymborska’s cards, or cry – like Herta Müller’s poems. And there are plenty of shades of grey in between.