A collage is a work that combines and juxtaposes diverse, pre-existing materials on a two-dimensional surface. A three-dimensional collage is generally called an assemblage. The materials in a collage may come from the art world, popular culture, or even the trash. They may be beautifully handcrafted or cheaply made. The materials may include photographs, colored paper, newspaper clippings, rope, textiles, mirrors, and much more. The artist may also incorporate traditional art media and techniques, like painting or drawing, into the composition, but the inclusion of the other materials brings elements of the “real world” into the work of art.
Collage is a type of mixed media work. The term “mixed media” refers to a work that incorporates multiple visual materials. The resultant work may be two- or three-dimensional. (You may also have seen the term “multimedia.” Multimedia works often have non-visual elements and are generally more interactive than mixed media works. For more on multimedia, see the guide for Multimedia and New Media.) The materials in a collage or mixed media work may be used and combined in expected or surprising ways. They may provide or suggest a specific historical or geographical context from which you might begin to interpret the work. The title may also provide helpful information. Some collages and mixed media works may be humorous or ironic because of the visual and verbal puns that are created by juxtaposing disparate images, materials, letters, and words. Others may call attention to the process of meaning-making, convey a particular message or concept, or focus on aesthetics.
How do you look at collage and mixed media works?
- What media are used?
- How much of each material can you see?
- Were the materials cut or torn? Are they layered on top of each other or placed side-by-side? Are the materials combined in another way? What details do you notice because of this? What can you not see?
- What do you think is the significance of what is and is not visible?
- Are the media two- or three-dimensional?
- Where do you think the artist found the materials s/he used?
- How were the materials originally intended to be used? Where would you normally expect to find them?
- What function do the various media serve in the work? Do you think the artist chose them for formal, aesthetic reasons or for a conceptual purpose? Why do you think this? Do the materials serve multiple functions within the composition? How so?
- What is the relationship between the various media? How do they interact with each other? Do they fit together or complement each other? Do the combinations of materials surprise you? Is there visual tension? Do you notice any visual or verbal puns? Do you detect irony or humor?
- What does each medium contribute to the whole work—to the image, the design, the idea, the message, etc.?
- Does the work allude to, is the work in dialogue with, or was the work influenced by, other art practices or media, such as painting, sculpture, or the popular media? How so?
- What do you think the work is about? What is its content or subject matter? Why do you think this?
- Is the work representative or abstract? Does it appear chaotic or orderly, or somewhere in between?
- Do any of the materials refer to a specific historical event or period? How so? What meaning does this contribute to the overall collage?
- What is the significance of the title?
- How does the inclusion of non-artistic materials and materials from the “real world” alter your understanding or definition of art, if at all?
Want to know more?
A Brief History
The history of collage in the visual arts generally begins around the year 1912 when Cubist artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris began fully experimenting with the technique by including such materials as chair caning, wallpaper, and newspapers in their work. Shortly thereafter, artists associated with Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivism began exploring the possibilities of collage and mixed media for their own aims. Collage changed the history of art by challenging the very definition of what art is and what materials can be used to create a work of art.
The word “collage” comes from the French verb “coller,” which means “to stick or to glue.” Colloquially, the French word “collage” also refers to having an affair. Disparate images, texts, and materials “cohabit” in a collage, creating new meanings and contexts and upending expectations and conventions of art.
- Assemblage – a three-dimensional work created by combining various materials and objects, both natural and manufactured
- Combine – a term coined by American artist Robert Rauschenbeg (1925-2008) to describe the collage-like works he created that combined paintings with photographs, taxidermied animals, electrical apparatuses, and other objects
- Décollage – ripping or tearing away layers of glued paper
- Merz – a term coined by German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) in 1919 to describe the collage-like works he created from rubbish and everyday objects that he found in the streets; he used the term Merzbau (Merz building) to describe the wood and plaster construction decorated with found objects that he built inside (and that eventually took over) his apartment
- Montage – a work created by cutting out and reassembling pre-existing pictorial images on a flat surface; this term is also used within the context of film, television, video, and digital image manipulation to refer to the juxtaposition of narrative fragments
- Papier collé – literally “pasted paper,” a type of collage created only with paper on a paper support
- Photomontage – a composite photographic image created by combining multiple photographs, using either positives or negatives
Works in the Nasher’s Collection
Exhibitions at the Nasher
Nina Chanel Abney: Dealer’s Choice (Feb. 16 – July 16, 2017)
Rauschenberg: Collecting & Connecting (Aug. 28, 2014 – Jan. 11, 2015)
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (March 21 – July 21, 2013)
Mark Bradford (Aug. 11 – Dec. 9, 2012)
Conjuring Bearden (March 4 – July 16, 2006)
Adamowicz, Elza. Surrealist Collage in Text and Image: Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Ades, Dawn. Photomontage. Revised and enlarged ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1986.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Brereton, Richard, and Caroline Roberts. Cut & Paste: 21st Century Collage. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011.
Brockelman, Thomas P. The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001.
Busch, Dennis, Hendrik Hellige, and Robert Klanten, eds. The Age of Collage: Contemporary Collage in Modern Art. Berlin: Gestalten, 2013.
Dickerman, Leah, ed. Dada; Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris. Washington, DC: D.A.P./The National Gallery of Art, 2005.
Flood, Richard, Massimilliano Gioni, and Laura Hoptman. Collage: The Unmonumental Picture. London: Merrell Publishers; New York: New Museum, 2008.
Greenberg, Clement. “The Pasted-Paper Revolution.” Art News 57, no. 5 (September 1958): 46–49ff. A revised version was published as “Collage,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston, 1961).
Hoffman, Katherine, ed. Collage: Critical Views. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.
Krysa, Danielle. Collage: Contemporary Artists Hunt and Gather, Cut and Paste, Mash up and Transform. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2014.
Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Philips, Lisa, ed. Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996.
Poggi, Christine. In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Rodari, Florian. Collage: Pasted, Cut and Torn Papers. New York: Rizzoli, 1988.
Rubin, William. Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989.
Seitz, William C. The Art of Assemblage. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961.
Taylor, Brandon. Collage: The Making of Modern Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Taylor, Brandon. Urban Walls: A Generation of Collage in Europe & America. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2008.
Teitelbaum, Matthew, ed. Montage and Modern Life, 1919–1942. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
The State Russian Museum. Collage in Russia, XX Century. St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2005.
Varnedoe, Kirk, and Adam Gopnik, eds. Modern Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High and Low. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1990.
Waldman, Diane. Collage, Assemblage and the Found Object. New York: Abrams, 1992.
Wescher, Herta. Collage. Translated by Robert E. Wolf. New York: Abrams, 1968.