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The Short and Compressed History of Collage and Assemblage - Presented by Cuts and Paste Gallery

A brief history of collage and assemblage prior to the coining of the term by Picasso and Braque that we have come to use.


If collage, the derivative of the French word 'coller', means to 'to glue', and this is paramount to the medium of collage and assemblage, we better start looking at when glue was invented. There is evidence of plant-based adhesives being used in the Middle Stone Ages, some 280,000-25,000 years ago on tools, weapons and decorative items.


When was paper invented?


If we look at the history of paper and glue, we can start to map out the history of when folks decided to glue paper and various other mediums together, employing the collage technique of creating a new whole from disparate parts.


An Egyptian collar with various plant, beads and textiles sewn to papyrus base.
Floral collar from Tutankhamun's embalming cache, shown as part of the Met Museum's public domain.

Papyrus and ancient Egypt


Papyrus, a writing surface created by the Egyptian people around 2900 B.C. has been found in various states of preservation with painted images and text applied. This piece, a neck collar dated to 1336-1327 B.C. used plant petals of various colors, red textile and beads affixed to a papyrus base with thread . It indicates a desire to add one type of medium to another to add color, texture and interest in decorative pieces. Could this be classified as a collage? Read more about this piece here.


Researchers have also discovered that individual sheets of papyrus were glued together using a starch-based paste to create a roll of papyrus. A myriad of animal and plant based glues were available at the time, so it's not a far stretch then to say pieces of papyrus with images and text could have been adhered together in a similar way to modern collage.


Paper in Chinese art

Around 200 BC in China, paper, likely created from hemp, came into existence, and along with this incredible new product came a new way to capture the human story. In 105 BC, Cai Lun, a eunuch, is credited with refining the process and creating a smoother paper, with much more consistency allowing it to became more widespread. Then, during the Tang Dynasty, 618-907 AD, rice paper was invented.


A peacock and flower cut from a circular piece of red paper, in jianzhi technique.
Modern example of jianzhi, or Chinese paper cutting

Around the time of it's first appearance, paper cutting or 'jiǎnzhǐ', appeared. Pieces of paper were cut into intricate patterns and symbols using blades or knives. These paper cuts were then adhered to windows, walls, doors or used in ceremonies. Read more about this art practice here.


It is also possible that the art of creating oil-paper umbrellas, or youzhisan, which involved gluing papers to a bamboo frame, decorating the paper with paint and calligraphy, may have involved the gluing of separate paintings and writings into one new whole object.


Certainly, artisans were using all the tools of collage at this point. Cutting tools, adhesives, papers, and various inks, dyes and paints to pattern the papers were being employed to make decorative and functional pieces.


Moving forward, and of significance, is the Chinese painting style of 'bapo', or 'eight brokens' seen around 1850 AD, which very much has the aesthetic of modern collage. In this painting style, artists depicted remnants of calligraphies, stone rubbings, block prints, old letters or burned paintings. It is visually similar to collage and often, the way in which the fragments of the documents were shown interacting with one another held higher meaning. This style of painting largely fell out of popularity around 1950, but has a new found interest in recent years. Read more about this style of Chinese painting here.


So at this point, the tools, materials and an aesthetic that deals with using fragments to create a new whole are available.


Japanese art and chigiri-e

Around 610 AD Buddhist monks had introduced the art of papermaking to the Japanese people. By 800 BC, Japan is thought of as the premiere paper makers in the world.


If you not already familiar with the Japanese Paper Place in Toronto, it's worth taking some time to learn about them. Here is a link to their website. They specialize in washi, or Japanese paper and offer workshops in various Japanese paper craft and art.


blue, brown, pink and green paper collage with Japanese poem over top.
Part of the first volume of collected poetry from Ōnakatomi no Yoshinobu

Japan also has a long history of paper arts, including paper cutting, known as kirigami, similar to the jiǎnzhǐ of the Chinese. However, I would like to highlight the art of using colored washi papers to create images that appear similar in style to watercolors known as chigiri-e. Discovered in the Heian period, 794-1185 AD, handmade colored papers were torn and placed to create new images and were often used in conjunction with calligraphy, as seen in the Genji scrolls and in this example of poetry on a chigiri-e collage. This example is part of the 1st volume of collected poems of Ōnakatomi no Yoshinobu (921–991).


Notice the translucency of the washi where the white overlaps the pink and the blue moves over the brown, as well as the straight line cut into the green washi.



Paper and glue in Europe

Paper first arrived in Europe as an import from Islamic countries. The first manufacturing plant for paper was established in Baghdad in 793 AD. Waterpower was used in the manufacturing process allowing for the commodification of paper and by the 11th century, it was widespread within the Arab culture. As interactions between the countries increased, so did the movement of paper into Spain and Italy and beyond. By 1275, paper makers were established in Italy. Even still, it took a while to move west and compete with the locally made vellum and parchment. Most European countries were using paper by 1500 AD though.


Glue or adhesive had fallen out of use, but, by 1500-1700 AD furniture makers were using it in their production of goods. The common household could access paper and glue. What did they do with it?


Many people took part in the act of keeping 'commonplace books', or books with important dates and collected ephemera. A wonderful article about this practice can be found here. The term scrapbook came into use.


Collage using various papers with a woman and chikld highlighted.
Image from found scrapbook, London. Est. 1890-1940

The image to the left comes from a discovered scrapbook in London and more information can be found about this astonishing book, which is noted to have been started in the Victorian Era and continued to be worked upon until the 1940's, here.


Scrapbooking became popular throughout Europe, in Canada, and the US.


The Europeans, known for creating the love puzzle or origami inspired paper creation given to ones love interest as a sign of devotion, also adhered images, hair or other objects to these productions.



Another example of a #collage from around this time is 'Le Carnaval', unknown artist as shown to the left. See more details about this piece here.


I cannot leave Europe without talking about #MaryDelaney, a favorite artist of mine.


Delaney created what she called 'paper mosaiks', that were collages created from hand colored papers cut and torn and placed into realistic images of flowers and foliage. In 1772, she wrote her niece to claim she had found a new way to represent flowers. Indeed she had, and she went on to create 985 of these collages before she passed. A remarkable feat that was possible through her status, social proximity to the Royals and the samples of plants in the gardens and collections they held. She had access to both the tools and techniques, materials, knowledge and the support of the Royals to achieve this. I wrote an article about Delaney that was published in #ContemporaryCollageMagazine in Issue 8 if you are interested.

It is possible that Delaney had been made aware of the art of chigiri-e from Japan through her upper class circles, and this is something for me to research at another time.




In conclusion

Although the term, the actual word, describing the technique, 'collage,' would not be coined until much later, the idea of adhering layers of paper and ephemera has been seen throughout history, and can be found in these examples.


Surprise! Collage, the technique, was not invented by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The word itself?, maybe.


The tools, glue and paper are available throughout the world now. I'm thoroughly stuck on the medium, so I welcome any feedback on this blog or suggestions for areas of research or any errors in my writing.




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