Collage is a technique I have loved doing myself and with the high school students I taught at La Guardia High School using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. From one point of view it is so simple—all that is needed is paper and glue—yet the artist Robert Motherwell described collage as “the twentieth century’s greatest creative innovation.”
Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque explored the possibilities of this folk craft once used mainly for scrapbooks, and brought it into the realm of high art. Matisse is among the artists who have shown that collage is more than just gluing paper. He said that each piece of paper had to be “augmented,” “given life,” and just last year people waited in long lines at the Museum of Modern Art to see how Matisse gave life to paper in his beautiful and dynamic cut-outs.
Why have people, including students in art classrooms at all levels, loved doing collage? All art, I learned, has an important message for the life of every person. That message is in this principle, stated by the 20th century educator and founder of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel:
“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Opposites at the heart of collage are manyness and oneness, separation and junction. Many disparate, individual pieces of paper—diverse shapes, colors, images, textures—are arranged and fixed with glue into a single composition. To introduce collage to my students I showed them several individual pieces of paper—white, brown, blue, a newspaper clipping, and a sample of wallpaper—and asked: Would a composition created by gluing just one of these pieces of paper onto a background, be interesting? As a means of exploring this question, we looked at Picasso’s Guitar of 1913.
Created from pieces of paper similar to the ones I had shown, this work is described in Collage, Personalities, Concepts, Techniques, by authors Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, as a “virtuoso demonstration of the...possibilities of collage.” My students and I studied the way Picasso cut, organized and combined different pieces of paper to indicate, for example, the shape of a guitar, and how he used light and dark paper as light and shadow. I asked the class: Does the newspaper clipping add something to the shape of the guitar? Does the blue background add something to the wallpaper pattern? We saw that these single pieces of paper did add something to each other. I am fortunate to be able to tell the young people I teach that the beauty of a collage depends on its composition—how its many parts, with all their drama of likeness and contrast, work well together.
In his great 1949 lecture titled Poetry and Unity, Eli Siegel explained: “The purpose of composition is to show that through bringing something together with other things, it will have something which it would not have had alone.” As we studied Picasso’s collage, my students were excited to see how each piece he added to the composition, had something it didn’t have alone. For example, the blue background brought serenity to the wallpaper and the wallpaper pattern added a rich liveliness to the blue background.
A mistake that I have made, as many students have, is feeling that our relation to other people and things makes us less, not more. This is an aspect of contempt, which Aesthetic Realism describes as the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” All art, I have learned, opposes contempt. This is definitely true of collage.
As my students worked on collage compositions they were excited and thoughtful as they considered how individual shapes and colors of paper added to each other. They liked learning that collage comes from the French word, coller, meaning to glue; and that pieces of paper could be cut, papier collé, or torn, déchiré. As one cuts and pastes, separates and joins, collage answers yes to these questions that are central to life: How can all the many parts and aspects of our lives work together? Are we more ourselves through seeing our relation to the world, including people, in all their manyness and diversity? The technique of collage is loved because it represents a large hope in the life of every student and teacher.
*Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) Guitar. Céret, March 31, 1913, or later Cut-and-pasted newspaper, wallpaper, paper, ink, chalk, charcoal, and pencil on colored paper 26 1/8 x 19 1/2" (66.4 x 49.6 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.