How Collage Created
New Opportunities for Cubists, 
and Challenges for Curators

Juan Gris, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux (Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth), 1915, oil on canvas.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Juan Gris, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux (Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth), 1915, oil on canvas.
Using mundane materials brought layered meanings to canvasses, but will they stand the test of time?

Using mundane materials brought layered meanings to canvasses, but will they stand the test of time?

Wikimedia

Photograph of Pablo Picasso, summer 1912 (with Cubist painting behind him).

“It is impossible to envisage all the consequences and possibilities of an art so profound and so meticulous.”

Guillaume Apollinaire

It was August of 1912, and Cubist comrades Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were summering in the southern French town of Sorgues. Taking cover in the countryside far from Paris’s curious onlookers (and more than a handful of naysayers), the two modernists forged onward together in their pioneering new painting style that fractured traditional pictorial perspective with overlapping tessellated planes.

Braque was wandering around town one day when he noticed a wallpaper shop on the rue Joseph Vernet. The window displayed a roll of faux bois (oak grain) decorative paper that probably seemed ordinary to most, but was a revelation to the artist. Having grown up in a family of house painters who taught him the tricks of their trade–such as how to imitate marble or woodgrain effects with paint alone–he could reproduce many textures with a paintbrush and some combs. But a readymade roll of the stuff unraveled an entirely new set of visual, theoretical, and practical opportunities.

Not wanting his prolific pal to catch wind of his discovery, Braque waited a few days until Picasso left town for Paris and then made his seminal purchase. “I had bought the paper and completed Fruit Dish and Glass (1912) before he returned,” Braque recalled to art collector and scholar Douglas Cooper decades later, upon seeing his still life (now credited as the first Cubist papier collé) hanging in Cooper’s study.

Braque’s cheeky anecdote recounts the beginnings of one of the most revolutionary genres of work in 20th century art: Cubist collages and papier collé. The names of these terms are derived from the French word for gluing, coller, since the Cubists pasted a host of foreign objects onto their works including (but not limited to): wallpaper, newsprint, sheet music, oil cloth, calling cards, and rope.

Sometimes the artists were interested in the imagery of the materials they added to their works, as in Picasso’s still life, Bottle and Glass (1913), that has an upside-down ad for an electric light bulb pasted in the center. As art historian Robert Rosenblum noted, there is also a “verbal joke revealed in the very small print, which boasted that the bulb was the only one that gave light from all sides and could be placed, as the artist demonstrated, in any position at all.” Other times, the Cubists were interested in typography and wordplay. This is especially evident in their repeated use of the spliced masthead of Parisian daily newspaper Le Journal, which could be read in fragments as the French words joie (joy), jouer (to play), or jouir (to enjoy).

In adding these alien materials to their works, they ruptured the high-brow sanctity of fine art with the everyday mundane and dared ask the theoretical question: why paint an illusionistic image of something, when you can just as easily glue the real thing onto your artwork?

“[Picasso] did not scorn to make use of actual objects, a twopenny song, a real postage stamp, a piece of oil-cloth imprinted with chair-caning,” art critic and close friend of Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, described in his early history of the movement, The Cubist Painters, Aesthetic Meditations (1913). “It is impossible to envisage all the consequences and possibilities of an art so profound and so meticulous.”

Juan Gris, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux (Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth), 1915
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Juan Gris, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux (Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth), 1915, oil on canvas.

Juan Gris, La bouteille d'Anis, 1914, oil, collage and graphite on canvas.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Juan Gris, La bouteille d'Anis, 1914, oil, collage and graphite on canvas.

Juan Gris, Fantômas, 1915, oil on canvas.
National Gallery of Art

Juan Gris, Fantômas, 1915, oil on canvas.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle and Glass (Bouteille et verre), 1912.
© Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso, Bottle and Glass (Bouteille et verre), 1912. Charcoal, graphite, and newsprint on paper, 24 3/8 × 18 ½ in. (61.9 × 47 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle and Glass on a Table (Bouteille et verre sur une table), 1912. 
© Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso, Bottle and Glass on a Table (Bouteille et verre sur une table), 1912. Charcoal, graphite, and newsprint on paper, 19 × 24 7/8 in. (48.3 × 63.2 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston.

One of the possibilities was to inspire future offshoots of 20th century modernism, such as Surrealism, Dada and Pop Art. And an unintended outcome is that pasted newspaper clippings have helped art historians date these works, since headlines identifying the date of a newspaper’s publication determine a time before which the work could not have been completed. But one of the consequences was the production of fragile artworks that are now brittle, yellowed, and occasionally flat out fall apart. For all their gravitas in the history art, Cubist collages are frail little things.

“Collages in general have challenges related to them,” Jan Burandt, paper conservator at the Menil Collection, explained to Art & Object. “There definitely are occasions where the materials that artists use don’t age well.”

Newsprint in particular discolors quickly and becomes brittle in a short period of time, requiring vigilance in modulating environmental humidity. In other instances where an artist has used adhesive tape instead of glue to attach a material, works are kept flat while in storage in order to minimize the effects of gravity. “There are a lot of different types of adhesives available,” said Burandt, “and artists have been known to use all kinds of things.”

Artists were also inconsistent in their gluing technique, sometimes tipping a small amount of adhesive onto the corners of a strip of paper and at other times brushing adhesive across the entire back of a piece of paper (but maybe missing a few spots). Either way, inconsistency presents conservation risks. “If it’s not secured completely, then changes in relative humidity can result in the paper of the collage element expanding and contracting where it’s not secured down to the drawing sheet. That can result in damages,” Burandt noted. “It would look kind of like a blister.”

As a result, museums can be reluctant to loan out collages for fear of spikes in humidity while the work is in transit, or insufficient conditions at another institution. “[Collages are] in a more sensitive category of material,” explained Burandt. “It’s always a very special situation when you get to see collages that have been loaned to exhibitions.”

It would be curious to know whether Braque considered the longevity of his paper compositions a little over a century ago, when he purchased his first roll of faux bois wallpaper in the south of France. He and Picasso surely understood that newsprint was a cheap material–after all, that was a big part of its appeal. But were they concerned that its poor quality would interfere with the permanence of their creative legacy?

“Some things are hard to predict,” Burandt said. “I think the more ephemeral the material is that you collect, the more known or anticipated it would be that some kind of change might happen. Because things like train tickets are not meant to last a lifetime.”

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.

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