Book Review: The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern

The Frame and the Mirror book cover

The Frame and the Mirror by Thomas P. Brockelman. (2001). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0-810-11775-4

With sentences like "It seems that the practices of collage catch us between an absolute heterogeneity at the epistemological level and the apparent fact of representational mediation in the dynamism of the sign," (p. 87), The Frame and the Mirror is not a book for the casual reader. I have a master's degree in education and still found myself lacking the philosophical background (Brockelman references Kant, Heidegger, and others, as well as art historians and critics to advance his arguments) to feel at all comfortable that I understood all the points the author lays out in the book. I thought about not writing a review.

However, even if my understanding is on a very basic level, I did come away from the book thinking about how odd collage must have been to understand in Braque's and Picasso's time, shocking, really, for people used to seeing the world reflected back to them in traditional art forms: painting and sculpture.

As Brockelman seems to be arguing in the book, collage does not fit the mold. The vocabulary previously used to describe the meaning and beauty of art in terms of space, dimension and symbolism are shattered by the very nature of collage. The surface of the canvas is covered up or revealed in clandestine ways by the artist. The elements are cut or torn, ripped and divided, then put back together in incongruous ways that distort, hide, reveal, or make fun of the world. The themes collagists use often reflect an inner meaning (which Brockelman defines as narcissism) rather than an outward, universal meaning to be shared by the world. And, the environments these artists create, as collage or assemblages, seem to explain and define a world that have elements of truth, but are, somehow, just out of reach of our, the viewers', understanding: worlds not to be entered and, therefore, not real.

Where art (painting and sculpture) once reflected universality, transcendence, and/or enlightenment, postmodern art, and, specifically collage, pushes the boundaries and, maybe even calls into question, such concepts. To be "comfortable" with collage, you have to be willing to accept a certain amount of uncertainty.

I grew up in "postmodern" times, so, perhaps this crisis, as Brockelman calls it, created by collage doesn't have the same impact on me that it did on people in the past. I don't see its duality as a "crisis," but simply a reflection of how the world is.

I am sure I have missed a lot. Perhaps, in the future, I will have the chance to look at The Frame and the Mirror again as a textbook in a university philosophy course, but I do appreciate the work and thought that must have gone into writing and researching the book.

Have you read this book? Tell me what I've got wrong (or right!).

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Janyce Boynton