Book Review: Collage

Collage (book cover)

Collage by Herta Wescher. Translated by Robert E. Wolf. (1968). New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 978-0-810-90184-1

When I first got interested in the history of collage, I did what most people do: Google it. And, if I'd stopped with just a precursory glance at collage, I would have come away with the impression that collage is about Picasso. Or Braque. And, maybe Gris. One, two, or three voices. One period in time. But, I knew better, because I'd already come across the likes of Eileen Agar, Kurt Schwitters, and Anne Ryan and their collages are nothing like those of the other artists. So, it was with great delight, I found this book, Collage, by Herta Wescher and translated by Robert E. Wolf, on the shelves of my local library.

Right: Cherry Marmalade by Carl Spitzweg. Second half of the nineteenth century. In Collage by Herta Wescher.

Right: Cherry Marmalade by Carl Spitzweg. Second half of the nineteenth century. In Collage by Herta Wescher.

Collage was meant to be a two-volume book. The first volume, this one I am reviewing, focuses on collage's precursors, cubism and post-cubist expansion, and collage as it evolved through to, roughly, the start of World War II. Unfortunately, the author died before the completion of the second volume. Right from the start, it is evident that Wescher, too, shared a love of collage, its practitioners, and recognized the importance of documenting its evolution.

Right: Shadows by Man Ray (1926) in Collage by Herta Wescher

Right: Shadows by Man Ray (1926) in Collage by Herta Wescher

What becomes clear right from the opening chapter is that collage is not about one particular artist or style. It has roots in the arts and crafts practices of people from all over the world, reaching back as far as the twelfth century. Calligraphers, book makers, paper cutters, and home decorators all used elements of collage in their work and led the way for later discoveries in the medium. Wescher organized the book in a way that I could almost hear the conversations between and among the artists, influencing each other, pushing each other, encouraging each other to get to their own truths with paper, glue, found objects, paint, ink, and other materials. There are hundreds of artists mentioned in the book, with brief discussions about their work. Collage (the book and the practice) is a conversation about life, politics, art and so much more.

Pages from the book Collage by Herta Wescher

This is a historical book meant for college students or art historians, but without the high-brow tone and language I've come across in other volumes. I found it easy to read, despite its daunting physical appearance (it's a portfolio and, therefore, oversized). I loved the color plates interspersed throughout the book and the black and white plates at the end, though, unfortunately, someone ripped out a page and a couple of the plates were missing (boo on them). I really came away with a better sense of how collage evolved. It did not appear, as if by magic, from Picasso's studio, but developed and changed over the years with many awesomely creative and insightful people adding to or taking away from techniques that were popular at whatever time they were practicing to come up with something that reflected what they needed and wanted to say through the medium.

Wescher ends the first volume by saying:

At no time in the past have collage and material montage been represented with such diversity in all orientations and tendencies as in recent years, and a more exhaustive analysis of the interconnections could well constitute an essential contribution to clarifying the present-day situation in the arts. First, though, it has been necessary to survey, however briefly, the history of the medium and to single out key examples that opened the path behind and illuminate the way ahead." p. 312

I'd say these words, written in the 1960s, still hold true today.

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

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