Book Review: Collage: Critical Views

Collage: Critical Views (Book Cover)

Collage: Critical Views. Edited by Kathrine Hoffman. 1989. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press. Foreword by Kim Levin. Contributions from Katherine Hoffman, Donald B. Kuspit, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, William C. Seitz, Robert Rosenblum, Patricia Leighten, Christine Poggi, Wendy Holmes, Harry Polkinhorn, Annegreth Nill, Charlotte Stokes, Robin Lydenberg, C.M. Judge, Miriam Shapiro, Marjorie Agosin, Richard Newman, Michael Selig, Max Almy, Paul Vangelisti, and Gregory L. Ulmer. ISBN 978-0-835-71933-9

Collage: Critical Views is an academic book intended to "gather together some of the critical voices" of people who explored the "state and impact of collage in the twentieth century." (p. xxi)

By the "state of collage", it seems, the contributors of this book largely mean Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and Cubist collage. The two men were, undoubtedly, influential in popularizing collage and, by their reputations, legitimizing collage as a fine arts endeavor, but, to me anyway, collage is so much more than these two artist. Kurt Schwitters got a mention, as did Stephane Mallerme, Juan Gris, Andre Verlon, John Heartfield, Jiri Kolar, and Robert Motherwell.

Nearly 300 pages in, contributions to collage by women were mentioned in a broader conversation of "femmage" that included collage, assemblage, decoupage, photomontage, and "work by women of history who sewed, pieced, hooked, cut, appliqued, tatted, wrote, painted, and combined materials using traditional women's techniques to achieve their art activities (also engaged in by men but assigned in history to women)." (p. 296). These artists included: Betye Saar, Mimi Smith, Harmony Hammond, Faith Ringgold, Mary Beth Edelson, and Miriam Shapiro. (p. 296).

Right: Glasses and Newspaper (1914) by Juan Gris in Collage: Critical Views.   

Right: Glasses and Newspaper (1914) by Juan Gris in Collage: Critical Views.


Collage: Critical Views seemed to me an interesting snapshot in a time when collage was, perhaps, struggling for an identity. Not everyone believed collage was a true art form, arguing that because collagists often use found or "common" objects available to everyone that this, somehow, reduced the quality of the work. There were also discussions on whether individual elements changed meaning or held onto their individual identities when included in a collage and whether this, too, disqualified collage as art. These were thought experiments I found both amusing and frustrating to read through.

Left: Still Life: "Au Bon Marche" (1913) by Pablo Picasso in Collage: Critical Views.

Left: Still Life: "Au Bon Marche" (1913) by Pablo Picasso in Collage: Critical Views.

My favorite parts of the book were about the language and symbolism artists of the day used in their collages. I also found it quite powerful that Chilean women used bits of clothing and other material to covertly fashion tapestries, arpilleras, depicting what their families had experienced during the oppressive and violent reign of Augusto Pinochet. (p. 318). Richard Newman's personal reflection on collage provided insight into the power and endurance of collage:

In conclusion, I would say that all art speaks to our need to transform experience in order to discover our human relationship to the past as well as the present. Its pursuit by either the artist or the consumer stems from our craving for wholeness or self-affirmation. It casts its attention upon such polarities as self and other, life and death, or the known and unknown. As an activity it takes on the semblance of examining life through a looking glass. Any prolonged gaze allows each of us to note private memories, reflected mysteries, or any manner of meaningful visions. But a looking glass is dependent upon the disposition of its user and the perceptual skills or psychic proclivities that the user needs to call upon in putting such device to use. It has the potential to intensify, clarify, exaggerate, distort, or even blur the images which fill the perimeters of its frame. Each of us makes use of it in our own way. (p. 338)
Left: Yenidze Cigarette Case, n.d. in Collage: Critical Views.

Left: Yenidze Cigarette Case, n.d. in Collage: Critical Views.

I recommend the book Collage: Critical Views to art historians or anyone interested in how collage was perceived in the late 1980s. Its main object was to present varying views on the topic of collage, which it accomplishes. In 2017, it reads to me like a book, primarily on cubist collage, with some of the other approaches to collage included, but less completely covered in its analysis. More than any other collage book I have reviewed so far, I cannot help thinking that what was left out of this book is as important as what the editor decided to keep in.

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

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