29 June – 27 October 2019
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage is the first survey exhibition of collage ever to take place anywhere in the world, featuring over 250 works from the sixteenth century to the present day. There is an astonishing range of practice on display, including works by Hannah Höch, Annegret Soltau, Claude Cahun, Pauline Boty, Natalia Goncharova, Valentine Penrose, Toyen, Edith Rimmington, Eileen Agar, Linder, Penny Slinger, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Nancy Grossman, Deborah Roberts, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Eduardo Paolozzi, Max Bucaille, Roland Penrose, Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, John Stezaker, Christian Marclay and Terry Gilliam. Give yourself ample time to explore them and to take in the accompanying show Beyond Realism at Modern One, featuring some of the NGS’s finest Surrealist works.
In many ways this ground-breaking reappraisal of collage couldn’t have happened anywhere else. The NGS collection is blessed with significant acquisitions, long term loans and bequests from astute collectors such as Gabrielle Keiller, artists Roland Penrose and Eduardo Paolozzi, providing an excellent foundation for deeper exploration of the artform. Joined by works from the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, The Mayor Gallery, The Fry Art Gallery, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, Annely Juda Fine Art, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Alison Jacques Gallery, Richard Saltoun Gallery, England & Co, a/political, the University of St Andrews and private collectors, the exhibition is a fantastic opportunity for discovery of previously unseen work. Works from the Murray Family collection, UK and USA, featuring Pauline Boty, Edith Rimmington, Max Bucaille, Franz Roh and Toyen are outstanding.
Cut and Paste isn’t about defining collage but celebrating that there are many more ways to see, revealed primarily in the work of lesser known artists who are among the highlights of the show. These previously neglected works demand greater visibility and more research. The language of ‘revolutionary cubist masterpieces’ by male artists like Picasso persists, yet in the wider context of the show, they become relative to other equally revolutionary masterworks by artists yet to enter public consciousness. Although the exhibition’s chronological layout would have been better served by collage -like juxtaposition of art from different periods confronting each other, there are so many vital examples of this art form speaking resoundingly for themselves that they cannot be ignored. It’s incredibly gratifying and hopeful to connect with pioneering works by women and other marginalised artists, doubly so in what feels like an increasingly fragmented world circa 2019. Part of what collage does incredibly well, often in testing times, is provide an unbridled form of expression and much needed protest.
Admittedly collage is an artform close to my heart in history and practice. The process itself is liberating in its free association, formed from materials immediately to hand and permitting everything in a spirit of playfulness and experimentation. That impetus tests what could be- creatively and culturally. At its best, it’s an art of ‘disruption’ and active dissent that reminds us of how essential art is in everyday life. The grotesque central figure in Raoul Hausmann’s The Art Critic (1919-20, lithograph and printed paper collage on paper) depicts an entire society whose opinions can be bought. The artist cuts straight to the heart of an increasingly absurd displacement of power during the Weimar period, a time not unlike our own in the corruption of ‘post-truth’ politics and ‘fake news’ rhetoric. Seeing John Heartfield’s response to the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany affirms the power of collage as vital satire and political resistance. Equally the work of Hannah Höch, presents the viewer with counteraction to gender stereotypes. In Astronomie (1922, Collage, gouache and ink on paper, The Mayor Gallery, London) Höch uses grid elements from crochet, knitting and embroidery design as the basis for a more expanded vision of the feminine- as human and therefore equal. In Höch’s work, ideas of design, domestic and cosmic intertwine. Craft and fine art practice become inseparable in a union of ideas and technique.
From the Collection: From an Ethnographic Museum (1929, Collage and gouache on paper, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) is a very sophisticated example of how much simple ‘cut and paste’ can reveal and how it can be used to collectively question the status quo. The ‘other’ in this work is cultural and feminine. The head of a Nigerian Benin sculpture is radically turned, fused with the eye of a woman from a fashion magazine and a child’s body, resting on a lion’s foot of power and a contradictory stump of domestic furniture. Framed in a starkly modern, geometric space, the human form doesn’t feel accidental or randomly placed, but designed as a question mark on multiple levels. The expression of this figure, like a mythic Susannah confronting the invasive, violating gaze of the elders, challenges generations of Western Art making. This confrontation with ‘masters’ expands to hierarchies of power in relation to gender, race, cultural identity and social engineering. I’ve always thought of this small, radical figure as a powerful feminist totem of resistance. Höch’s critical eye is sharp as a scalpel and expansively aware, beyond the individual maker.
The attitude of collage is pivotal in that respect, ripping, tearing or cutting to heighten awareness of reality, or point to an alternative reality. Like Carlo Carra’s Atmospheric Swirls- A Bursting Shell (1914, ink and collage on paper), created in response to the first Balkan War 1912-13, the best examples of this artform are those that explode preconceptions, creating a perceptive shift of some kind. When Carolee Schneemann created Body Collage (1967, 16mm film transferred to digital format 3:30 mins) her ‘intention was not to simply collage [her] body (as an object) but to enact movement so that the collage image would be active found, not predetermined or posed.’ This is a statement against the passivity of looking (or being cast as the passive object), initiating change. As Penny Slinger (b 1947) states very eloquently, ‘collage is not just a technique; it represents an approach to reality.’
Slinger’s photomontage sequence I Hear What You Say | I See What You Mean | Read My Lips (1973) interrogates our approach as viewers/ consumers by collaging parts of the body, creating contradictory frames within frames of internal reference. Initially this fleshy exposure seems to mirror the crudeness of advertising. However, these collaged elements are positioned to play with the idea of being able to read, hear, see and interpret the feminine. The ambiguity of desire and control is juxtaposed with direct means of communication. Using increasingly sexualised visual language to reclaim meaning is a tactic employed by many contemporary artists, often with momentary effect. Here the question is more subliminal, encircling the viewer in their own truth of body and mind, the possibility or impossibility of being seen, heard or understood inside the dominant culture. Linder’s Pretty Girl (1977, magazine and collage) juxtaposes images of soft-core pornography and household appliances, bringing them equally into the foreground as ‘objects of desire.’ Linder’s collage instantly makes its point, infiltrating and subverting the language of mass media consumption. This is art with something to say, above and beyond artistic persona, celebrity or brand.
Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) articulated how the practice of collage redefines the artist; ‘The medium is as unimportant as myself. Essential is the forming. Because the medium is unimportant, I take any material whatsoever if the picture demands it. When I adjust materials of different kinds to one another, I have taken a step in advance of mere oil painting, for in addition to playing off colour against line, form against form etc. I play material against material.’
That material can also be material reality. This provocation of possibility is what excites me most about this artform, from the fantastical collage novels of Max Ernst to the stitch form self-portraiture of Annegret Soltau.
It’s interesting to see the pre- modern history of collage (1550-1900) including silhouette portraiture, scrapbooks, early photomontage, botanical clippings, flapbooks, boxed/ dressed engravings and tinsel prints presented in the show. The presence of these works, combining craft practices with expanding knowledge and advancing technology, inform perception of later works. This is particularly true when the idea of traditional ‘female accomplishments’ is ripped apart and reconfigured, as in Annegret Soltau’s GRIMA- Selbst mit Katze (der Schrei) /GRIMA-Self with Cat (The Scream) (1986 C-print). Pauline Boty’s Untitled (c1964, Collage, gouache on paper) is a great metaphor for this type of agency, emergent in the work of unsung female artists throughout the exhibition. In Boty’s Untitled collage, use of Victorian engravings recalls the work of Max Ernst, divided and conquered by vivid blue gouache and a female hand, sharpened by red nail polish and poised to sever the head of a female child in period dress with a pair of scissors. In the foreground a promenade of exotically lush vegetation leads the eye to a vanishing point beneath a god-like hand of action. As Boty suggests in Ken Russell’s 1962 44 min film Pop Goes the Easel, her collages often capture a moment before something is about to happen, which may be humorous or tragic. Pop Art is often packaged in the gift shop as bright and shiny, succumbing to the very forces it seeks to expose, however Boty’s work presents a different slant on a movement which she helped found in Britain. The hand shown in this small collage amplifies the authenticity of her voice, asserts the role of the artist/ activist and subverts the traditional, belittling relationship between Craft and Fine Art, female artists and male ‘masters.’
The subversive nature of collage also leaps from the open page of Surrealist Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s Aveux non avenus- Disavowals (1930). It’s a text that reimagines the autobiography / artist memoir in a non- linear way, fluidly testing ideas of gender and identity. Valentine Penrose’s collage book Dous des Feminines / Gifts of the Feminines (1951) is displayed in the same section, a deliberate counterfoil to Max Ernst’s collage novels on the part of the artist, centring on female relationships, sexuality and experience. Her nearby collage, La Stratégie Militaire / Military Strategy (c1934, collage on paper) sees the head and torso of a classical marble statue positioned inside a piece of ridiculously Baroque furniture, as if sitting in a bath. Hovering askew over a mountainous chasm, with the fragment of a map dangling from one finger, the traditional embodiment of power is rendered precarious, attended by a blank faced figure in robes gazing upwards towards authority. The composition lampoons its subject, but it is also a very knowing refraction of absurd inequality in the real world. Here, Surrealism isn’t escapist male fantasy, but heightened reality, exposing truth.
The Family Tree(1938) by British artist, poet and photographer Edith Rimmington (1902-1986) is another illuminating dreamscape in that respect. The use of photomontage and painting is seamless, delivering a powerful perspective on generations, extending to infinity on a jetty over dark, primordial waters. A snake is entwined around the left-hand line of a double link metal chain, not so much bound together as lain side by side. The presence of the serpent feels like an ironic reference to Eden’s mythic fall, male and female bound together in ‘the’ singular family tree of humanity. The eclipse which lights our way could be sun, moon or a pinhole camera, in a timeless progression of darkness and light. It’s an incredibly strong, mysterious composition that ignites the imagination and provokes curiosity about Rimmington’s oeuvre. Given the year it was created, and the spirit of unrest prevalent in the whole image, this iron chain feels prophetically encoded. Disarming beauty and essential protest permeate this show and it’s an absolute pleasure to see so many works by relatively unknown artists announce themselves. Rimmington subverts expectations of the title/ subject to a remarkable degree, with an enviable command of the artform. Any backward notion of feminine accomplishment is eclipsed entirely by this work. The artist’s sense of agency, intuition and determination is palpable. That’s the joy of this show- reconnection with art empowered, in spite of the spin that surrounds us.