While the earliest known examples of collage date to 12th-century Japan, the technique has fascinating roots. These range from various crafts and folk arts involving pictures made from cut paper, feathers, insects, butterfly wings, postage stamps, postcards and human hair to trompe l’oeuil or ‘fool the eye’ techniques.
Although widely used by contemporary artists today, it was through the early 20th-century experiments of Picasso and Braque that collage gained recognition as a viable approach in fine art. When Picasso introduced a piece of linoleum designed to imitate wicker caning as part of a still-life composition in Still life with chair caning 1912, it was seen as groundbreaking because of the shocking incongruity of introducing a folk art device into ‘serious’ art. Representing the intrusion of non-traditional materials into painting, it was also a move that would blur and ultimately collapse hitherto sacrosanct boundaries between drawing, painting and sculpture.
As a particular way of making art, collage involves addition of found or pre-fabricated elements to a two-dimensional surface, extending into three dimensions via assemblage. It is distinctive in its use of unconventional ‘real world’ materials that inevitably trigger imaginative association. While each component retains some mark of its origin, it is at the same time transformed, through incorporation into the work of art - creating an intriguing tension between its original and altered states.
The exhibition Art of parts: collage and assemblage from the collection highlights the inventive potential of collage, with a selection of work by some of the key Australian pioneers of the genre, as well as more recent practitioners.
Many motives impel artists to take up collage. It can be to experiment with composition, add texture or three-dimensionality to a work, for poetic and symbolic expression or surreal invention. Artists use it to flaunt convention, are drawn by its capacity for salvage and recycling or need its relative accessibility. They are attracted by its ability to ‘sample’ the environment – to break down the distinction between art and life.
While collage provides the linking thread across the display, the types of material and their effects are wide-ranging. This diversity reflects developments in Australian art – from the surrealist experiments of the 1940s, to the exuberance of the 1960s, the formal and poetic explorations of the 1970s, or the personal and political directions of more recent decades.