It is now commonplace to scan the news on our iPads, scroll through PDFs on our smartphones and browse novels on our Kindles. Yet as more and more of us consume published media digitally we become increasingly aware of those previously naturalised attitudes and behaviours specific to printed materials. With the introduction of industrial paper manufacturing in Europe, everyday life in the 19th and 20th centuries became gradually suffused with newspapers, advertising posters, pamphlets, magazines, tabloids, visiting cards; an unprecedentedly diverse range of printed materials. And while print hasn’t entirely disappeared, it is only since the turn of the century and in a further moment of transformation that, as Katherine N Hayles puts it, ‘the assumptions, presuppositions, and practices associated with it are now becoming visible as media-specific practices rather than the largely invisible status quo.’ In some cases this has led to a curious convergence of old and new publishing media, such as the popular bookstagram aesthetic on social media or a fascination with bookish items, the tote bags, homewares and trompe l’oeil e-reader covers found in museum gift shops. There is a trend for running zine-making workshops in museums and heritage spaces, and many have established zine collections (Tate Library launches one next month), signalling a sea change in perceptions of this once countercultural DIY publishing format. This tendency permeates art gallery programming, where glass vitrines regularly display short-run magazines, artist notebooks, correspondences and historic ephemera; papery objects designed to be looked at rather than read, a heft of archival traces as bulwark against digital oblivion. Cut-and-Paste: 400 Years of Collage plainly resonates with this cultural fascination for print, capturing the textured vitality of those sticky bits-and-pieces that renders them utterly distinct from the inviolate smoothness of a touchscreen. There is a robustly sensuous, albeit nostalgic, attraction to the mass of materials gathered in this sizeable exhibition.
The exhibition surveys 400 years of cut-and-paste production, beginning with fascinating anatomical flap sheets from 16th-century Germany, before moving through playful dioramas, felted figurines and botanical cut-outs from the 1700s. All manner of collaged materials proliferated rapidly in the 1800s: decoupage furniture, valentine kits, scrapbooks and albums, and eerily montaged Victorian group photography. With the inclusion of these earlier works the curators admirably deconstruct the modernist origin myth that traces collage to 1912 Paris, where Picasso and Braque began integrating objects into their Cubist paintings. Cut-and-Paste offers an important corrective to this historical view by including premodern scrapbooking, crafting, and mosaic, practices typically executed by women and designated a domestic leisure pursuit rather than recognised as art. The exhibition treads on more familiar territory thereafter, through European modernist experiments, constructivist collages, political works of the sixties and seventies including punk and feminism, as well as Pop’s repurposing of commodity culture’s graphic materials.
Although the exhibition amasses a visually exciting and entertaining collection of artworks, its capaciousness tends towards a formalist narrative that detaches these objects from their social history. Given the range, it’s hard to account for the myriad ways in which these collaging practices came to signify within specific social, economic and historical contexts. How, for instance, does a collaged family album from the 1870s relate to Carolee Schneemann’s exuberant 1967 film showing the artist pasting and papering her own naked body? What does Bruce McLean’s elegiac photograph of a sheet of glass layered upon grass bring to a conversation with Jamie Reid’s punk cut-ups or Jacques Villeglés wall of lacerated posters? This rich assortment of materials, produced in different contexts for different audiences, raises the interesting question of how the makers understood their own activities. To an extent this is a joy of the exhibition, placing wildly diverse objects together to demonstrate the enduring popularity of this tactile art-form. It requires, however, a critical framework beyond chronology to draw out their intricate meanings. The powerful anti-fascist montages of John Heartfield, the brutal feminist cut-ups of Annegret Soltau and Linder are political acts irreducible to formal concerns. The exhibition materials provoke broader historical questions of how paper, cutting and collage come to signify different things in relation to a changing print culture, society and art market.
However, the inclusion of women’s scrap-work alongside modernist experiments with collage valuably foregrounds the manner in which gender, class and materials shape artistic value. And, for the non-minimalists among us who can’t hack the KonMarie lifestyle or imagine our belongings reduced to a sleek hard-drive, Cut-and-Paste offers a vibrant celebration of materiality and the tactile qualities of making that cuts across different sociocultural contexts.
Victoria Horne is Senior Lecturer in Art and Design History at Northumbria University in Newcastle