Review Response By Rona Cran – ‘interbred and intertwined’: collage, montage, and the trouble with terminology

61GZmk0GmdL‘interbred and intertwined’: collage, montage, and the trouble with terminology

A response to Tomasz Stompor’s review of Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara and Bob Dylan (Ashgate, 2014)

Rona Cran

The act of reading, Mark Ford suggests in the Preface to his recent book of essays, can ‘often feel like a dialogue of one. The writer is not there, but all the reader’s experiences and expectations and tastes and sense of identity are in dialogue with the author’s written words.’1  Reading Tomasz Stompor’s response to my own recently published book on collage, in which he highlights the ‘differences in terminology across nationally formed discourses’, this notion came to mind. For Stompor, the term collage is inadequate as ‘an umbrella term applied in the visual arts, literature, and in music’. Instead, he attempts to use his review ‘as a soapbox for making a strong case for a different terminology centred around the term montage’. For me, of course, having written a book on the subject, the use of the term collage as a broad, inclusive term forms part of my central thesis, and includes montage but as a subsidiary process. In response to Stompor’s review, I want to first briefly consider the relationship between terminology and collage (and, indeed, montage and assemblage) in the twentieth-century, before standing on my own soap box with regard to collage, and then addressing the difficulties inherent in Stompor’s piece as a whole.

The invention of collage as we know it today is attributed to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, but the poet Guillaume Apollinaire came up with its (admittedly rather prosaic) name, which derives from the French word coller, meaning to paste. From its inception in the twentieth century, then, collage evolved as a plastic process with strong poetic associations, an expansive alliance which, in and of itself, asserts its non-exclusivity. As the diversity of collage works from Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning to Ezra Pound’s Cantos to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band indicates, collage was embraced, broadened in scope, and adapted by a range of artists, writers, and musicians, whose work helped to dismantle the barriers between their disciplines. Louis Aragon’s view, which I share, was that collage was called collage only ‘for purposes of simplicity’.2 In other words (given that it so readily spans the disciplines as both a practice and a concept), as a literary-artistic practice it far exceeded the limited terms with which it could be defined. For Picasso and Braque, as for the collagists who would follow them throughout the twentieth century, the role of collage was to attempt to embody life, rather than just to document it. Their use of collage was not so much an invention as a repurposing of an ancient practice, born out of a need or desire to respond, aesthetically, to their social, political, spatial, and creative contexts.

Dictionary definitions perpetuate expectations that collage is strictly flat, one-dimensional, and limited to the realm of plastic art: invariably these definitions specify the act of gluing or pasting, but allude to little else. The reality, of course, is quite different – collage is about an intellectual and emotional relationship with a given aesthetic environment, and involves the experimentation with and the linking of disparate phenomena: democratically, arbitrarily, and even unintentionally. However, this act of naming a literary-artistic practice ‘for purposes of simplicity’ led, as Stompor’s essay (as well as the inter-critical wranglings of nearly a century) illustrates, to a great confusion in terminology – though not, perhaps, quite to the extent of pervading ‘most critical discourses on modernist art’, as Stompor suggests.

Stompor observes, correctly, that throughout the twentieth century words including ‘collage’, ‘montage’, ‘photomontage’, and ‘assemblage’ are often used almost interchangeably. Is a collage also a montage? What is a piece of art that incorporates both assemblage and collage? What is the difference between a photomontage and a montage? Why did William C. Seitz curate an exhibition made up predominantly of collages and call it The Art of Assemblage (1961)?3 Even in the context of Stompor’s montage polemic and my own work on collage, the terms used to describe these supposedly different processes are often indistinguishable. For instance, Stompor argues that ‘montage-based techniques’ can be ‘characterised by a three-step process of selection, fragmentation, and recombination’, a description which could just as easily be used to describe the collage technique. Similarly, he describes George Grosz and John Heartfield as ‘monteurs’, where I would simply call them collagists. I don’t believe that either of us is wrong. Stompor regrets that ‘no clear distinction between the two [collage and montage] has been elaborated so far’ – though Ulmer, Bernstein, Perloff, Poggi, and Taylor, among others, all attempt to make distinctions, or else explain why they feel no distinction is needed. Charles Bernstein, for instance, views montage (specifically in the case of the work of Ezra Pound) as ‘the use of contrasting images toward the goal of one unifying theme’ and collage as ‘the use of different textual elements without recourse to an overall unifying idea’.4 Critic Jean-Jacques Thomas points out that ‘one cannot fail to note […] how interbred and intertwined collage and montage are’,5 whilst Tom Conley suggests, and I agree, that it may actually ‘be useful to confuse montage with collage’ – montage is ‘an essence of cinema […] yet we see how collage already dissolves the order of montage within single shots’.6 For Marjorie Perloff, too, ‘it can also be argued that collage and montage are two sides of the same coin, in view of the fact that the artistic process involved is really the same’. Like Perloff, my own view is that ‘collage is really the master term, montage techniques being an offshoot of early collage practice’.7 It is possible to draw out distinctions between the two terms, but these will always be subjective. For me, montage is a process whereby images which a filmmaker or photographer has often created themselves are assembled (usually for the first time), in order to form a narrative. Film, in which montage originated, is primarily about telling stories. Collage, conversely, is a process whereby existing images or texts are cut apart and reassembled ‘into new works with shocking or telling juxtapositions’,8 and without, as noted above, recourse to an overall unifying idea. In collage the fragmented elements used usually meet unexpectedly, whereas in montage their meeting is usually pre-planned. Montage prizes seamlessness and created images whereas collage operates using detritus, fragmentation, and the re-use of existing components in new contexts. That Stompor prefers montage to collage is embodied in his desire for ‘more parallels’ between my four subjects, and his view that the fragments within a collage should always ‘communicate’ clearly.

However, it seems counterintuitive to quibble over terminology when what collage (and its closely-related but subsidiary practices – montage, assemblage etc.) produced was, to borrow from David Banash, ‘a dialogic mass of voices’ stemming from the conviction that ‘no single point-of-view could truly capture reality’.9 Alfred Leslie asserted that his 1964 film, The Last Clean Shirt, should provoke the question: ‘“What the fuck is going on?”’ because, ‘to most people, reality is nothing more than a confirmation of their expectations’.10 Collage often provokes, on the part of the viewer, reader or listener, precisely Leslie’s question. This, of course, is its fundamental appeal: in and of itself, it subverts expectations and alters our perception of reality. I show throughout my book that the tendency to circumscribe the art of collage within the limited sphere of literal cut-and-paste, as Stompor does, is misleading. Collage is a practice which demands a multiplicity of approaches: to delineate it stringently as either one thing or another is to severely limit our understanding of the work of the artists, writers, and musicians who came to use it in non-traditional ways. Conversely, a view of collage that is as open and adaptable as the collage practice itself enables the reader or viewer not only to appreciate the multiple ways in which it operates as an art form, but to also insert into its history individuals who might not otherwise have taken up their place there – like, in this case, Frank O’Hara and Bob Dylan.

Stompor’s proposition that the term montage replace the term collage is impassioned but rather opaque – even by the end of his essay there is little evidence (other than his own strongly-held views) that montage is in any way the superior term. His main argument seems to be that montage makes explicit certain key connotations relating to politics, industry, mass media, and mechanisation. Possibly there are industrial or technological connotations associated with the word montage in the German language, but in English these are relatively minor – and, at least, are equally present in the connotations surrounding the term collage. The origins of the practice of montage lie in 1920s Russian film, and thus give the term its filmic associations. Similarly, collage originated in plastic art, and thus it retains, in turn, its artistic connotations. However, the concept of collage (by which I mean the reasons why it was used from 1912 onwards and why it gained such momentum as a literary-artistic practice) is very much rooted in politics, industry, mass media, and mechanisation, a fact I make clear throughout my book.11 From Picasso and Braque’s papiers-collés, which stemmed from the combination of a desire to explore new methods of representation and a pervasive unease about the growing political instability in Europe, to the highly politicised work of the Berlin Dadaists and beyond, collage was both politically charged and intrinsically linked to the world of mass production. Stompor’s indication that Cubism (in which collage originated) was somehow at a remove from ‘such factors as advertising, print media, and a general transformation of the public space’ – factors which nevertheless influenced ‘other artistic movements’ – is ill-advised. Cubism hardly happened in a vacuum. This suggestion also contradicts Stompor’s assertion that ‘all branches of artistic production’ were influenced by the ‘standardization and serialization of industrial production’. Collage originated as and remained a response to mass production, mass media, and the transformation of public space, whilst montage (a technique developed using the technological inventions of film and photography) was arguably – initially, at least – rather a by-product of industry and mechanisation. It is simply incorrect to claim, as Stompor does, that montage somehow had a monopoly over ‘cheap, ubiquitously available graphic material’ or, indeed, that ‘the use of the term collage […] clouds and distorts’ what Stompor calls ‘this historical fact’. It is also disingenuous to suggest that the montages of George Grosz and John Heartfield had nothing whatsoever to do with the collages created by Picasso and Braque a few years earlier. That montage became a powerfully subversive political tool, used extensively by the Dadaists in particular, is not in dispute, but this evolution in the practice was due, in large part, to Picasso and Braque’s developments and provocations as they sought to express the growing sense of unease and displacement that began to pervade Europe in the years prior to the First World War. Furthermore, collage is fundamentally about relationships – about bringing objects or ideas into contact with one another – and it is unlikely that Grosz and Heartfield would have refuted this by denying any connection between their work and that of the Cubists.

This relativity – not to mention the subjectivity and impressionism – that collage permits was key to my selection of Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan as my subjects. Far from being what Stompor regards as a ‘motley crew’ or even a ‘jumbled constellation’, these four are, rather, embodiments of Pierre Joris’s key assertion that ‘there isn’t a 20th century art that was not touched, rethought or merely revamped by the use of [collage]’.12 They are deliberately unrelated. Stompor criticises my apparent failure to ensure that my subjects properly ‘communicate’, but in doing so misses the point of my selection. Far from being an ‘artistic ambition’, my decision to focus on four very different individuals was in fact a scholarly choice designed to highlight the hugely diverse and individual ways in which collage was used during the twentieth century, particularly by individuals not traditionally associated with the practice.13 It is important, in the context of the book, that these differences are explicit. I am, of course, aware that there are ‘common occurrences of Rimbaud’ in the work of Burroughs and O’Hara, as Stompor points out, but there are common occurrences of Rimbaud in the work of a lot of people (not least Bob Dylan), and one doesn’t necessarily forge connections between them, unless occurrences of Rimbaud is the focus of the study in question. Whilst I am demonstrably in favour of forging connections between artists or genres or mediums, I felt (and I make this clear in the introduction to my book) that to labour what are really little more than anecdotal links simply for the sake of ‘the fantasy of a single, impossible totality reduced to one particular’14 would have been counterproductive and to the detriment of my study of collage. As I note in my introduction, to labour these connections (or, indeed, missed connections) too much would only be distracting. Art exists in creating new patterns, and so too, arguably, does criticism.

The advent of collage in the twentieth century brought about the deconstruction of old barriers between language and art, with the use of pasted letters in paintings giving rise ‘to poetic associations which mere spots of colour [could] not evoke’,15 to quote the French writer and art collector Christian Zervos. This in turn brought about the dissolution of perceived impediments between art and life, demanding that the viewer, reader, or listener increasingly play their own role in the landscape of a work of art or literature, simultaneously experiencing what Daniel Kane calls the ‘provocative joys of juxtaposition and mysteriousness’, whilst also contemplating what it is that ‘constitutes authority, identity, voice, originality, sincerity, and art’.16 Stompor laments ‘the problem of a universal conception of collage’ (yet seems content to advocate for a universal conception of montage). In doing so, he fails to recognise that collage is not, in fact, ‘universal’ but, rather, that it brings about limitless unexpected creative and critical encounters. As such, the field of collage, in which montage and assemblage function as subsidiary practices, remains fertile, productively contentious, and constantly evolving. Collage was fundamental to modernism and its corollaries, transforming the ways in which literature was written and art and music was made. It remains an enduringly vital practice, the many applications and possibilities of which are being persistently reassessed, reimagined, and renewed, and continually pushed in new and fascinating directions.

1. [Mark Ford, This Dialogue of One: Essays on Poets from John Donne to Joan Murray (London: Eyewear Publishing, 2014), 8.]
2. [Louis Aragon, ‘La peinture au défi’ (preface to a catalogue for an exhibition of collages at the Galerie Goemans in Paris, March 1930), in Les Collages (Paris: Hermann, 1965 (1980)), n.p.]
3. [Jed Perl, writing about ‘collage or assembly’ in New Art City: Manhattan at Midcentury (New York: Random House, 2005), observes that: ‘To define the limits of collage was almost to violate it. Collage was high art. It was also popular art. It could be two-dimensional. It could also be three-dimensional, as Picasso had first demonstrated […] Collage, indeed, was too restrictive a term to define such a sprawling subject. A more expansive term might be that which the Museum of Modern Art took as the title for its 1961 survey of these developments, “The Art of Assemblage”.’ (285-6)]
4. [Charles Bernstein, My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).]
5. [Jean-Jacques Thomas, ‘Collage/Space/Montage’, in Collage, ed. Jeanine Parisier-Plottel, 82.]
6. [Tom Conley, ‘Vigo van Gogh’, in Collage, ed. Jeanine Parisier-Plottel, 165.]
7. [Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-garde, Avant Guerre and the Language of Rupture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 246.]
8. [David Banash, Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption (New York: Rodopi, 2013), 25-6.]
9. [David Banash, Collage Culture, 87-9.]
10. [Quoted in Daniel Kane, We Saw the Light: Conversations between the New American Cinema and Poetry (Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 2009), 96.]
11. [David Banash’s 2013 book, Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption, demonstrates that the origins of collage are found in assembly line technologies and mass media forms of layout and advertising in early twentieth-century newspapers.]
12. [Joris, ‘Collage and Post-Collage: In Honour of Eric Mottram’, (1997) in A Nomad Poetics (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 86.]
13. [In my introduction, I observe that my book is ‘a self-reflexive exercise, embodying the collage form it discusses’. Stompor takes umbrage with this, implying that my so-called ‘artistic ambitions’ somehow stand in the way of ‘a constructive scholarly debate’.]
14. [Banash, Collage Culture, 48.]
15. [Quoted in Herta Wescher, Collage, trans. Robert E. Wolf (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978), 21.]
16. [Daniel Kane, What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde (New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2003), 12.]

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