Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Historical cut and paste

Collage: The Making of Modern Art

By Brandon Taylor, Thames & Hudson, £29.95

Brandon Taylor’s new book deals with an ongoing passion: collage, treated as a generic idea that informs subsequent developments such as photocollage, photomontage, décollage, assemblage or détournement.

On one level, Taylor is narrating a familiar Modernist fable. The story begins just before World War I with the heroic breakthroughs of Braque and Picasso. Then the Cubist baton is passed on to the various avant-garde movements, such as Constructivism, Dadaism and Surrealism, that flourished in the interwar period. After World War II, the baton is taken up by new contenders, such as the New Realists in France, or the Pop artists of Britain and the US. And so on, to the digital present.

On another level, Taylor is a good disciple of Brecht, subtly re-working the usual story. Famous scenes are revised and many new ones are added. He is aware, for instance, that traditional versions of his tale are dominated by male heroes, and therefore makes a point of foregrounding female collagists. Here, the likes of Varvara Stepanova, Hannah Höch or Lee Krasner are given their due and cease to be mere footnotes in the biographies of their respective partners – Rodchenko, Hausmann and Pollock.

Taylor also likes to focus on less obvious aspects of an established artist’s career. Take Willi Baumeister. There is barely a mention of the Fotozeichnungen (photo-drawings) of the 1920s that are the basis for his reputation as a collagist. Instead we are offered an appreciation of his secret anti-Nazi work of the 1940s that was not deemed serious enough to be included in his catalogue raisonné.

The narrative teems with artists rarely mentioned at all in mainstream histories, such as the African-American Romare Bearden. He studied with George Grosz in mid-1930s New York and went on to pursue a career that embraced political cartooning, abstract painting and, from the mid-1960s, collages related to the contemporary struggle for civil rights.

There are visits to all the obvious sites associated with Modernism, but also trips off the beaten track. The account of generations of collage activity in Czechoslovakia is especially rich, and Prague, rather than Paris, is celebrated as the ‘pre-eminent European city of collage’.

Brandon Taylor has produced the best introduction to collage and the critical literature it has inspired. Yet readers of Eye might feel frustrated by the sketchy treatment of the complex crossovers between avant-garde art and graphic design that took place in central and eastern Europe in the 1920s. Key figures in this episode such as László Moholy-Nagy or Jan Tschichold are absent. Others are presented in a misleading manner. Taylor writes eloquently about Kurt Schwitters as a rag-picker who made a new type of art from urban detritus, but never discusses his commercial work. There is a similarly one-sided treatment of Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart who also managed to combine studio experimentation with the running of a successful graphic design business. (Vordemberge-Gildewart and Schwitters were both residents of Hanover and sometimes shared the same clients, for example the local pen and ink company, Pelikan.) All of the above were members or guests of an important organisation that is also not examined – the Ring Neuer Werbegestalter (Circle of New Advertising Designers), co-ordinated by Schwitters. The Ring brought together artist-designers and designer-artists from Germany and neighbouring countries from 1928 to 1931. The group sought to define and promote the new profession of commercial design with photomontage as a favoured medium.

The analysis of Soviet activities of the 1920s is similarly skewed. Taylor concentrates on the collages that seem most related to Cubist precedents and leaves out the creation of the October group and the switch to posters, book dust-jackets or magazine layouts that became urgent with the launch of the First Five Year Plan in 1928.

Taylor gives priority to the unique, crafted art work, sharply differentiated from mass-produced graphic design. And only the former receives his attention if an artist created both. The end result is a revision of a Modernist fable, but not its transformation.