A Brief History of Collage

I am a LAYERIST and have worked as a collage artist since 1985.  I love paper, love to work with paper and I say my life is about glue – getting things to stick.


© Nancy Egol Nikkal, October 2010

Collage began in the Far East in the 12th century. Before the age of manufacturing, paper was precious, and was regarded as a sacred ceremonial material.

The first known collages are from Japan where calligraphers copied poems onto collaged papers. From the 19th century on, collage followed the trade routes and paper moved West, and the history of collage follows the manufacture of paper.

Picasso and Braque are credited with the invention of modern collage (1912-1914), and the English word collage comes from the French words papiers colle (glued paper), a term coined by the Cubists. But, broadly, collage is bigger than Cubism and also includes terms like bricollage, montage, photocollage and assemblage (3D collage).

I recommend The Collage Handbook, by John and Joan Digby, Thames & Hudson, 1985. It has an excellent chapter on the history of collage and includes images and text on most of the great collage artists. It is a great resource for all artists who work in collage. John Digby is a collage artist and a poet. Joan Digby is a Prof. of English at CW Post College at Long Island University, and a published author and magazine writer on contemporary collage.

The Digbys include a chapter on the Dada art movement, which developed during WWI in Europe as a protest against war and industrialism, and generated two COLLAGE SUPERHEROES – Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst.

They call KURT SCHWITTERS (1887-1948) “the master builder of material surfaces,” and call MAX ERNST (1891-1976) “the archimageo of dreams.”

I love the work of SCHWITTERS because he reaffirmed the aesthetic value of paper collage, and the value of composition. Schwitters collected found papers and composed masterful, abstract works with artistic unity.

According to The Collage Handbook, there is no one who had a bigger impact on collage than MAX ERNST. They wrote: Ernst liberated collage from art, from the concerns with plastic and visual planes, and turned it into a theater of the irrational.

In contemporary art criticism, there is always a dialogue about collage as media or as narrative. Schwitters was about media. Ernst was about narrative. Picasso was about media, and the narrative was always about Picasso.

Many books on contemporary COLLAGE explore surface planes and discuss collage as a commentary on contemporary culture, and also on waste and consumer consumption.

My favorite collage artist is Romare Bearden (1911-1988) who was an African-American who made exquisite collages that are timeless, personal, universal and explore collage as both media and narrative.

I teach 2 collage workshops, one titled Caribbean Fantasy Landscape; the other titled Conjur Woman, both inspired by Romare Bearden. See more information on the workshops.

Read about Romare Bearden’s life, see images of his work, and current exhibitions at the Bearden Foundation website.


Collage is the most democratic art medium of all, and it is so user friendly!

Collage materials are common and available to everyone – purchased, found, recycled – from all over the world via retail outlets, papers you make (take a workshop), or from numerous sources online. You can choose high quality papers that are expensive or go with less expensive, lower quality papers – your choice.   You can explore the variety among hand made vs. mold made papers, printmaking, book making, decorative, collage, and craft papers, choose deckled edges vs. non-deckled edges, large vs. small sheets, heavy vs. light weights, dyed, hand painted papers with delicate colors, embedded materials. Always try to get papers that are acid free.

Check out NY Central Art Supply or visit them at 130 E 12 Street in NYC. It is definitely worth a trip. They have the most incredible array of papers from all over the world. You can order online, but being at the store, surrounded by all that gorgeous paper, is the most incredible treat ever!

My favorite contemporary collage artists include: Romare Bearden, Ray Johnson, Robert Rauchenberg, Ann Ryan and Robert Motherwell (and the list goes on).

I especially love Motherwell’s comments: Collage is part of a perpetual voyage of self-discovery and refinement – An intellectual “grand tour” through philosophies and civilizations whose thought and artifacts are distilled in the “tearingness” of original edges.”

See a free tutorial on painting papers.

See my collages at: http://www.nikkal.com

Please email me your comments or questions.