The purpose of this research task was to research the work of three artists that use collage, and answer a number of questions to assess the relevance of their work in a contemporary context.
Key words from the brief:
- Access and read critic Simon Morley’s essay ‘Writing on the wall: word and image in modern art’
- Look at the work of three of the artists
- Make notes about your thoughts on Morley’s essay and the different images that some of the artists use
Notes on ‘Writing on the wall’
Simon Morley’s essay ‘Writing on the wall: word and image in modern art’ (Morley, 2003), charts the social and historical context for the emergence of Constructivism as a reaction to the chaotic Dada and Futurist movements: “The old languages – visual, verbal, oral – had to be purged and a new functionalism based on the essentialism of geometric and mechanical form and on the articulation of clear, unequivocal content was to take the place of old disorderly and debased styles” (Morley, 2003, p71).
The Constructivist ideas were built within the context of huge changes taking place in society, partly as a consequence of the impacts of the First World War, but also because of the exciting possibilities provided by the emergence of mass media communications.
Technological advances in photography and cinema were leading to a democratisation in the arts. Art for everyone. The Constructivists saw the breaking down of the traditional distinction between ‘fine art’ and ‘applied art’.
The essay concludes by acknowledging the significant contribution that Constructivist ideas had on developing a visual language for modern communications that spanned graphic design, typography and architecture and is still very much in evidence today.
It provides historical context for the work of three artists that use the outputs of mass media as the subject and content for their collages.
I selected the following three artists to research because I like or have a connection to their work and their motivations for using collage makes for interesting comparison and analysis.
The artists are:
- Eduardo Paolozzi
- Peter Kennard
- Eugenia Loli
Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005)
Born in Leith in Edinburgh of Italian immigrants, Eduardo Paolozzi was to become one of the most influential British artists of the 20th Century.
I was lucky enough to see a retrospective of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2017. Until that point I was aware of his work through the huge mosaic mural that adorns the walls of most of the Tottenham Court Road underground station, and three of his sculptures; one in the piazza in front of the British Library, one outside of Kings Cross Station and one on the Embankment close to the Tate Gallery. I didn’t really like these works; big, monolithic and a bit clunky.
The Whitechapel retrospective completely changed my opinion of the artist. What struck me most was how prolific he was, working across all genres and mediums with a strong foot in commercial art and design.
In 1947 Paolozzi moved to Paris where he was heavily influenced by Dada and surrealism. It was in Paris that he made his first collages from advertisements in American glossy magazines and scientific illustrations. These were based on Dada photomontages and weren’t displayed publicly until he presented them as part of an illustrated lecture at the ICA entitled BUNK!
This was the first event presented by the Independent Group, a group of artists from across disciplines that wanted to challenge the dominant modernist ideas and introduce ideas based on mass culture; in many ways a reaction to Constructivism that by this time had been fully integrated into the mass media machine.
This group is now seen as the precursor to 1950s Pop Art. The ICA lecture was met with derision from some of the audience.
BUNK! consisted of 47 collages created between 1947 and 1952. Paolozzi took the name ‘bunk’ from a quote from Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company: “History is more or less bunk. We want to live in the present”.
It wasn’t until the 1971 retrospective of his work the the Tate Gallery that the BUNK! series of collages gained recognition and were turned into a series of prints.
Peter Kennard (b1949)
Peter Kennard is a London born photomontage artist. He studied at Byam Shaw School of Art and then the Slade as a painter.
In 1968 found his political voice after his involvement in anti Vietnam demonstrations and wanted to find a medium that could combine art and politics and being it to the attention of a wider audience.
He talks about his motivation for this work in a video, Rear Window – Peter Kennard:Unofficial War Artist: “I actually wanted to make my work part of the political scene rather than my political beliefs being separate from my art” (Kennard, 2015).
In the 1970s Kennard began to raise awareness of particular political issues using left wing publications as a platform to reach his audience.
His work came to prominence in the 1980s as a reaction and commentary on the Thatcher Government and CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). So much so that Ken Livingstone, the then leader of the Greater London Council, commissioned a series of posters to explain to Londoners the impossibility of surviving a nuclear war.
Being an Art Student in the early 1980s, I was very familiar with these works and the issues they dealt with.
In the 1990s he started using digital technology to make photomontages commenting on the Iraq war.
In an article for The Guardian, Richard Slocombe, sums up the significance of Kennard’s work: “With a career spanning almost 50 years, Peter Kennard is without doubt Britain’s most important political artist and its leading practitioner of photomontage. His adoption of the medium in the late 1960s restored an association with radical politics, and drew inspiration from the anti-Nazi montages of John Heartfield in the 1930s” (2015).
I had not come across the work of Eugenia Loli before carrying out my research for this exercise.
On her Instagram account (160K followers) she describes herself as a collage artist, filmmaker and illustrator. Most of her work is surreal collage made using vintage photographs and stock images.
Before becoming an artist in 2012 she was a computer programmer: “I decided I had enough to do with tech” (Carter, 2018).
She describes her own work on tumblr.com: “Her collages, with the help of the title, often include a teasing, visual narrative, as if they’re a still frame of a surreal movie. The viewers are invited to make up the movie’s plot in their mind.” (Loli)
She classifies her work into themes as broad as New Mythology, Mind Alteration, Worshiped Women, Disappearing Acts and Objective Obscurity.
I selected Protect yourself (2020) from her Instagram account because it’s an interesting combination of a vintage photomontage using the same kind of source imagery used by Eduardo Paolozzi in his 1952 BUNK! series, to comment on a very contemporary subject, the coronavirus pandemic. At the time the image was posted (March 2020), Covid-19 was emerging as a serious threat in the US (where Loli is based).
She lists her influences as Pop, Dada and Surrealism, and lists contemporary collage artists Kieron Cropper, Bryan Olson and David Delruelle as her main influences.
Where do they find the images that become part of their collages from?
Eduardo Paolozzi used imagery from mass/popular culture, much of it American. His sources were magazines, comic books, picture books and newspapers. The theme that runs through his work is the use of mundane imagery from vernacular culture that challenge the values of traditional fine art.
Peter Kennard uses images from press and television news, particularly those related to war and conflict.
Eugenia Loli describes her collage as ‘vintage’, and, like Paolozzi, much of it looks to be sourced from American 1950 and 1960s popular culture. Given she is making this work in 2020 I imagine the images are sourced from stock libraries.
Which images do you find the most striking?
I think Kennard’s images are the most impactful. They are purposefully made this way. His work is responding to a particular social context or issue (e.g. the Iraq war), and is designed to be immediately understood. He achieves this by subverting the way that media report these events to provide shock or insight through seeing these ‘familiar’ materials in a new way.
Do their images relate to the politics or social issues of their time? If not, what are they concerned with? Are they related to psychology, or dreams, or are they purely visual experiments? Discuss their relevance to the period they were made in.
Paolozzi’s collage work started as a response to his exposure to Dada and Surrealism through his direct contact with its proponents during his time in Paris in the late 1940s.
By the time of the BUNK! lecture in 1952, the subject of his work was much more focused on popular mass culture. The Independent Group identified themselves with Dada, and their purpose was to reevaluate the narrow ‘high art’ ideals modernism in the light of mass media and found objects, that were to become the staple theme of the Pop Art movement.
With this context, the work or Paolozzi can be seen as a reaction to the prevalent mass culture of the mid 20th century, and one that sparked off the Pop Art movement in both Britain and the US.
Kennard’s work is overtly political in nature. He actively used left wing publications as platforms for his work. His collages are responses to specific events or causes such as the Iraq war or CND. They were highly relevant during the period that they were made becoming icons for the causes and issues they critiqued.
Loli’s work is surreal in nature using subjects derived from vintage American culture. She is very evasive in interviews about what her work is about and lists influences such as “my own introspection, other ideas via Star Trek, and some philosophy books” (Ball, 2015).
She sometimes uses them to comment on current events; Protect yourself (2020) being a good example. She also cites sarcasm (often used to humorously convey thinly veiled disapproval or scorn), as an approach she uses in her work. This would indicate that it is made for a contemporary audience.
The work certainly resonates with her large Instagram following.
Do the concerns of the images have a new relevance in today’s world, and if so, how?
I would say that the concerns of the images do have a relevance in today’s world.
To a certain extent the work of the Pop Artists has become assimilated into 21st century visual language. The techniques are commonplace.
What is relevant to a contemporary audience is seeing Paolozzi’s work in a social context.
Whilst the mass media subject matter of Paolozzi’s collages does appear of the late 20th century, the themes remain current. Popular culture and its manifestation through the internet (with the average person in the UK spending over 5-hours a day looking at a screen), is far more invasive than in the 1970s.
When Pop Artists were making their work in the 1970s, mass media meant everyone more of less got the same experience. You had the choice to ignore an advert, but anyone that could be bothered to look got the same experience. Use of digital technologies to create evermore focused and personalised advertising and content adds an ironic twist to the term mass media.
To a certain extent, the themes of Kennards work are timeless. The fight against injustice, the hypocrisy of politicians and the stupidity of war remain a constant. The anti fascist collages of John Heartfield from a generation earlier provide similar examples that still resonate with a contemporary audience.
Loli’s work is contemporary. Paradoxically she is drawing a heavy influence from art movements of the early 20th century and reinventing them for a digital audience.
One of the questions I have related to the work of Paolozzi is, how did he know when a piece of work was done? This questions comes from the abstract nature of the work. I guess this links to my own work and current questioning about relinquishing control and being more willing to take risk. For me would include being prepared to use abstraction as part of my visual language.
Practice research point: How would it be using abstraction as part of my visual language?
Ball, L. (2015) An Interview with Artist Eugenia Loli | FORTH Magazine. At: https://forthmagazine.com/visual-art/2015/03/eugenia-loli/ (Accessed 22/06/2020).
Carter, F. (2018) ‘Artist Eugenia Loli On Her Surrealist Insights’ In: Forbes Magazine 06/06/2018 At: https://www.forbes.com/sites/felicitycarter/2018/06/06/artist-eugenia-loli-on-her-surrealist-insights/ (Accessed 22/06/2020).
Independent Group – Important Paintings (s.d.) At: https://www.theartstory.org/movement/independent-group/artworks/ (Accessed 23/06/2020).
Morley, S. (2003) Writing on the wall: word and image in modern art. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson London.
Rear Window – PETER KENNARD: UNOFFICIAL WAR ARTIST (s.d.) At: https://youtu.be/2dqN0H1dEVc (Accessed 22/06/2020).
Slocombe, R. (2015) ‘Protest and survive: why Peter Kennard is political dynamite’ In: The Guardian 01/05/2015 At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/01/blair-selfie-peter-kennard-political-dynamite (Accessed 22/06/2020).
List of illustrations
Figure 1 – Paolozzi, Eduardo (1952) Sack-o-sauce [collage] At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/paolozzi-sack-o-sauce-t01466 (Accessed: 21/06/20)
Figure 2 – Kennard, Peter (1985) Target London At: https://www.peterkennard.com/shop/target-london (Accessed: 22/06/20)
Figure 3 – Loli, Eugenia (2020) Protect yourself [collage] At: https://www.instagram.com/p/B9sSm8cJKkf/ (Accessed: 22/06/20)
Eduardo Paolozzi – Whitechapel Gallery (s.d.) At: https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/eduardo-paolozzi/ (Accessed 22/06/2020).
Whitford, F. (2005) ‘Obituary: Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’ In: The Guardian 22/04/2005 At: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/apr/23/guardianobituaries.obituaries (Accessed 22/06/2020).
Collage (s.d.) At: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/24027/collage (Accessed 22/06/2020).