This is a technique as old as Time. But what was originally only a children's game has become a genuine and undeniable an form in this century. What is its origin, and who was its inventor? While colages appeared in the work of both Picasso and Braque at the end of 1912, it is apparently the latter who first had the idea and was the first to apply it. In fact, by introducing, in 1911, a typeset phrase into his picture The Portuguese, Braque discovered a new plastic element, which his fellow Cubists were quick to adopt. At this time Cubism was already loosening its ties with reality and drifting toward abstraction. The subject tended to be eliminated; the picture was not so firmly constructed. The question was less one of representing the object in its concrete totality than of considering it as an ensemble of pure signs, of exclusively graphic or pictorial effect, as an intellectual and often hermetic creation. Thus at the time when Synthetic Cubism was being substituted for Analytic Cubism, it is not surprising that painters in general, and Braque in particular, should have sensed the dangers of an art divorced from the world of appearances. It must not be forgotten, moreover, that Braque had never ceased being a craftsman, and a craftsman in the French tradition. Consequently, typographical characters and, after this, imitation wood and marble, the itrompel'ail effects that he had seen used and had used himself during his childhood in his father's workshop, appeared in his work as reminders of external reality. From trompe-l'eil painting to the use of the very materials reproduced was only one step, and one which was soon taken by both Braque and Picasso. Evolving Cubism lent itself to the new technique: there were no more intricate architectures, entangled lines, minute strokes or monochrome colour, but only plane surfaces, large flat areas, lighter and less uniform tones.
Braque glued pieces of printed or decorative papers or of newspaper to cardboard or canvas, and then applied either ink or pencil lines or touches of gouache or oil paint to them. Piccasso's procedure was not much different in his Still Life with a Fruit Bowl. Soon both incorporated into their pictures sand, pieces of cloth or wood, odd objects like playing-cards, boxes of matches or wrappers from tobacco packages. While Picasso sought unexpected effects of contrast, Braque succeeded in revealing the relations between the concrete elements employed and forms mentally conceived, to achieve an intimate poetry of exquisite appeal. The common, inert, dead substances had only to be incorporated by human ingenuity into a picture to take on artistic life.
As early as 1913 Juan Gris made harmoniously rhythmic collages of selected materials, juxtaposed with the melancholy, somewhat haughty lyricism peculiar to him: pages of books, musical staves, decorative flowered papers, old-fashioned engravings. Between 1914 and 1918 the French sculptor Laurens executed numerous compositions which mark the high point of the Cubist papiers collés. But the experiments that Jean Arp, another sculptor, made at the same time revealed entirely different preoccupations. Arp, a deliberate and reflective artist, concerned, above all, with sobriety, if not austerity, of expression, cut out from paper with great precision plain forms that he had only to glue upon a ground to obtain simple and straightforward rhythms. Italian Futurists, in turn, experimented in the technique practised by the French Cubists: Balla, Boccioni, Carrà, Prampolini, Severini. The Dadaists made use of it also, but in a spirit that was different from, if not opposed to, that of the inventors. Whereas the latter desired to accentuate the plastic value of the image, the boisterous followers of Dada used the same technique to destroy the traditional concept of a picture, to exhibit in the most extravagant juxtapositions their contempt for logic and reason. In the collages of a Max Ernst or a Schwitters, for example, with their incongruous contrasts and their challenging metaphysical and literary allusions, it would be fruitless to look for a new dialectic of form, colour and space. Nevertheless, the humour and fantasy of these artists could not fail to influence the Surrealists Miró, Tanguy and Magritte about 1928. Russian Constructivists, Germans from the Bauhaus, Neo-Plasticists, and the Futurist Magnelli also made uses of the collage technique. Today, in the work of non-representational painters, interesting efforts are to be seen, in particular those of Jeanne Coppel and Karskaya (see studies on the history of papiers collés by Mme Wescher in Art d'aujourd'hui, 1953 and 1954).
Finally, comes Matisse, whose experiments were the most important since that of the Cubists. It was, in fact, Matisse who revived collage as an idiom and endowed it with an inimitable vocabulary, syntax and style. The papier collé was the happy culmination of his art and life. Barred by illness and age from easel painting, he gave up the brush for the scissors and paint for coloured paper during his last ten years. Cut and glued paper came to be his sole medium. He mastered it so completely, made it a tool so obedient to his will, so suited to his gifts, that his papiers collés illuminate his entire past and justify all his previous experiments. His constant effort, continued during half a century, to increase the emotional value of the arabesque and the sonority of tone, to create an increasingly acute feeling of pictorial space, could not fail to lead to the cut and glued papers to which his book Jazz introduced us in 1947. There is indeed little difference between his pencil drawings and the designs he made with scissors; indeed he said himself 'scissors can achieve more sensitivity than the pencil'. As he preferred to apply colour on his canvases flat, he had prepared himself for a long time to substitute paper for paint. Moreover, by cutting out sheets of coloured paper with scissors he could simultaneously associate line with colour and contour with surface. This was the most unexpected, although quite predictable, consequence of the new experiment for Matisse's art: in resorting to new tools and consequently new principles, in submitting to a craftsman's discipline, be was forced to give to form the same opportunity he had previously given to colour. This is why, completing the Cubist experiment, Matisse was able to make papiers collés an autonomous medium, an idiom as authentic, as alive as the weaving, enamel and stained glass of the past, Thanks to him, papier collé has become a completely convincing and irreplaceable form of art, and it may stand as the modern equivalent of medieval illumination. What was originally an innovation of only secondary importance has become an incontestable, sutonomous art form, an art in itself. The history of papiers collés has begun again.