Some thoughts on Lee Miller’s ‘Collage’

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I’ve written previously about wanting to explore ideas and thoughts for my next research project on this blog. Today I’d like to do so by thinking about collage as a medium, locating this in relation to a broader network of scholars who are currently working on collage.

About a year ago I attended Dr. Patricia Allmer‘s (Chancellor’s Fellow, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh) research paper ‘Cutting up Picasso: Cubism and Lee Miller’s Collage‘ (details of the talk are available here). Pictured here within Allmer’s powerpoint presentation, Collage (1937) is a 28 cm x 21.5 cm mixed-media piece that comprises cut paper, prints after Miller’s own photographs, and a postcard featuring an image of the Cotes d’Azur. It was produced during the summer of 1937, when Miller, (along with several other prominent Surrealist artists, including Man Ray) stayed with Picasso and Dora Maar at their home in Mougins, France.

As I work on revising my thesis for publication, I am beginning to think about my next project – an examination of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collage practices – and the methodologies I will employ throughout its duration. Accordingly, how the image was addressed struck a particular chord with me, with Allmer providing both an object biography of Collage, whilst simultaneously emphasising the object’s own biographical nature.

In her talk, Allmer skillfully deconstructed the collage’s constituent elements, from found object, to silhouette cut out, to photographic reproduction, powerfully demonstrating how each rooted Miller’s work within the histories of the avant-garde and the Surrealist group. Allmer also highlighted how the work was a reflection upon Miller’s relationships with the groups’ other female artists, including Dora Maar, Eileen Agar, and Elsa Schiparelli, and each of whose presence is signalled by a portraitive gesture within the image. In pulling apart the fragmented images and scraps of paper that comprised the collage, Allmer provided a sort of object biography (or, in fact, multiple biographies), in which she traced the collage from conceptual birth, through the processes of making, and into its material afterlives, where the piece ultimately embodies Miller’s participation within that summer, as well as the communal nature of the creative output of the Surrealist group more broadly. At the same time, Allmer presented Collage as a thoroughly biographical object, through a reading of which we might glean an understanding of the complex social, gendered, and creative relationships of the group’s members, and how these were reflected within, and constituted by, the visual and material objects they produced. Following Rosalind Krauss’ assertion that collage is more like poetry than an art work, and as such, must be read, rather than viewed, Allmer’s ‘reading’ of Collage offers a productive model for talking about the relationship between collage, lives, and even life writing.

It is this connection – between the making of collage, and the making of the self – that my research seeks to probe. Through both its fragmentary nature and close relationship with the biography of its makers, collage is a powerfully narratological art form. Furthermore, prior to its co-option with modernist movements such as Cubism and Dada, it was a ubiquitous cultural practice, enacted by men, women, and children from various social strata. However, as many of its forms – from shellwork, quilting, paper collage, to scrapbooking – have traditionally been aligned with decorative arts practices, they have yet to receive the critical attention they deserve. A study of collage is therefore, simultaneously a focus on objects previously excluded from the canon of ‘fine art’, which can accordingly reveal the daily emotions, concerns, and interests, of the the many and the minority, those forgotten and the underrepresented. I’m excited about how working on collage can reveal these possibilities, something that I’ll begin to explore during my forthcoming archival research trips for the project – the first, a trip to the Brontë Parsonage Museum to examine their collection of scrapbooks, happening in just a few days time.

Allmer’s fascinating monograph on Miller was recently published by Manchester University Press.

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