Book Review: Form and Meaning in Avant-Garde Collage and Montage

1st September 2020

Alexandra Chiriac, Met Museum

Magda Dragu, Form and Meaning in Avant-Garde Collage and Montage (New York: Routledge, 2020)

Interdisciplinarity is increasingly an academic buzzword, yet successful attempts to master it are still infrequent. Magda Dragu tackles this issue by slicing up a cross-section of modernist production and investigating its every layer, journeying through art, music, film, and literature in an attempt to classify and differentiate the techniques of collage and montage.

Dragu begins by laying out her theoretical basis, reviewing ways of comparing the arts, from the content-oriented methods that stemmed from Aristotle’s mimetic theory of the arts, to the works of Eduard Hanslick and Heinrich Wölfflin who championed formalism in music and the visual arts, respectively, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. More recently, arising from the field of interarts study, the concept of intermediality was theorised by Irina Rajewsky and Werner Wolf in the early 2000s.[1] Their studies were focused on literature, moving image, and music, eschewing the visual arts, a gap which this book attempts to fill. Furthermore, Dragu proposes a number of additional classifications that could render debates about intermediality more precise, such as differentiating between medium-specific and non-medium specific techniques. The fugue, for example, retains its musical connotation when applied to a literary text or a painting, whereas montage and collage can be independently applied to different artforms. Additionally, Dragu distinguishes between the conceptual (literature, visual arts) and a-conceptual (music) nature of the media in question.

The first half of the book is dedicated to the analysis of visual, verbal, and musical collage in modernist artistic practice. Both Pablo Picasso’s early collages and the three-dimensional assemblages of Kurt Schwitters continued to observe pictorial conventions, despite being created through unusual means. In Dragu’s view, this denial of the real is one of the properties of collage and the reason why it should be clearly delineated from photomontage, which is discussed later in the book. Furthermore, an artist must make manifest an interest in intermediality for the artwork to be aptly named collage. Thus, Guillaume Apollinaire’s work, which included fragments of stamps, postcards, and telegrams, represented an instance of collage crossing over from one medium to another, whereas F.T. Marinetti’s poetry was indebted to the tradition of ‘nonsense literature born within the confines of language alone’ (p. 60). Similarly, in the musical field, Charles Ives’s composing techniques were not transposed from the visual medium, whereas Igor Stravinsky was a true proponent of musical collage, even using something akin to a ‘cut and paste’ compositional technique. Concluding her analysis, Dragu proposes that modernist collage in any media can be identified by its heterogeneous nature, both through the diversity of materials used and the type of meaning created.

The second part of the book tackles montage in its various incarnations. Dragu’s principal hypothesis is that early photomontage was in fact ‘an intermedial transposition of the technique of visual collage into the medium of photography’ (p. 99). In these early stages, the meaning generated by photomontage was heterogeneous, like that of collage. It is only after the development of montage in cinema that ‘true’ photomontage emerged, characterised by homogenous meaning formation. Thus, whilst the distinction between heterogeneous and homogenous photomontage is borrowed from Benjamin Buchloh, Dragu reframes these as emerging from different media: visual collage and film montage respectively.[2]

Film montage was pioneered in the mid-1920s by Russian film directors Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, and it was this new means of image manipulation, Dragu proposes, that was at the root of photomontage, a technique that generates ‘clear conceptual statements’ (p. 142). Thus, early Dadaist photomontage was more akin to collage, with the work of Hannah Höch and George Grosz displaying ‘extreme fragmentation’ and ‘abrupt juxtapositions’ that prevented the formation of a clear message (pp. 112-3). But by the late 1920s, artists such as the Constructivists Gustav Klutsis, El Lissitzky, and Aleksandr Rodchenko were creating homogenous photomontages with a clear message, more often than not political. Some scholars have interpreted this as a slide towards the Socialist Realism of the 1930s, but Dragu posits that the change was due to the artists’ familiarity with the experiments of Eisenstein and Vertov. An explicit interest in filmic montage also informs the comparison between the literary techniques of John Dos Passos, who utilised literary montage to structure his writings, and Alfred Döblin, who made physical use of collage techniques in his manuscripts.

Dragu’s book is indeed a tour de force of collage and montage in their every avant-garde incarnation. Yet, her proposed methodology of differentiating between these techniques based on the type of meaning they produce is not particularly failsafe, implying that each artwork can be clearly classified as conveying a clear meaning or not. For example, Hannah Höch’s Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919-20) appears to Dragu to hold no clear message, but Moholy-Nagy’s Jealousy: The Fool (1925) does, even though she admits that ‘deciphering [Moholy-Nagy’s photoplastics] may be a complex process’ (p. 144). Furthermore, the implication is that film montage creates clear meaning, thus being the precursor of homogenous photomontage. If the analysis of Eisenstein’s montage techniques supports this hypothesis, the section on Vertov is less convincing. It demonstrates how Vertov borrowed techniques from the visual arts for his films, which, moreover, do not always convey an identifiable narrative or message. Dragu does well to challenge assumptions that the Russian avant-garde was foreshadowing Socialist Realism in the mid 1920s, yet the assertion that these artists did not ‘contribute to the totalitarian state and its propagandistic art’ (p. 163) during this period is questionable. Only a few pages earlier, she illustrates her argument with photomontages made by Lissitzky for Russian state exhibitions at home and abroad. It might have been productive to consider here how transparency of meaning is interlinked with an artwork’s intended audience.

Dragu’s book is nonetheless a valuable addition to the field of modernist studies. The meticulous research conducted is a particular strength of the volume. The analysis develops from Dragu’s detailed observation of the materiality of a great many works, including music scores and manuscripts, all of which she examined in person, paying attention to the layering of materials. The layering of different disciplines is likewise a notable achievement, with the volume drawing on art history, literary criticism, film studies, musicology, and so on, bringing together scholarly narratives that should intersect more often.


[1] See for example Irina O. Rajewsky, Intermedialität (Tübingen, Francke 2002) and Werner Wolf, The Musicalization of Fiction. A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999)

[2] Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ‘Warburg’s Paragon? The End of Collage and Montage in Postwar Europe’ in Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art, ed. by Ingrid Schaffner and Matthias Winzen (Munich: Prestel, 1998), pp. 50-60, and ‘Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive’, October 88 (Spring 1999), pp. 117-45.

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