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A Brief History of Assemblage Art: Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Dave McKean

Definition of Assemblage

“Today the term assemblage … is frequently associated with a very Bauderlarian sensibility in its expression of modern life and, in particular, of urban culture.”

as-sem-blage Pronunciation: -'sem-blij, for 3 also "a-"säm-'bläzh
Function: noun
Date: 1690

  1. a collection of persons or things : GATHERING
  2. the act of assembling : the state of being assembled
  3. an artistic composition made from scraps, junk, and odds and ends (as of paper, cloth, wood, stone, or metal) b : the art of making assemblages

The History of Assemblage Art

Assemblage is basically the three-dimensional cousin of collage. The origin of the word (in its artistic sense) can be traced back to the early 1950s, when Jean Dubuffet created a series of collages of butterfly wings, which he titled assemblages d’empreintes. Dubuffet wasn’t the earliest assemblage artist, however both Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso had been working with found objects for several years prior to Dubuffet.

In 1961 the medium of assemblage was given a boost by an exhibition “The Art of Assemblage” at the New York Museum of Modern Art. William C Seitz, the curator of the exhibition, defined the term when he wrote that the assemblages were “entirely or in part, their constituent elements are preformed natural or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials.”

This exhibition showcased the work of artists such as Braque, Joseph Cornell, Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Man Ray and Kurt Schwitters.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Kurt Schwitters was born in Germany in 1887. Originally concentrating on painting and poetry, he began experimenting with collages and assemblages – which he called Merzbilder (The word derives from a fragment of the word Kommerz, used in an early assemblage) – after meeting members of the DADA movement. He went on to use the word Merz to describe his work, saying in 1919:

The word Merz denotes essentially the combination, for artistic purposes, of all conceivable materials, and, technically, the principle of the equal distribution of the individual materials … A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Joseph Cornell was an American artist whose assemblage work primarily took the form of box sculptures – found objects arranged in glass fronted wooden cabinets.

Cornell’s choice of objects differed from greatly from Schwitters’. While Schwitters used discarded urban refuse, Cornell instead used broken fragments of more delicate items, producing a nostalgic atmosphere. The seemingly irrational juxtaposition of these objects drew on surrealist ideas and techniques – an unsurprising association since Cornell was certainly on good terms with many of the members of the Surrealist movement who fled to America during the Second World War.

The contained environments of Cornell’s boxes defy all traditions and acceptable genres in art history collapsing painting and sculpture and elevating junk to a new high art status.

External link for more info on Joseph Cornell

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

Rauschenberg is an American artist born in 1925. Although historically associated with the Pop Art movement, his work has progressed and developed from before that time right up to today. He has worked in a number of different media but the assemblages he produced from the 50s to the 80s – which he called “combines” – are of most interest to myself.

Rauschenberg used discarded objects such as car tyres and licence plates, stuffed animals, doors, bed quilts, electric light fixtures and other urban debris, and combined them with painted surfaces.

External link for more info on Robert Rauschenberg

Dave McKean (1963-present)

The use of assemblage as a medium is becoming more prevalent, seeping down from the world of “fine art”, to be used by contemporary illustrators and graphic artists.

English artist Dave McKean is probably the most notable example of this trend. His is probably best for known for his work on the covers of DC Comics’ “Sandman” series – all of which are assemblages of objects which carry strong overtones of Cornell's boxes. He combines 2D images with his assemblages, often computer manipulated photographs.

External link for more info on Dave McKean

Further Reading