A term lifted from the French word for ‘unstick’, it is most commonly applied to artworks where an original image is cut, torn, or removed from its original content. The phrase generally refers to the work of French Nouveau Realists, (New Realists) who ripped old posters from walls and mounted them onto canvas.
Origins of the term
The term decollage can be traced back to the Surrealist and detective novelist Leo Malet, who appeared in the Dictionnaire Abrege du Surrealisme in 1938 alongside the following excerpt: 'Leo Malet has proposed the generalisation of the procedure that consists in tearing off parts of a poster in order to reveal fragments of the poster or posters underneath and in speculating on the capacity of the overall effect obtained to disorient and lead astray.'
Malet’s artworks, which he also referred to as ‘affiches lacarees’ (torn posters), were made from a range of ripped apart advertisements removed from their original setting and mounted onto paper or canvas as a complete artwork. The process of unsticking something from its original context had a rebellious quality similar to an act of vandalism, making it a more radical form of art than its close cousin, collage, as art historian Tom Conley writes, 'Whereas collage may be construed as authored, constructive and additive, decollage presents itself as anonymous, destructive and deductive. Decollage produces a discordant palimpsest of public speech from layers of assertion and contestation, whereas collage potentially articulates the coherent private statement of an individual artist.'
The practice of decollage came to the fore predominantly in Paris during the 1950s through the work of Francois Dufrene, Raymond Hains and Jaques Villegle, yet was also practiced further afield by Mimmo Rotella in Italy and Wolf Vostell in Germany. Throughout the 1960s in Paris, Dufrene, Hains and Villegle became key members of the Nouveau Realistes, along with prominent artists Yves Klein, Cesar Baldaccini, Arman and Jean Tinguely, a group who, like Pop artists in the United States, incorporated elements of real, found objects from popular culture into their works of art.
To produce their decollage poster art, Dufrene, Hains and Villegle found popular sites where billboard posters had been repeatedly plastered on top of one another over time, building up complex accumulated layers of cultural references. In ripping away fragments from these sources unexpected layers of information could be uncovered, acting, one the one hand as a social document, and on the other as an abstract, textural work of art with similar qualities to abstract expressionism.
Decollage techniques allowed Nouveau Realistes the chance to critique and disrupt the plethora of public advertising thrown at us through the mass media by destroying the original source, leaving only a trace behind for public consumption. Many artists also worked anonymously and collaboratively, such as the group ‘Lacere Anonyme’ (anonymous lacerated), who either destroyed posters on-site or ripped away collected fragments to form works of art. Villegle took a directly political stance, seeing such defacements as a break from the coercive nature of mass media, writing, 'Through tearing, the antidote to all propaganda, advertising, that condensed version of civilisation was introduced to the realm of the happily illegible.'
German artist Wolf Vostell adopted the term decollage to describe his varied practice, claiming he read the word in Le Figaro in 1954 to describe the simultaneous take-off and crash of an aeroplane, echoing his interest in breaking down signifiers from the past to form a new reality. In 1962 he founded the theoretical magazine titled De-coll/age: Bulletin Aktueller Ideen, which featured experimental art writing related to Nouveau Realism and Fluxus. The following year he once again lifted the term for a series of happenings titled Nein 9 Decollagen, featuring images ‘unstuck’ from a television screen and presented in a new context.
The appropriation of pre-existing imagery continued to prove popular in various guises throughout the Pop Art era of the 1960s, but was replaced with less expressive styles of pastiche and photomontage as postmodernism took over in the 1970s and 1980s. The act of defacement that decollage brought into the gallery space has continued to infiltrate art practices today, with artists as diverse as Tom Phillips, Louise Hopkins and Tony Swain inviting us to reconsider found or historical material that is given a new identity when ripped apart, disguised or painted over.