The History of Mixed Media Art

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

What is art? If you still think of galleries full of oil paintings, watercolours, school groups and stuffy sorts, you’ll be glad to hear that this is only one, very 2 dimensional side of things. Today we’re talking about all things mixed media.

The First Modern Collage

Thanks to our old friend Picasso, things started to get experimental after his piece, ‘Still Life with Chair’ in 1912. This was a big moment since it’s considered to be the first modern collage. So, if a collage is a collection of different material pieces on a canvas, what’s the big deal?

Well, whilst early collages were made purely of paper, these novel pieces by Picasso, and others such as Braque, started making use of oil cloth, rope, even wallpaper. Maybe influenced by forefathers such as Cezanne, these cool kids on the block developed a style later known as Cubism.

Cubism is an early-20th-century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized European painting and sculpture

During this time, the artists were breaking down existing objects into fragments which were then assembled into new, abstract forms. Later, in the phase known as ‘synthetic’ cubism, the images became more legible and recognisable and the pieces featured more coherent pictures. And so - drumroll - the modern collage was born!

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate what a mega break from tradition this was. These guys were, for the first time, shifting their attention away from the finished form and image and towards the process of construction itself. Pretty innovative.

Concept above craftsmanship

No doubt this surge in ‘doing’ influenced the works of pioneers such as Marcel Duchamp, the radically subversive dude who stuck a bicycle on a stool and made the art stand up and take note of the concept above the craftsmanship, maybe for the first time.

By the 1920's, our man Schwitter stepped up the game with a mixture of collage and ‘assemblage.’ Basically, he fixed everyday papers and objects to his pieces. Although he worked in A LOT of mediums and styles, he’s best known for these pimped up collages called ‘Merz’ pictures. True to form, even the word itself is a little snippet cutting, taken from the German word “Kommerz” (commerce). How cute?!

His Merz pieces make use of all sorts: candy wrappers; cut outs; newspaper clippings and more. His chosen scavenged bits were then fixed to the board using glue and nails. He even went on to incorporate sticky out objects such as broken pipes to really protrude from the board.

At the end of World War 1, Schwitter famously reflected, “Everything had broken down in any case and new things had to be made out of the fragments,” and he described wanting to, “create connections, preferably between everything in this world.” So does art reflect life or does life reflect art? That’s one for another time. He’s cool. Fact.

"Create connections, preferably between everything in this world"

Matisse then got stuck in with cut paper shapes as a kind of rehearsal for future commissions, and in 1947, he published a small collection of color plates of his cutout designs.

Joseph Cornell then ran with the idea. You could say he started the ball rolling in the mixed-media direction with his boxed collages of different mediums.

How do we define mixed media art?

So how do we define mixed media? Well, it’s a spectrum. Whilst you could say the term applies to any piece with more than one medium, we might not even realise that many ‘mainstream’ pieces have some additional pen/oil or other bits and pieces snuck in.

Collages are not the only way to mix up your media. Even an ink drawing, painted over in watercolour and enhanced with pen details, that counts too. I love Richard Tuvey’s combinations of oil, acrylic and pastel. That is some seriously vivid colour.

The term really came into play in the post-modern art period of 20th century. Take a look at ‘Blue Nude II’ (1952) by Henri Matisse. He called this technique ‘cutting directly onto colour’, using gouache-painted paper and then cutting shapes out to form the pieces.

Blue Nude II (1952) by Henri Matisse

Then we have the absolutely awesome, ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ (1956) by Richard Hamilton. This fab, raunchy, mixed-media piece is a veritable buffet of images taken from illustrated magazines and other cultural references. Not only is it tiny and cute, it was heralded the first true piece of Pop-Art.

Pop-Art goes rogue. . . .

As we know, Pop-Art went rogue with the addition of all kinds of mediums and technology.

Perhaps we should point out here the difference between MIXED media and MULTI media; Multi Media refers to the incorporation of different technologies in art such as video, music and projection, whereas Mixed Media Art is more a salad of physical, tactile materials.

Mixed Media Art is more a salad of physical, tactile materials

So, where to start? Be sure to check out my upcoming tutorial on mixed media creations where I take you through the process from start to finish.

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Written by Kat Smith