The French translation for the word “décollage” is translated to “lift off,” or “to be unglued/unstuck.” If you’re on an international flight to Paris, the pilot may announce that they are “paré au décollage,” and at this time you should probably continue to stay in your seat until takeoff is complete, as instructed by your flight attendant and hope the plane isn’t literally glued to the tarmac. However, this article has nothing to do with proper airline etiquette or bizarre scenarios where a truck full of Elmer’s glue oozes all over the John F Kennedy International Airport airstrip. This article is about a form of collage that is the total opposite of collage. Confusing, right? Let me clear it up for you.

Décollage is both collage and its antithesis. The word collage means “to glue” and typically involves the action of a construction of images, placed upon one another, with new compositions arriving from their integration. Décollage is achieved by the act of removal. Cutting, shredding, tearing and damaging, essentially, a pre-existing image. The term became popularized in the 1950’s by the Nouveau Realists (New Realists) in France, by artists Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella, Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé and Wolf Vostell.

Raymond Hains and Jacques Villegleé, Ach Alma Manetro, 1949
Raymond Hains and Jacques Villegleé, Ach Alma Manetro, 1949. Photo: Christian Bahier et Philippe Migeat - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Dist. RMN-GP

The artistic act of décollage is believed to have begun when a young Hain and Villeglé went out walking one Paris afternoon in 1949 in search for inspiration. According to art history scholar Hannah Feldman in her essay “Of the Public Born: Raymond Hains and La France déchiree*,” the artist’s “eureka moment” occurred when the two walked by a fence erected to conceal a construction site near a busy metropolitan area. The fence was completely covered in “layer upon layer” of concert posters, which “countless and unknown” pedestrians had torn away at. Rather than simply photograph the scene before them, the two “tore it down in large chunks, took the fragments home, and adhered them to a canvas.” Feldman prefaces the tale with the assertion that many “origin stories” in art history are myths, and this one too may be false, but regardless, it is the story. The result of the event was Ach Alma Manetro, pictured above, and named after letters revealed in the composition.

The work had a radical component: It was illegal to place announcements, political campaign flyers or commercial advertisements on all public buildings in France. While the law had originally intended to allow for further public expression through the designation of neutral public spaces, it also (particularly with the rise of commercial advertising) designated where such postings were legal. As Feldman states, “the ultimate guarantee of the freedoms protected by this clause was that it became illegal to tear down or deface those posters that had been properly placed, and so both political and product propaganda became protected in their right to proliferate on the street.”

Raymond Hains, Ce Homme Est Dangereux, 1957
Raymond Hains, Ce Homme Est Dangereux, 1957

Hains and Villeglé named their first exhibition of décollages after this law, questioning the possibilities for public expression in the urban sphere, especially with the rise of commercial advertisements and the political tensions of a nation still at war. A later exhibition of twenty décollages was titled, “La France déchirée.” Or as Feldman aptly writes, “France torn-apart, ripped up, ruined.”

Mimmo Rotella, Viva America, 1963
Mimmo Rotella, Viva America, 1963, décollage on canvas, 33 1/2 × 35". Private collection, courtesy Fondazione Marconi. Photo: courtesy Fondazione Marconi. © 2020 Mimmo Rotella by SIAE.

Italian décollage artist Mimmo Rotella also participated in creating works from torn advertisements, his compositions often including celebrities and political figures such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy (who later had an airport named after him!) While Rotella did not get an airport named in his honor, he does have his very own Mimmo Rotella Institute in his home country.

A contemporary example of décollage can be seen in the works of Denver-based collage artist Mario Zoots. In his artist bio, the “excavator of images” cites the element of “chance” involved in the act of collage. In décollage, chance is required as the work reveals itself to the artist. In Zoot’s own décollage, he delicately slices through a Woman’s Home Companion, revealing the pages beneath the front cover of a smiling model in winter attire who now cries, or alternately, sports enormous, flowing, fake bottom lashes. The composition is both nostalgic and disorienting, humorous yet discomforting.

Mario Zoots, Excavation (Companion), 2018
Mario Zoots, Excavation (Companion), 2018
Mario Zoots, Excavation (LIFE, May 21, 1956), 2017
Mario Zoots, Excavation (LIFE, May 21, 1956), 2017

In works such as his Excavation (LIFE, May 21, 1956) of 2017, Zoots confronts his viewers with a standard beach towel (lovingly shown off by two smiling women) with an interiority of mystery and excitement, carved to reveal a Pop-savvy composition. His images recall the history of their own canon while bringing a contemporary sense of wit and technical refinement to the compositions. 

Artist Mark Bradford also pushes the boundaries of contemporary décollage, by introducing additional materials into the work, as well as scaling them to monumental size. The works require the same amount of time to absorb as the works of Jackson Pollock with their intricate depths and valleys, and are often considered to be read like maps, with their own topographical quality. The artist is deeply influenced by the Nouveau Realists, but, as director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph, Martin Pierce points out, supersedes them in their dialogue with the urban sphere. Pierce notes that “the manifestation of the politics of commercialization and surplus in 1960s France seems almost quaint in comparison with the manifestation of the supersize, superabundant dystopian urbanism in Bradford’s paintings.” To stand in front of a Bradford is to peer into the urban detritus of a world all too familiar with the haphazard, careless disposal of waste. The décollage-paintings adhere to the concept of sublimity in art: an entangled infliction of beauty and terror, producing the feeling of awe. It’s no wonder, then, that Mark Bradford was chosen to represent the United States in the 2017 Venice Biennale, Viva Art Vive.

Mark Bradford, Gatekeeper, 2019
Mark Bradford, Gatekeeper, 2019, mixed media on canvas, 139 x 225 inches. © Mark Bradford. Photo: Joshua White. All images courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, UK.

This returns us once again to the idea of the 1950’s dechiree and the possibilities for public expression by the peeling back of layers of the commercial and propagandistic imagery we are confronted with daily.

Décollage reveals, through an aesthetic burrowing, while collage, as generally understood, builds upon itself to create new compositions, and ultimately, questions, about our reality here on earth.

*The article published in 2004, according to Dr. Feldman, was an excerpt from her book manuscript, “Public Culture and the Nation: Art and The City in France during Wartime, 1945-Present” which I believe to have later been published as “From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945-1962, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).