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Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan

Juliette Nicolini
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Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan, Farnham : Ashgate, 2014, 248 pages, includes 19 black and white illustrations, ISBN 978-1-4724-3096-0, 70 £

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1“There isn’t a 20th century art that was not touched, rethought or merely revamped by the use of [collage]”. In keeping with Pierre Joris’s seminal assertion, Rona Cran’s essay – which is based on her PhD thesis – aims at demonstrating how collage was instrumental in the work of Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara and Bob Dylan. Indeed, many essays in visual arts have been devoted to the analysis of collage as a means to transcend the limits of representation and to open the field of experience to otherness. However, Rona Cran offers an “interdisciplinary approach, navigating a path through plastic art, prose, and poetry” (3) focusing on four creators from diverse fields.

2The study begins with a comprehensive introduction to the collage aesthetics elaborated upon a large range of sources from art criticism to literary criticism, to more philosophical approaches within modernist and postmodernist trends. For example, David Antin’s article “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry” (Boundary 2, 1972) was seminal for Rona Cran’s analysis as he identified collage as a recognizable characteristic in the work of Frank O’Hara.

3Rosalind Krauss’ “In The Name of Picasso” (October, 1991) is also acknowledged as a key influence. Her tenet is that collage “as a system […] inaugurates a play of differences which is both about and sustained by an absent origin”. This formula operates as a leitmotiv in Rona Cran’s essay: “the absent origin is the physical act of pasting” (8) regarding the three writers considered here. Collage is presented overall as “the absent origin of [the] more prominent, non-collage creations” (9) of Cornell, Burroughs, O’Hara, and Dylan. The assertion may seem questionable regarding Cornell whose famous boxes are obviously three-dimensional collages – as well as for Burroughs’ notorious cut-up productions which have long been perceived as proceeding from cut and paste.

4It is well known that collage occupied a central place in modern visual arts notably as a solution to formal issues in cubism, as a fuel for irony in Dadaism, or as a tool of displacement in Surrealism, to name a few. Collage stems from a two-faced process (5): it is first a fragment of reality which produces “a kind of immediate presence” in the words of Thomas Brockelman (5). On the other hand this fragment calls for the absent context from which it has been extracted. The author also notes how the incompleteness of collage allows these writers and artists to covertly introduce autobiographical features into their work. It also stimulates the reader’s imagination into a “collaborative” act (126).

5The physical practice of collage in visual arts tends to wane by the mid-century. It expands to other realms such as poetry as its language allows encounters and new possibilities for invention (4) when the form has lost its import in the realm of visual arts. However different these four artists may be, collage is the “chemical process” which “plays as crucial catalyst for their work” (38).

6The essay starts with Joseph Cornell, who literally used the process of pasting in his boxes and two-dimensional collages. In line with her “anthropological methodology” (45), which encompasses the relationship between work of art and habitat, Rona Cran argues that New York acts as “the fundamental component of [Cornell’s] life’s work” (41). Cornell needed to express the various aspects of momentary experiences in city life and in parallel to reconcile his Manhattan background and his fascination with Europe. In the course of his wanderings throughout the city he collected various objects and images from “Victorian ephemera” to European art.

7Paradoxically Surrealism served as both trigger and “absent origin” (48) for Cornell. Coming across Ernst’s collage novel Femme 100 têtes in Julien Lévy’s New York gallery acted as a catalyst for the French literature and art amateur, and naturally led him to use collage as a medium. But Cornell was more fascinated by the device than by the “lewd subject matter” (53). The formal proximity with Surrealism goes with a divergence of tenets: rather than favouring chance, Cornell was an adept of “lucid dream” (55).

8For Rona Cran, the confrontation between Cornell and Ernst is clearly to the disadvantage of the latter. Cornell’s innate gift for the marvellous, his empathy towards women and children is somewhat harshly and even hastily set against Ernst’s more “contrived”, “egocentric” (62), or “quasi-misogynistic air of patriarchy” (68) – with a touch of gendered interpretation which is not always convincing. Overall this tends to reflect the cliché of an innocent and budding America against a sophisticated and jaded Europe.

9Rona Cran posits that Cornell’s “ingenuousness […] seems able to tap genuinely into the realm of unconscious desires” (62) which makes him “more surrealist than the surrealists” (62). Still, she argues, Cornell’s childlike imagination was saved from mawkishness thanks to the disturbing ways of the surrealists. More than his two-dimensional collages Cornell’s boxes expressed a sense of containment in relation to his family life in New York – yet “positive” (82) as it fostered escape impulses expressed in his fairy tales.

10The second part of the essay is focused on William Burroughs. The “gastric criticism” (89) he has had to endure, according to Rona Cran, is not only due to its disturbing subject matter (“hangings, surgical carnage, explicit sex and graphic depictions of drug-taking”) (90). Their compositional style which she considers as a “textual mess” (91) breeds an unsettling confusion in the reader and fosters the negative critical reception of The Nova Trilogy as against the more linear Junky, Queer or, later, The Red Night Trilogy.

11Brion Gysin’s (re)discovery of the cut-ups reveals something which was already at work in a less conscious way. The collage form appears to be organically connected to Burroughs’ fragmentary writing (102) and “twisted anti-logic” (91). Even the more accessible works such as Junky, Queer and The Yage Letters, may be a collage of one another according to Oliver Harris (94). The conjunction with the visual arts is in keeping with Burroughs’ tenet – “the written word is an image” – writing can be viewed as a form of painting (93).

12Collage operates as a tool for freedom allowing Burroughs to escape from the influence of Ginsberg who helped him with other Beat writers in putting together the scraps of Junky and Queer. Collage, like a “war machine”, allows Burroughs to fight with the written word and strip it to the “naked truth” (124), to quote Robin Lydenberg, in a defiance of sentimentality that reminds us of Dadaism or Russian Futurism. Excess and loss are at work here: the viral nature of the word is expressed by the hallucinatory proliferation in imagery (123) which Burroughs endeavours to control by cutting into the flesh. Art and life mirror one another as the “fissures between the fragments” (131) in his writing echo the various shifts and moves in his existence.

13In spite of the zest which fuels her writing, Rona Cran does not fully convince when she argues that “few [critics] have attempted any sustained analysis of collage in relation to his work, or of his work in relation to earlier uses of the practice.” (36) The issue may appear as a simple matter of terminology since the seminal part of cut-ups – obviously a form of collage – regarding William Burroughs’ writing practice has been largely documented. The discussed relationship with Dada (e. g. Hannah Koch) is fruitful and could have been examined more in depth as part of the issue of transposition from one medium to another.

14The third chapter focuses on Frank O’Hara and his “poetics of love and theft”. Rona Cran presents O’Hara in the Rimbaldian guise of “a voleur de feu (164) for whom any ideas, moments, quotations, emotions, thoughts and situations are liable to be incorporated immediately into his poems just as newspaper fragments are pasted into a visual collage. In the 1950s, the art world in New York enjoyed a freedom of creativity lacking in the literary world of the time. O’Hara, like a “poetic bricoleur” (139), assembled his poems as Pollock dripped paint all over the surface of his canvas. Still painting was considered as a model regarding process not product, as Rona Cran is careful to point out.

15Here again, the influence of Surrealism is noticeable in his early poems made of collaged clashing elements. “Second Avenue” displays a “unique amalgamation of Surrealist technique and Abstract Expressionism intent” (147). But O’Hara’s writing was more emotional and less violent as he wanted to “pour the world into the poem instead of tearing it apart” (153). Less dependent on the unconscious, with a “lighter touch” (154), later poems such as “In Memory of My Feelings” explore the “concept of a collaged ego” (155), reflecting O’Hara’s belief in a constantly shifting identity. Collage as a “non-fixed form” (156) embodies the flux of the experience of the poet’s vagrancy throughout New York City. Along the lines of Duchamp’s ready-mades, choice enacts a “decisive creative act” (180) for a direct incorporation of the poet’s lived moments to perform a “catalogue of ‘happenings’ ” (159) as in “The Day Lady Died”.

16Suiting O’Hara’s “democratic” disposition the non-hierarchical structure of collage allows the juxtaposition of disparate idiosyncratic references, such as names of friends or city-places, or high cultural sources. These may overall be obscure to the reader but do not produce a feeling of estrangement (as may happen with T. S. Eliot) since they constitute a documentary material of O’Hara’s life, Rona Cran argues.

17The last part of the book is “a sort of coda” (195) which focuses on Bob Dylan and reassesses the advantage of using collage for the production of new forms. Dylan, as a “magpie” (188) collected all sorts of material from personal experience to popular culture and highbrow literature which he assembled in a non-hierarchical way. He is shown as both “hipper-than-hip” and in search of a truth which could be better expressed by a “collage of experience” than by a “straightforward” (202) discourse – the latter unable to render social, political and personal chaos via songs written using a technique born out of political and aesthetic urgency (210).

18Dylan wanted to achieve the simultaneity of painting and consequently saw plastic art “as a parallel medium” (200). Picasso was influential, and Rona Cran weighs Dylan’s desire to break away from the folk idiom with the painter’s refusal of traditional representation (201). But he wanted to remain intelligible and his attempt at the cut-up technique cut short. Here again some comments may seem a bit broad: the “desire to show things differently” (201) is not only the concern of Picasso and Dylan but of most artists and poets.

19One may regret the compartmentalization of this essay: the “cross-disciplinary study of collage” (37) which is at stake here would have been better sustained if the author had more systematically analysed the similarities and divergences of the various forms of collage at work in literature and visual arts.

20Rona Cran’s pleasantly written and energetic book provides an amply documented if not always quite innovative overview of the use of collage in four very different creations.

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Juliette Nicolini, « Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan », Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2016, consulté le 15 juillet 2018. URL :

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Juliette Nicolini

Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle

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