Cut Up Consciousness: Collage and the Social Construction of Normative Masculinity


May 05, 2016

As an artistic practice, collage is uniquely positioned to distill and deconstruct underlying social and cultural constructs by using symbols and imagery from mass media. While it is relatively well documented how women artists, such as Hannah Höch, have used methods of collage to unpack normative expectations of femininity, very little research has been conducted about how male artists have used the same medium to investigate normative expectations of masculinity. By using mass media references, proto-Pop artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton used collage in the 1950s as a way of understanding normative masculinity. Similarly, Pop artist Nelson de la Nuez continued this trajectory in the 1990s as societal expectations on men changed over time. All three artists recognized the social consciousness of how men were portrayed in mass media such as popular magazines and advertising and created collages as reflections on these portrayals. As a result, it can be argued that viewers of these collages can recognize the work as reflections on socially constructed masculine identity which, in turn, informs the broader social consciousness. This cycle will be investigated through examples of each artist’s work along with the research of socio-cultural historians working with the subject of masculinity in Western culture.

            So, just how is it that collage is uniquely positioned as an artistic medium in looking at this social consciousness > mass media > artistic representation > art viewers > social consciousness cycle mentioned above? What exactly is collage anyway? “The word collage, literally from the French ‘coller’—to paste, glue, or stick—is technically confined to works on paper. However, collage has come to encompass, in a looser vernacular, such related forms as assemblage, montage, and mixed-media work that employs elements of collage.” (Elaine Sexton, “Contemporary Collage: Pop Meets Politics and the Ready Made”, 14) If we think of collage as the act of cutting something out from one source and gluing it in another configuration with other cut out images, the original context of the imagery is altered, if not severed entirely. Collage artists ultimately appropriate imagery from one or multiple sources to leverage semiotics inherent in the image to suit a different purpose, that of the artist as opposed to the purpose of the magazine or advertisement it came from. “In collage, initially flat materials are very easily domesticated pictorially, willing to be reengineered to serve new pictorial purposes largely severed from their original functions, their formal utility to the composition as a whole easily trumping their objective nature. This is not to say that the collage materials do not betray an extrapictorial origin—their autonomous sign quality is rarely so completely circumscribed by the new pictorial context… but they do not insist on their original identity, context, or utility.” (Jonathan Katz, “Committing the Perfect Crime: Sexuality, Assemblage, and the Postmodern Turn in American Art”, 41) While the objects depicted in the imagery are never completely removed from their original function (a cut out photograph of a banana will still look like a banana in a collage, but it’s new juxtaposition to other images will move it from an advertisement selling bananas to some new context where the banana is more of a referential symbol). William Kaizen has said of Richard Hamilton’s work that “He creates a nonlinear taxonomic chart of pop culture, a systematic image that can be read both point-by-point and in toto. Each separate unit both maintains its existence as individual datum and becomes a part of the overall field that is the sum total of all the data.” (William Kaizen, “Richard Hamilton’s Tabular Image”, 116) If we can expand this explanation to the work of all collage artists using multiple sources for their imagery, it can be said that collage in general can be looked at the individual significance of one component of a composition and the significance of the entire composition simultaneously. “The collagist shares with the poet an impulse to juxtapose disparate, discarded, or overlooked things, as a fascination with a kind of detritus of ideas.” (Elaine Sexton, “Contemporary Collage: Pop Meets Politics and the Ready Made”, 15) As such, collage artists are typically described as those who appropriate imagery as “found objects” and repurpose them to mean something else. Artist Eduardo Paolozzi only partially agreed with this sentiment. He once recorded that “the word collage is inadequate because the concept should include damage, erase, destroy, deface and transform—all parts of a metaphor for the creative act itself.” (John-Paul Stonard, “The ‘Bunk’ Collages of Eduardo Paolozzi”, 249) More than just appropriating images to create something new, collage also can be looked at as destructive vis-à-vis the original usage of the imagery. To Paolozzi, the original context must be destroyed or erased to create something new out of the appropriated images. This act of destruction in the service of creation is an integral component of the social consciousness cycle of normative masculinity.

            Collage has been used effectively to hone in on and magnify areas of underlying social consciousness specifically because it leverages and subverts the imagery and messaging of mass media. “Mass-reproduced photo/text mediums continue to prove most effective in pushing the outer frame and challenging the powers that be. They are more easily disseminated into public space and can be more locally productive than cumbersome object media such as painting and sculpture, which may move people in a more visceral but genderalised manner.” (Lucy Lippard, “Time Capsule”, 415) One of the most famous collage artists in history, Hannah Höch, is one example of how this medium can effectively be used to expose this cycle of social consciousness. “Höch subverts the notions of femininity which women are supposed to aspire to: her photomontages dissect conventionally ‘beautiful’ images of women and re-present them in a disturbed and disfigured manner.” (Deborah Sugg, “Hannah Höch’s Practise of Photomontage”, 31) While Höch was focusing on dissecting normative femininity, the same can be said of applying this social consciousness cycle to normative masculinity. “Men are not born with masculinity as part of their genetic make-up; rather it is something into which they are acculturated and which is composed of social codes of behaviour which they learn to reproduce in culturally appropriate ways.” (John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture, 2) Many of these “social codes” are instilled in the minds of men through mass media outlets from newspapers and magazines to television and film. As will soon be discussed, both Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton used advertising from these kinds of media outlets in the 1950s based on their effectiveness in parodying, satirizing, or criticizing contemporary society through imagery subversion. “Although it was a leading title in the late 1950s, on a par with household names such as Life and Playboy, MAD was unique in offering a critical position on 1950s consumerism, exposing techniques of manipulation, often with the most biting parodies of advertising methods and media outlets.” (John-Paul Stonard, “Pop in the Age of Boom: Richard Hamilton’s ‘Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?’”, 612) Mainstream publications were extremely ripe for advertising subversion by collage artists due to the relationship between the publications and societal normativity, but Richard Hamilton in particular found MAD very useful in constructing his compositions simply because the content already possessed a certain amount of criticism in it. These artists continue a tradition of using advertising images like those Höch used in the 1920s. “She satirizes contemporary events and figures by deconstructing elements of popular culture – magazines, newspapers, advertisements, pin-ups, diagrams of machines – and re-presenting them. In doing so, she fuses and juxtaposes images in such a way as to criticize them; her deformities and fragmentations act as a metaphor for modern life.” (Deborah Sugg, “Hannah Höch’s Practise of Photomontage”, 31) Now let’s look at how male artists have used collage as a metaphor for masculinity as a component of modern life.

            Eduardo Paolozzi was a British artist who came to prominence in the 1950s. He was one of the founders of the Independent Group in 1952 and is considered one of the leading pioneers of Pop art.  Lawrence Alloway said of him in 1956 “Like everybody who has grown up with movies, newspapers, ads, Paolozzi has a different frame of reference from most artists who assert their professional status precisely by excluding most of this ephemeral material from their art. What characterizes images drawn from this kind of material? They combine variety and uniformity in a new way. The variety is the incredible extension of subject matter (literally everything can be given visual symbolic form now). The uniformity is in the quantity of images which enables us to see connections between unlikes.” (Lawrence Alloway, “Eduardo Paolozzi”, 133)

Yours till the boys come home, Eduardo Paolozzi, 1951

Yours till the boys come home, Eduardo Paolozzi, 1951


It is the “uniformity” Alloway mentions of Paolozzi’s work that most relates to the social consciousness cycle. By juxtaposing seemingly unlike images in the same composition, Paolozzi is challenging viewers to see the subtext of advertising imagery. “Paolozzi described his Bunk collages… as ‘radical Surrealism,’ referring both to the diverse nature of the source material and his often deviously punning use of it, a description that is borne out by the work themselves. With Bunk, the emphasis falls more obviously on images of consumer culture derived from American magazines such as The Ladies’ Home Journal and Life.” (John-Paul Stonard, “Eduardo Paolozzi’s Psychological Atlas”, 51) As we will see with both Paolozzi and Hamilton, while the source material for 1950s collage work was relatively “diverse,” the overwhelming majority of it was American (as opposed to British) because in the post-war years American popular culture came to symbolize the fantasy of what life could be through consumerism. One of Paolozzi’s collages from his “Bunk” series “Yours till the boys come home… combines the two larger images of [striptease artist] Winnie Garret with three of an aircraft after an accident… Winnie Garret’s pose in the top photograph is dramatized by its combination with the flight deck crash, while the naval photographs take their place within the erotic sequence… In effect, Yours till the boys come home shows Paolozzi taking raw photographic material and creating juxtapositions that adopt the language of advertising without referring to a particular product. For sale, it may be said, is the language of advertising itself.” (John-Paul Stonard, “The ‘Bunk’ Collages of Eduardo Paolozzi”, 246) While this piece does not depict a figurative representation of normative masculinity directly, it hones in on the gender of the target audience as normatively male by juxtaposing imagery of a striptease artist (evoking a sense of heterosexual erotic excitement) next to that of a plane crash (evoking a sense of orgasmic excitement and danger of something like war through the juxtaposition next to the striptease artist). Another collage in Paolozzi’s “Bunk” series more directly dissects normative masculinity. “Although Evadne in green dimension gives the series its name by the inclusion of the word ‘Bunk!’, the strange title of the work is derived from a painting by the German émigré impresario Jack Bilbo. A one-time bodyguard of Al Capone, and career conman, Bilbo turned to art and opened a gallery of modern painting, improbably, in London during the Blitz.

Evadne in green dimension, Eduardo Paolozzi, 1952

Evadne in green dimension, Eduardo Paolozzi, 1952


In 1948 he published his vastly egotistical autobiography, complete with extensive text and numerous images, reproduced as stuck-down plates. His painting Evadne in green dimension, from 1945, is typical of his amateur efforts, and Paolozzi clearly had no reservations about dispensing with the pasted-down illustration and using both the page and… the title of Bilbo’s painting. The title sheds little light on the subject of the collage, which shows a bodybuilder and pin-up figure in a relation that looks forward to the Adam and Eve characters that were to appear in Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956).” (John-Paul Stonard, “The ‘Bunk’ Collages of Eduardo Paolozzi”, 247) There is very little information identifying the sources of imagery in Paolozzi’s Evadne in green dimension, but just by looking at the composition, you can see there is a serious discrepancy between the male and female forms. While the female “pin-up” figure is clearly recognizable and evokes a sense of sexual desire, the image is fairly small in comparison to the male figure who dominates the composition. In depicting a bodybuilder who is lifting an automobile above his head, potentially to impress the female figure to obtain sexual fulfillment, the composition can be read as a deconstruction of mass media revealed as instructing men on the lifestyle they should emulate and pursue through consumption. “In thinking of ‘masculinity-as-enactment’ it must be remembered that those who do not perform their masculinity in a culturally approved manner are liable to be ostracized, even punished… Most men are still culturally propelled to incorporate dominance, whether in terms of crude physical strength or displays of ‘masculine’ rationality and competence, into their presentation of self.” (John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture, 11) Through Paolozzi’s deconstruction, an interpretation of social consciousness can be seen in how mass media subtly instructs men in how they are “supposed to” present themselves and if they do not live up to these expectations, they are a failure. In essence, if you as a man are not out there “conquering” women and/or the business world, you will be conquered yourself by the success of other men. “Manhood is less about the drive for domination and more about the fear of others dominating us, having power or control over us.” (Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America, 4) Indeed, in creating this collage composition, Paolozzi is subverting advertising imagery and reforming it to draw attention to underlying social consciousness. As a result, social consciousness in the viewer is altered.

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, Richard Hamilton, 1956

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?
, Richard Hamilton, 1956


            Like Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton was a British artist who came to prominence in the 1950s, was a member of the Independent Group, and is also considered one of the pioneers of Pop art. And perhaps even more than Paolozzi, Hamilton strategically used collage to engage viewers with how they perceived the world. “As an artist he was singularly concerned with the viewer’s point of view, in its twinned senses of both what the viewer literally perceived as well as its more metaphorical connotation of a socio-political, even ethical perspective on the world.” (Jonathan Katz, “Dada’s Mama: Richard Hamilton’s Queer Pop”, 345) In his piece Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, Hamilton saturates his composition to stimulate the viewer through layers of meaning. “Though maleness and femaleness dominate and structure the image, Hamilton’s citation of masculine and feminine is nonetheless wrought through that particular camp idiom that necessarily cites precisely the social codes it seeks to denaturalize. As its unwieldy title, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? is itself a performatively mannered recitation of period advertising clichés, so too are its male and female figures such over-determined archetypes as to be no longer mere nature, but the self-evident orchestration of a social performance.” (Jonathan Katz, “Dada’s Mama: Richard Hamilton’s Queer Pop”, 340) While, like Paolozzi, Hamilton is depicting unrealistic social expectations of both masculinity and femininity, the masculine figure is dominant. Whereas this is more evident in Paolozzi’s Evadne in green dimension through the use of scale, Hamilton’s depiction of masculine gender domination is through the forcefulness of the male figure’s stance and gaze (standing and looking directly at the viewer) and the passivity of the female figure’s stance and gaze (sitting and looking away from the viewer). Indeed, “’Male’ and ‘female’ have no intrinsic biological reality and are better understood as metaphors through which identity is constructed, given that ‘an essentialist male-female dichotomy cannot account for the ways people are gendered in different places at different times’.” (John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture, 9) Hamilton is exploiting these metaphors to call attention to the underlying social consciousness to subvert a supposed expectation of gender difference. “The champion bodybuilder Irwin ‘Zabo’ Koszewski… represents ‘Adam’, according to Hamilton, alongside the burlesque ‘Eve’ teetering on the sofa. The source of the photograph of Zabo is particularly fitting: the September 1954 issue of the pocket-sized magazine Tomorrow’s Man… This was one of a new genre of small-format magazines that appeared during the 1950s, including… Physique Pictorial… Vim… Male Classics… and Fizeek. These differed from existing ‘physical culture’ titles such as Muscle Power, Strength and Health, and Iron Man in carrying little pretence at being aimed at a heterosexual bodybuilding readership.” (John-Paul Stonard, “Pop in the Age of Boom: Richard Hamilton’s ‘Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?’”, 618) By using source material designed for a non-normative male audience, Hamilton is further subverting the social construction of masculinity with this image. This expertly captures the cultural zeitgeist in relation to masculinity. “The trappings of gender failure were all around us in the 1950s, and American men discovered what happened to men who failed, especially the sons of men who failed as breadwinners and fathers. They became homosexual, they became juvenile delinquents, they became Communists—soft, spineless dupes of a foreign power who were incapable of standing up for themselves. Few experts really knew what a real man was; most were content to tell us what he was not. In part, as social scientists understood, the definition of masculinity had become so fuzzy because of the ‘conflicting nature of multiple role demands, lack of clear positive definitions… and the rigidity of role demands.’” (Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America, 156) Like the male figure in Paolozzi’s Evadne in green dimension, Hamilton’s subverted male archetype evokes the fear of social consequences of not living up to gender role expectations from popular imagery of the day. “As with many other male physique photographs of the time, a posing suit – a modern fig leaf, perhaps – has been added to the pouch in the original photograph. The ‘peerless’ Koszewski, who had also won the ‘best abdominals’ prize, suggestively holds a Tootsie Roll Pop in the place of a dumbbell, inserted through a slit cut between his thumb and forefinger.” (John-Paul Stonard, “Pop in the Age of Boom: Richard Hamilton’s ‘Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?’”, 619) The addition of the “suggestive” Tootsie Roll Pop can be seen as Hamilton’s overt calling of attention to the artifice of the masculine gender role in the 1950s through the dominance of consumable products as a way of obtaining the “ideal” lifestyle. “The rise of consumerism and the celebrity culture that now permeates every area of western society had its roots in post-Second World War reconstruction, in particular the development and proliferation of the ‘image industries’, starting in the 1950s and advancing rapidly in the 1960s. ‘Desires’ replaced ‘needs’ and what people were became increasingly based upon what they owned. Goods such as houses, clothes, cars and other indicators of ‘success’ assumed enormous importance for people’s self-images. Indeed, in line with the consumerist ethos a number of commodified masculinities are now on offer which men can ‘buy into’ if they have the resources (whether money, looks, age or location.)” (John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture, 14-15) The rest of Hamilton’s composition plays into this consumerist-centricity: the house, the passive and erotic female companion, television, urban lifestyle, and obvious wealth. “In Just what is it…, gender is revealed to be always mediated, never ‘natural’, indeed a ‘natural’ masculinity is revealed as every bit as much a consumer production, and consumer demographic, as that category’s traditionally female inhabitant. And since good marketing so often turned on positioning this new male consumer vis-à-vis other males, post-war consumerist culture increasingly mobilized masculinity not as a biological fact, but as a discursive projection, made subject to the opinions and responses of other males.”  (Jonathan Katz, “Dada’s Mama: Richard Hamilton’s Queer Pop”, 341) As such, Hamilton’s piece is directly engaging in the social consciousness cycle of appropriating disparate imagery indicating normative masculinity and re-configures it to call attention to the artificiality and improbability of expectations on what it means to be masculine so that viewers’ social consciousness can be altered.

The Perfection of Modern Man, Nelson de le Nuez, 1993

The Perfection of Modern Man, Nelson de le Nuez, 1993


           Few male artists since the 1950s have used collage to deconstruct social norms of masculinity as effectively as Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. And with the progression of decades came a slow morphing of the underlying normativity of what it meant to be masculine. One of the few artists to broach this subject since the 1950s is commercial artist Nelson de la Nuez, who refers to himself as the “King of Pop Art.” While his commercial orientation adds significant complexity to the subject of subverting expectations of normative masculinity through collage, his piece The Perfection of Modern Man can be seen as a continuation of the work of Paolozzi and Hamilton fastforwarded to the 1990s as social expectations of men in the Western world shifted since the 1950s. Starting in the 1970s, masculinity came to be “presented as damaging, driving men down the destructive path of addiction to achievement, power, prestige and profit-seeking. The outcome is that many men are racked by anxiety about the level of their achievement, inept at disclosure and seemingly unable to express their feelings.” (John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture, 15) More satirical than the work of Paolozzi and Hamilton, de la Nuez’s piece attempts to capture the total evolution of the concept of normative masculinity from the Industrial Revolution to the 1990s. In The Perfection of Modern Man, de la Nuez uses an old factory line photograph as a backdrop to the composition and places within and behind the assembly line images of “men” ranging from Frankenstein’s monster to male figures in paintings by famous artists. The result on the right hand side is seemingly a progression from early evolutionary “men” to a smartly dressed Ken Doll in 1960s fashion. The juxtaposition of numerous male figures evoking differing and conflicting social expectations within the same composition may be satirical, but still engages this social consciousness cycle, perhaps in a way that is more playful than Paolozzi and Hamilton. This emphasizes the state of normative masculinity in the 1990s as inherently problematic. “As we embark upon the twenty-first century masculinity is being placed under the microscope as never before, magnifying the fissures of which we may not have previously been fully aware.” (John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture, 3) Indeed, de la Nuez’s composition effectively problematizes more contemporary notions of what it means to be a man as laughable. “While western pop culture (whether films, records, television, videos, or cyber games) continue to celebrate the ‘he-man’, certainly since the 1970s there has been a strong hint of parody, even dysfunction, in the portrayal. The outcome is that many men are now upholders of a hybridized masculinity that is experienced and displayed differently at different times in different situations. Perhaps what we are currently witnessing at the start of the twenty-first century is nothing less than the emergence of a more fluid, bricolage masculinity, the result of ‘channel-hopping’ across versions of ‘the masculine.’” (John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture, 6) Even with the slant of a humorous perspective of the artist, de la Nuez’s The Perfection of Modern Man can still be seen as an example of subversion of the multiple, conflicting social expectations of masculinity in a way that still alters the social consciousness of viewers. Perhaps other male collage artists will continue to be enthralled enough in this subject in future generations to further the conversation on social consciousness of normative masculinity. 

            By focusing on three examples of male collage artists whose work has engaged the social consciousness cycle and altered the social consciousness of viewers on the subject of normative masculinity, this is hardly exhaustive. More research is needed on the work of collage artists both before the 1950s and since that time. Additional opportunity areas for continued research on this subject include women collage artists reflecting on normative masculinity; artists, regardless of gender, creating collage work that investigates other dimensions of masculinity including race-specific, class-specific, religion specific, and sexuality-specific masculine expectations; as well as collage artists’ depictions of gender beyond the male-female binary. This paper has focused on Western depictions of normative, even hegemonic, masculinity, meaning white, middle-class, and heterosexual. “American white men bought the promise of self-made masculinity, but its foundation has all but eroded. Instead of questioning those ideals, they fall back upon those same traditional notions of manhood—physical strength, self-control, power—that defined their fathers’ and their grandfathers’ eras, as if the solution to their problems were simply ‘more’ masculinity. Yet few, if any, are kings of the hill, Top Guns, the richest and most powerful. If they can’t be Number One, they’ve decided to be Number Two—with a bullet.” (Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America, 218) Indeed, greater inquiry into this under-researched subject would not only be beneficial to how we understand art and artists, but also how we think of gender societally.




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