The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Montage: From the French for “to mount,” a composite of several different and typically unrelated elements that are juxtaposed and arranged to create or elicit a particular mood, meaning, or perception. Montage is used in various art forms, including film, music, photography, literature, and the visual arts and may thus consist of film shots, musical fragments, photographs, texts, or other such elements.

Montage is largely a product of modernism, an early-twentieth-century movement led by writers and artists seeking to break away from the constraints and conventions associated with Victorianism through experimentation with new literary forms, techniques, and styles. Following World War I, Georg Lukács, a Soviet Marxist critic who favored realism and realistic representation, criticized montage, which he viewed as decadent and concerned mainly with form rather than content. German playwright and Marxist critic Bertolt Brecht, however, countered that art is a field of production, not a container of content, and thus argued that progressive modes of expression should replace the conventional ones associated with representational art and literature. The ensuing debate between advocates of these two views came to be known as the “Brecht-Lukács” debate.

Although montage involving whole photographs, or parts thereof, manipulated to produce a design began to appear just before World War I, German artist John Heartfield is usually credited with developing photomontage as an art form in 1916, together with his Dadaist colleagues George Grosz and Hannah Höch. Heartfield, who changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld in protest against rising German nationalism, became a political activist following the war and eventually employed photomontage as propaganda to attack Hitler and the Nazi party. Photomontage is still used today as a political medium, though it is also used by visual artists and advertising designers.

Cinematic montage was pioneered during the 1920s by three Russian film directors — Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, and V. I. Pudovkin — following Kuleshov’s discovery that viewers will interpret two unrelated shots in terms of a larger context by inferring some type of relationship, so long as those unrelated shots are shown in succession (the Kuleshov effect). For instance, in one of Kuleshov’s editing experiments, which involved splicing shots including a waiting man, a walking woman, and a gate, viewers concluded that the man and woman met in front of the gate even though the shots were filmed at different times and places. The editing technique derived from Kuleshov’s discovery involved the juxtaposition of contrasting separate shots, often in rapid succession, to suggest new and different connotations. Eisenstein’s use of the Kuleshov effect in his first film, Strike (1924), led to its recognition as an important cinematic editing device. Sometimes referred to in America as dynamic cutting, montage has been used extensively ever since, particularly in polemic documentaries and propaganda films.

Literary montage, a technique used by authors experimenting with unconventional styles of writing, was developed by the German Marxist critic Walter Benjamin in his drafts of the Passagenwerk (Arcades Project) (1927—39), an unfinished assemblage of quotations, illustrations, and comments regarding the cultural history of nineteenth-century Paris. Benjamin coined the term when he described his method as “literary montage. I have nothing to say only to show.” Rap songs utilize back-to-back allusions (“sampling”), the result being a hybrid form combining literary montage with musical medley.

Today, photographic, cinematic, literary, and other forms of montage can all be computer-generated. Moreover, elements such as graphics, photographs, textual passages, film clips, and songs may be used to create a hypertext montage. Numerous montages were created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Examples of photomontage include Höch’s gigantic “Cut with the Kitchen Knife DADA through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany” (1919—20); the poster shown below, produced by the U.S. government in 1935 to promote “Suburban Resettlement housing projects” among “typical American families with limited incomes”; photo-collages in school yearbooks; and photomosaic puzzles, which consist of hundreds or thousands of pictures used to create one larger image.


An example of photomontage.

Historical photos are combined to create the photomontage. The caption of the poster reads, “WHO WILL LIVE IN GREENBELT TOWNS?” The historical photos are as follows: a Man sitting inside a car; a man teaching a little boy; a bus driver; a woman writing; many images of police officers and men in uniform; a woman doctor checking a baby with A stethoscope. A text in the photomontage reads “SUBSTANTIAL CITIZENS.”

Examples of cinematic montage based on the Kuleshov effect include the classic “Odessa Steps scene” in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, and the famous “shower scene” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which was assembled from approximately one hundred different film cuts.

Examples of literary montage include James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922); Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923); and T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1920), in which Eliot combines his own poetry with lines from several Renaissance plays, lyrics from nineteenth-century opera and twentieth-century popular songs, words from the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon” and a Hindu Upanishad, advertising slogans, and the traditional closing call used in British pubs. Christiane Paul’s Unreal City: A Hypertextual Guide to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1996) offers a hypertext montage commentary on Eliot’s famous poem. Shelley Jackson’s The Patchwork Girl (1995) is a work of hypertext fiction employing literary montage.

Rapper Snoop Dogg blended literary montage and musical medley in “This City” (2015), interweaving allusions and clichés including: “They built this city,” “Milk and honey,” “Rags to riches,” “American pie,” “living that life,” “Bright lights we made it,” “neon sky,” “grab your money,” “Little bit of joy with a lot of pain,” and “Ask me again, I tell you the same.”