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The Pastime of Victorian Cutups


Release: 2010-2-05 17:05 |  Author: XianBao |   View: 191time



"Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage" is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Left, an untitled page from the "Madame B" album (1870s), by Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier.


Roberta Smith writes: "'Playing with Pictures' includes the work of one man and also a French woman, but in the main it demonstrates how upper-class English women — some of whom knew one another — introduced cut-out photographs into the albums of watercolors, sketches and writing that had long been an approved female leisure activity."

Sir Edward Charles Blount

Untitled page from the "Blount Album" (1860s/1880s)


"'Playing with Pictures” refreshes your appreciation of the essential fuzziness of art history and of the collective, even osmotic nature of invention."

Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough and Eva Macdonald

Detail from "Mixed Pickles," from the "Westmorland Album" (1864/70)


"The cutting up and collaging of photographs devised by these women was a way of rising above cardomania by reversing the mechanical impersonality of photography and reestablishing it within handmade, time-consuming, implicitly upper class works."

Georgina Berkeley

Untitled page from the "Berkeley Album" (1866/71)


"Using their new vernacular, the photocollagists developed a series of shared conventions, although individual styles come through."

Constance Sackville-West or Amy Augusta Frederica Annabella Cochrane Baillie

Untitled page from the "Sackville-West Album" (1867/73)


"Recurring motifs range from polite, vividly-colored drawing-room tableaux to fantastical creatures that merge human heads with animal bodies."

Kate Edith Gough

Untitled page from the "Gough Album" (late 1870s)


"Other signs of the time include references to Darwinism and, perhaps more inadvertently, inconsistencies in the scale of the figures that can bring to mind 'The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland,' which was published in 1865."

Elizabeth Pleydell-Bouverie and Jane Pleydell-Bouverie or Ellen Pleydell-Bouverie and Janet Pleydell-Bouverie

Untitled page from the "Bouverie Album" (1872/77)


Georgina Berkeley

Untitled page from the "Berkeley Album" (1867/71)


Frances Elizabeth, Viscountess Jocelyn

"Diamond Shape with Nine Studio Portraits of the Palmerston Family and a Painted Cherry Blossom Surround," from the "Jocelyn Album" (1860s)


Georgina Berkeley

Untitled page from the "Berkeley Album" (1867/71)


Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator

Untitled page from the "Cator Album" (late 1860s/70s)


Alexandra, Princess of Wales

Untitled page from the "Princess Alexandra Album," (1866/69)
"Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 9.

Breakthroughs aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Collage, one of riverheads of modernism, is usually thought to have been introduced around 1912, when Braque and Picasso began gluing pieces of newsprint and wallpaper to their Cubist drawings.

But what if it turns out that at least one form of collage was practiced decades earlier, not in Paris in the teens but in Victorian England in the 1860s and ’70s? And not by ambitious your-body-my-art macho geniuses but by women at the highest reaches of society, including the royal family? This rejiggering of history is fundamental to “Playing With Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage,” a seemingly modest, almost scattered, yet strangely reverberant exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Playing With Pictures” refreshes your appreciation of the essential fuzziness of art history and of the collective, even osmotic nature of invention. It suggests that women’s art history (a phrase I’m not entirely comfortable with, but never mind) is still only just beginning to be examined and understood. Fittingly, perhaps, the show has been organized entirely by women, starting with Elizabeth Siegel, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it originated, with additional catalog essays and contributions by the art historian Patrizia Di Bello; Marta Weiss, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and Miranda Hofelt, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Malcolm Daniel, the curator in charge of the Met’s department of photography, and not a woman, has been allowed to oversee the New York presentation.

In all fairness, “Playing With Pictures” includes the work of one man and also a French woman, but in the main it demonstrates how upper-class English women — some of whom knew one another — introduced cutout photographs into the albums of watercolors, sketches and writing that had long been an approved female leisure activity.

Their hybrid medium was stimulated by an advance in photography: the invention of the carte-de-visite process, which was patented by the French photographer André Disdéri in 1854. A precursor of the photo-booth technique, it essentially democratized photography with small, cheap, multiple portraits, creating a rage for collecting and exchanging these so-called cartes de visite that came to be known as cardomania.

At the same time the cutting up and collaging of photographs devised by these women was a way of rising above cardomania by reversing the mechanical impersonality of photography and re-establishing it within handmade, time-consuming, implicitly upper-class works.

Using their new vernacular the photocollagists developed a series of shared conventions, though individual styles come through. Recurring motifs range from polite, vividly colored drawing-room tableaus to fantastical creatures that merge human heads with animal bodies. The tiny faces of friends and family are added to painted images of fans, cameo necklaces, umbrellas and playing cards and, most mysteriously, to the tail feathers of a turkey, still attached. Or they serve in place of stamps or wax seals on carefully drawn and addressed trompe l’oeil envelopes. The most over-the-top feat of trompe l’oeil occurs in an album by Frances Elizabeth Bree, who outfitted a painted image of a photo album with actual photographs and, quite a bit more surprising, pages that actually can be turned.

Sometimes specifically English art styles are invoked. On a leaf from the Sackville-West Album, made by a great-aunt of Vita, groups of photographic figures are set in green manicured parks, in the manner of 18th-century English conversation-piece paintings that sometimes depict aristocrats placidly enjoying the uninterrupted vistas of their estates. Alexandra, Princess of Wales — who would become so adept at taking snapshots that she came to be known as the Kodaker — arranged multiple photographs of her five children among giant flower blooms, a composition reminiscent of the English Fairy Painters. Other signs of the time include references to Darwinism and, perhaps more inadvertently, inconsistencies in the scale of the figures that can bring to mind “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which was published in 1865.

Needless to say, the photocollage approach brought a new specificity and bite to the homemade album format, creating richly freighted social and personal artifacts. Women could celebrate their children, illustrate family trees, demonstrate social connections, flirt with gentlemen other than their husbands and also show flashes of wit and mischievousness that didn’t always have other outlets. Real people enter the picture and are, literally and figuratively, moved about rather like pawns on a chessboard. Stylistically too. More than once you may find yourself thinking of the abrupt Victorian-flavored credits of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Take the drawing room scene rendered in watercolor shades of hot pink and cyan blue and populated with numerous cutout photographs, including several oval images that hang like paintings, framed, on the wall. It is from the album of Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer, a low-level aristocrat and renowned beauty whose friendship with the Prince of Wales helped to enhance her social standing and her husband’s career. Like other photocollagists she arranges things according to her liking and shows herself standing beside a large table where her albums, glue pot and paper knife are at the ready. The Prince of Wales, wearing a jaunty hat, leans on the table, with a few inches sliced off his bulky frame (a very early instance of Photoshopping). Her husband, Sir Edmund Filmer, is seated on the right near the family dog, in a lowly position. The strong resemblance of Lady Filmer with the three other women in the room only emphasizes her abilities as a conjurer.

The show includes about 35 photocollages and 13 intact albums, whose pages will be turned once during the exhibition. Supporting material includes uncut cartes de visite, an example of the photo albums designed for their display, and, most usefully, three computers on which you can flip page by page through digital facsimiles of 11 of the albums in the show.

The works on these screens, and on the walls, were not really considered, much less circulated, as art, although they were, as the catalog puts it, accepted as “sites of female creativity.” They were certainly unknown to Picasso and Braque when those painters picked up their own glue pots. And yet, in addition to anticipating modernist collage, they presage other developments in 20th-century art.

Several examples have the antic juxtapositions of the Surrealists in general and Max Ernst in particular, most forcefully the anthropomorphized pelican and turtle on a beach devised by Georgina Berkeley, one of the strongest artists in the show. Another Berkeley photocollage, of valises and canes decorated with cutout faces in a railroad waiting room, has the sly linearity of Saul Steinberg’s work. And the combinations of small portraits (all men) and geometric pattern in the album by Sir Edward Charles Blount, a railroad magnate, evokes the stained-glass-like works of the Conceptual photo-artists Gilbert and George, which does not surprise. That duo should probably be ranked among the greatest Victorian artists of all time, despite being born in the 1940s.

Most strikingly, the efforts in “Playing With Pictures” look forward to photographic appropriation of the artists of the 1970s and ’80s known as the Pictures Generation. Their practice of reusing, rephotographing or mimicking existing, often culturally loaded photographs (advertising, movie stills) was especially embraced by female artists and is often pinpointed as a sign of the onset of postmodernism. May this exhibition serve as a reminder that the most interesting thing about such distinctions may turn out to be the inevitability with which they fray, as more kinds of visual play, by women and others, comes to light.
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