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The Remarkably Modern Practice of Victorian Photocollage

October 15, 2009

Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier Album 1870sThe Art Institute of Chicago’s newest exhibition opened on Saturday, and I must admit that I found it to be truly exquisite. Housed in the basement, tucked away with the restrooms and Family “Touch Gallery,” Playing with Pictures: the Art of Victorian Photocollage engages its audience with intimate materials in the capacious museum’s most visceral space.

Many young women today, myself included, can recall making goofy collages of photos, magazine cut-outs, markers and paint with girlfriends at slumber parties or for high school or college class projects. Some of us are still in charge of updating the family album or are beginning our own, taking the opportunity to get a little more creative, incorporating alongside photographs memorabilia embellished with additional craft supplies.

What Playing with Pictures shows viewers is the origin of this personal practice. On display are the pages of fifteen different nineteenth century photocollage albums. Pieced together predominately by upper-class English women in the 1860s and 70s (there is at least one made by a French woman and one by a man), these albums combine the mediums of painting and photography into whimsical and fantastical works on paper. And while the scrapbooks and class projects I have held onto mean more to me than I can express, it is immediately apparent that they are distinctly different than the pieces included in this exhibition, which have clearly held  historical and aesthetic as well as emotional values throughout their lives—from their origins at the hands of their makers to their current existence in  museum collections.

Lady Filmer Album Mid-60sIn many, as in the page from Lady Filmer’s album to the right, the maker has painted a somewhat realistic interior space such as a drawing room and arranged within it cut-out photographs of friends, family members and pets as if they were truly standing by the hearth, at the piano or lounging in an arm chair. Despite the recognizable setting and dress of the figures, the result is far from naturalistic. The disproportionate sizes of the individuals to each other and the obvious material differences between them and their space work together to create an uneasy feeling to the picture that is almost dreamlike.

Pleydell-Bouvrie Album 1872-77In others, this sense of surrealism is at the core of the composition. In a page of the Pleydell-Bouvrie sisters’ album, for example, Honey I Shrunk the Kids circa 1875 is made manifest as children can be seen pasted into a marsh scene where they are proportionally small enough to ride the toads and rest on the mushroom caps. In others, heads of women and men have been glued on the bodies of animals—from ducks to chimps— a choice partially accounted for in the exhibition catalog as demonstrating nineteenth century English culture’s interest in Darwin, evolution and contemplating humans’ relation to other species.

In still other examples, any sense of scenery—whether seemingly realistic or imaginary—is utterly forgone as the maker has instead chosen to incorporate her photographs into a painting of an abstract pattern, a fan’s folds or a butterfly’s wings. In these cases, it appears as if the maker was more interested in aesthetics than narratives, and why or how she thought to do so in such a manner is anyone’s guess. The albums’ seemingly endless uses of motifs and compositional styles suggest the boundless creativity of their makers.

Kate Edith Gough Album Late-1870s

Accompanying each album are wall texts that relate to viewers the little bits of biography known about the maker or makers. In the small side room of the exhibition, a lengthy wall text tells the history of carte-de-viste, the small type of photograph whose printing technique allowed for multiple copies to be made relatively easily and inexpensively. The original version of today’s school photo, it became immensely popular for individuals to exchange their printed portraits for those of friends and family. These exchanged photographs, in turn, became the materials with which Victorian women cut, pasted and painted around to create photocollages such as those comprising the current exhibition.

How to display such compiled works on paper is a common challenge for curators working with books and portfolios. Considering that each album contains tens of works, only one of which can be viewed at a time, one must strategize as to how to make the most of these limits and decide what to show. Curator Elizabeth Siegel handled this challenge extremely well with not one but three methods of viewing. Forty individual sheets from four of the albums are framed and hung on the walls while another eleven albums are open to single pages in glass cases at the center of the room accompanied by their digitalized complete versions on computer screens for viewers to “flip through.” This last installation choice concretizes Siegel’s investment in making the past more accessible—both visually and psychologically—to twenty-first century viewers. As she writes in her catalogue essay:

“[A]lbum makers unwittingly anticipated the modern era and issues that would later preoccupy the avant-garde: the infiltration of mechanically produced materials into art; the fluid mixing of diverse media; the convergence of multiple authors; and the creative act as a process of collecting and assembling rather than origination. Victorian photocollage is unquestionably of its era and yet it is also remarkably modern.”

The exhibition will be at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 3rd, after which it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from February 2nd-May 9th and to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from June 5th-September 5th, 2010. While each space will undoubtedly create an alternative means of encounter, the material is most definitely worth engaging with.

6 Comments
  1. Abigail Colodner permalink
    October 15, 2009 4:39 pm

    I’m curious about your opinion of the role of femininity in this kind of cut-and-paste, assemblage medium. Collages and “dreamy,” as you aptly said, layering, of found objects and mementos, bits of fabric, photographs, and prints, have always seemed to me to have a strongly feminine vibe. I would have to pin that on some of the materials that are commonly used in collage — by definition, “household items” are the easiest to get your hands on. So the domestic sphere, and the people who steward it, keep it “nice,” make the purchases, etc. — theVictorian-thru-WWII-era domestic ideal of middle-class women’s territory — is a natural feeder for collage. Women’s history has a lot in common with archeology, in that they both sift for mundane evidence of how MOST people lived. Collages often collect remnants of human life. But I wonder if my selection bias is going wild now… anyone? Have you ever noticed a heavy favor on the side of female artists in collage?

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      October 16, 2009 9:38 am

      Abigail,

      You are most certainly right. The art of “making something out of nothing,” as Lucy Lippard would term it in 1978, has been the characteristic of generations of western women’s art practice. Women in the US and Europe have been bringing together scraps of everyday household materials to create collages, scrapbooks and quilts for centuries. Unfortunately, 99% of this work, Victorian photocollages included, have been deemed “busy housework” and thus ignored or pushed aside by art historians.

      In the 1970s, however, feminist critics such as Lippard began to recognize this and work to point out hypocrisies of traditional art histories–why is it considered high art when Picasso glues newspaper to a canvas but craft when a woman makes a similar gesture?–and feminist artists such as Miriam Schapiro began to incorporate such practices into their own fine art.

      That being said, collage and assemblage do have their own avant-garde history, which is partially what Siegel is referring to in the quote above. As far as I know, the debate as to who glued found materials to the canvas first, Picasso or Braque, is still in session (read: does it matter?). Furthermore, this incorporation of photographs, printed materials and fabrics into painting became a key tactic at the hands of those such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg mid-twentieth century. I mention these names so as to recognize the male artists who have employed similar techniques as well as in order to draw attention to the completely alternative manner in which their artwork is written about opposed to that of generations of women.

      At the same time, as Siegel mentions in her catalogue essay, these Victorian women were not attempting to create masterpieces and failed to gain recognition. Rather, they lived in a society that valued aesthetic practice at the hands of upper-class women and for the most part actively participated in this domestic categorizing of their work. It is because of this that we can see them both practicing styles and techniques with a quality deserving of institutional recognition as well as mobilizing a tradition of craft practiced by young women, such as myself (read: not an artist), today.

      This archeology of critics, historians and artists to understand how past women’s work has been unfairly ignored began in the 1970s is still very much under way. Exhibitions such as this one as well as the quilts of Gee’s Bends excitement a few years ago prove so. While this subject is in some ways extremely depressing, I am also thrilled to be living in an age where this work is regularly resurfacing and becoming recognized for its ingenuity and historical value.

      Roxanne

  2. Rose permalink
    October 19, 2009 5:07 am

    It’s funny how much these remind me of Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Of course he was playing on the juxaposition of human and animal, and the incongruity of size and place for humour, but I wonder if he was influenced by works like these.

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      October 19, 2009 8:40 pm

      Rose, I would have never made that connection on my own, but it certainly is interesting and apt! I don’t know how one would go about finding the answer as to whether he was familiar with 19th century photocollage pieces, but I’d love to hear about it if you or others found some sort of connection! Roxanne

  3. November 5, 2009 3:44 pm

    I wonder how one distinguishes between craft and art. Looking at the four examples you have pictured, one I might consider to be craft but the other three are gorgeous works of art. But, I’m not an art critic nor an artist myself.

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      November 6, 2009 9:51 am

      I am not absolutely sure it’s necessary to categorize them. I think what is great about the exhibition, however, is the attention it draws to this practice, which due to its prevalence in the second half of the 19th century must have had a profound effect on aesthetic culture. The curator and museum are recognizing this significance. Exhibitions such as these promote scholarship into previously neglected work and can lead to more innovative ways of thinking about art and its practitioners.

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