Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 34 photocollages, 13 albums, and 1 photograph, framed in black and matted, and hung against light brown walls or displayed in glass cases in a series of small interconnected rooms. There are a total of 8 glass cases housing bound volumes, and 3 computers have been made available so visitors can page through many of the albums virtually. All of the works on display were made in the 1860s and 1870s, and combine carte de viste albumen silver photographs, ink, and watercolor. A catalogue has been published by Yale University Press in conjunction with the exhibition (here). (Since photography was not permitted in this exhibit, unfortunately there are no installation shots of this show. Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator, Untitled page from the Cator Album, late 1860s/70s, at right, via Met website.)

Comments/Context: Appropriation, reuse, and digital photocollage have become so pervasive in photography that it's hard to imagine a time when these techniques weren't commonplace. Although we can go back to Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson in the mid 19th century to find the use of multiple negatives and early photomontage, the "invention" and extension of photocollage (the cutting and pasting kind) is usually placed at the feet of the Dada and Surrealist artists of the early 20th century (Hannah Höch in particular). This exhibit unearths a different genre of photocollage (an upper-class Victorian kind, created decades before the arrival of the avante-garde) and makes a case for its relevance in the art historical narrative.

The artists who made these photocollages (and they were nearly all women) combined elaborate watercolor scenes with photo cut outs of heads and posed bodies, equal parts trompe l'oeil and Alice in Wonderland whimsy: children and family members sit on toad stools and ride frogs, are arrayed in a shoe or a bird's nest, fly inside bubbles or in a hot air balloon, or decorate a fan, turkey feathers, playing cards, or butterfly wings. Many of the collages are elaborate set pieces, with various people carefully posed in drawing rooms or lush gardens, mixing the relationships of the aristocracy with a bit of subversive humor. Faces become a necklace, seals on letters, or the heads of ducks.

Most visitors will come away from this exhibit with memories of light entertainments and favorite/amusing surprises (the people in the pickle bottle!). For those immersed in the subculture of photography, I think the show is a welcome reminder that the roots of our Photoshop world go back more than a century, and include not just "serious" artists but those who saw the fun in using everyday photography as part of their fanciful creations and family albums.

Collector's POV: I have very little idea about how to track down images like these for interested collectors. My guess is that they are generally bound into albums, rather than available as single works, and they certainly aren't generally available in the normal secondary markets for photography. If I was going to follow up, I'd start with Hans Kraus (here) or perhaps a rare book dealer.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Reviews: NY Times (here), Daily Beast (here), Gallery Crawl (here)

Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage
Through May 9th

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

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