Being the mordant, dyspeptic and all-too-often cynical homme d’un certain age that I am, the frippery of what were called in distant times “feminine accomplishments”—sketching, china painting, embroidery and playing the harpsichord—usually leaves me curmudgeonly cold. Even masterpieces of the genre only serve to douse my fire. When the nth iteration of a Jane Austen novel, or a mid-19th-century epic such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, with all its tinkling-wind-chime drawing room conversation and a happy ending as delicately contrived as a Mortimer & Hunt candelabra, shows up on a Sunday night on public television in our household, I usually retire grumpily to another room and focus my existentialist doubt on a gloomy Swedish mystery novel. My negative attitude and I, however, were brought up profoundly and cheerfully short by an exhibition titled “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage,” which is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The show consists of 30-odd separately framed and mounted pages and 11 intact albums of cut-and-pasted photographs embellished (an understatement) by painting, drawing and eerily prescient Cubo-Dadaist juxtaposition. They were made during the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s by, with one French exception, upper-class and aristocratic English women. The phenomenon of album-making began in the 1850s with the “cartomania” fad in England, which had its roots in an invention of the French photographer Disdéri. He constructed a camera with four lenses, any number of which could be opened for an exposure. With both sides of the photographic plate available, a sitter could obtain eight differently posed images of him- or herself, or eight of the same stance, or something in between. These images could, in turn, be printed in multiples on cards and, as cartes de visite, passed out as calling cards or souvenirs—a Facebook prototype from a century and a half ago. Or baseball cards. One could purchase commercially produced cards featuring the likenesses of Dr. Livingstone of subsequent “I presume” fame, the Italian national hero Garibaldi, Mark Twain, the circus dwarf General Tom Thumb—and, of course, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (Photographic images of V&A caused some public consternation; accustomed to seeing pictures of royals only in cosmeticized paintings and prints, people were taken aback to realize that bluebloods looked disturbingly like, well, real people.)
Collecting commercial cards was, nevertheless, an activity for the relative proles. Those overprivileged—all right, it’s my bad attitude kicking in again—privileged British women had a lot of time on their hands and possessed considerable skills in the distaff practices of drawing, watercoloring and album-keeping. They preferred to mix ’n’ match photographs of people they knew, conceivably knew, or plausibly wished to know. In their hands, the standard technique of page after page of picture/caption, picture/caption, picture/caption (or more commonly, uncaptioned pictures, pictures, pictures) started to seem inadequate. Photo albums, they realized, could be the site of progressive creative practice (though I doubt that any of them thought of it in such visual-studies-department terms). The Victorian photocollagists carefully separated the paper images from their card mounts, cut the profiles of faces and figures from their backgrounds, and glued them down—quite well, too; the pastings are still remarkably flat—into settings or objects they drew and painted themselves. They placed the faces of their acquaintances and families onto the likes of fictive necklaces, fans, playing cards and even an umbrella. In the album of Alexandra, Princess of Wales (lent by QE2 herself), her kids are nestled in brightly painted pansies, roses and bluebells. Kate Edith Gough (The Gough Album) even posits her family as a band of monkeys in a tree—this, mind you, in the late 1870s, when Darwin’s theory of evolution was an absolute anathema to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In these brilliant albums, personages snipped from photographs are grafted onto trompe-l’oeil playing cards (sometimes held in a big painted hand), dispersed with fascinating but probably of-necessity Lewis-Carrollesque scale changes (Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by John Tenniel, was published in 1865) around hand-drawn drawing rooms, set out into sunny wheat fields and made into some pretty edgy jokes, e.g., a woman raising—or lowering!—the head of man in a well bucket. As art—that is, as material we look at for visual impact first, historical context second, and allowances for society and motive only third—it’s all stunning stuff. Princess Alexandra, Mrs. Gough, Viscountess Jocelyn, the Countess of Yarborough, Georgina Berkeley, Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator, Lady Filmer, Constance Sackville-West, Elizabeth Pleydell-Bouverie, Emily Harvey, Charlotte Milles, Edith Mary Paget, Agnes Caroline Chamberlayne Johnstone and the literally exceptional Frenchwoman, Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, all knew their compositional, chromatic and rendering fundamentals quite well. Additionally, and more importantly, they all had spritely and daring graphic imaginations. The mounted pages at the Met are crisp, witty, pretty, sophisticated and bold.
Here, though, we have to stop and take a breath. These albums weren’t made for the purpose that we reflexively ascribe to them in the Met—namely, being art. Victorian photocollage was first of all a form of keeping up with, and surpassing, the Count and Countess of Yarborough or the Sackville-Wests. Those scenes of dancing in the manse and of convivial croquet on the expansive lawn? They were the equivalents of contemporary vanity license plates like Babyz Toy on a big Mercedes-Benz, i.e., “Look what I own.” Since many of the album makers in the exhibition were acquainted with one another, the one-upwomanship was coyly personal and only partly concerned with who could be artistically most clever. Second, lots of faces in the flowers or strung on golden chains amounted to “See how many important friends we have!” Or wished to have. As one wall text notes, “Because of their relatively low aristocratic rank, [Lady] Filmer used her looks and panache to advance herself and her husband in London society.” Today, her album would be called www.LadyFilmer.com. Third, the albums facilitated courtship in a society that severely restricted and regimented it. Jointly perusing the contents of an album permitted an unmarried young woman and a bachelor to sit closely side by side; they could smile at each other’s perceptions, gossip a little about somebody whose visage lay pasted down before them and, behind the ritual lightness, judge their suitability for marriage.
But things could get a tad naughtier than that. One label explains that “Filmer and the prince [Albert Edwards, Prince of Wales] enjoyed a well-known flirtation, one that was conducted in part through the exchange of photographs, and his picture appears frequently in her album. His large figure contrasts with that of her seemingly diminutive husband, Sir Edmund Filmer.” Facebook, nothing! This is the Victorian version of a hot Internet chatroom. It’s also likely fodder for some inevitable theorizing: Does the prince’s picture represent the same ol’ same ol’ male penetration of the female’s domain, or is the royal replication a nice bit of turnabout in which His Highness becomes a manipulated object subject to Lady Filmer’s female gaze?
Such speculation throws time a little out of joint. True, many of the sheets in “Victorian Photocollage” look astonishingly like flash-forwards to Picasso’s famous 1912 insinuation of simulated chair-caning into painting, or Hannah Höch avant la lettre. And the Victorian parlor game “Mixed Pickles” (metaphorically illustrated in the Countess of Yarborough’s album), in which “elements of sentences written on scraps of paper were haphazardly drawn from a jar and montaged together,” is nothing if not the Surrealists’ “Exquisite Corpse” a half-century before its time. The question arises: How much do we make out of the undeniable visual fact that two of the great male-dominated movements of modern art, Dada and Surrealism (the latter being arguably misogynist), are so convincingly presaged by a bunch of idle, rich 19th-century women with no express grand ambitions to radicality?
If unchecked by common sense—the Victorian photocollagists had no modern-art intentions, and the Dadaists and Surrealists apparently didn’t know about these English albums—the question can leach out into the unsolvable issue of intentionality itself. Should artists get “credit” for every unaimed splatter of paint, curl of electrical cord in an installation, or subsequent spooky déjà vu of a photograph? I don’t know. I do know that I’d like to be able to take a whole lot of what’s in “Victorian Photocollage” home with me. (The exhibition’s snappy catalogue is, by the way, an almost compensatory substitute.) For now at least, the hell with grizzled Swedish detectives.
“Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through May 9. Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the show debuted there last fall. It travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto [June 5-Sept. 5]. The exhibition catalogue features essays by Marta Weiss, Patrizia di Bello and Elizabeth Siegel, the show’s curator.