By: Ted Loos
It would be hard to argue against the Internet being the fastest-spreading technological revolution of all time, but the rise of photography in the 19th century was surprisingly swift. Within two decades of its invention in 1839, it had deeply penetrated the middle classes of Europe and the United States.
By the mid-1860s anyone could have pictures, especially after cartes de visite–photographs printed on backing board to be given as introductions–became all the rage. So a group of cheeky upper-class Brits, mostly women, decided to take the medium from mass back to class, using photography to create an elite pastime. Sitting in the parlors of their country estates or London townhouses, they started to riff on the concept by cutting out the faces of their friends, rivals, lovers and enemies. They removed the board and affixed the images onto painted backgrounds, composing whole albums of fanciful scenes. These albums are the subject of a fascinating exhibition, Playing With Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage. It arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this month after an initial run at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was organized.
The provenance of these works is pretty heady–even the future Queen of England, then Princess Alexandra, was in on the act; her work is included in the exhibition, including a scene that was famous in its day that shows the princess inside a flower, giving her daughter Louise a piggyback ride. Part of the appeal to society types was that the photocollage album was a permanent version of the tableaux vivants that were popular during the Victorian age. Instead of having your friends act out a famous painting in full costume against an elaborate backdrop, you just painted the scene in watercolor and stuck their heads on.
Some of the works in the show are straightforwardly appealing. It probably doesn’t surprise the viewer that images of playing cards appear several times throughout the 15 albums that were gathered for the exhibition. In these scenes, all the face cards have real photographic faces pasted on them. You can almost hear the album maker’s best friend exclaiming, “Absolutely charming,” upon viewing the image. But other images are not quite so expected. In the album of the Scottish Bouverie sisters, for example, small children have been inserted into a fantastical landscape; they appear to be seated on enormous toadstools or riding a giant frog.
The Countess of Yarborough (later the Duchess of Yarborough) collaborated with her niece on a scene called Mixed Pickles. The bare-bones watercolor shows her husband, Lord Yarborough, atop a pickle jar, reaching with his fork toward his wife and a socially ambitious friend of theirs, Lady Filmer, whose work is also featured in the exhibition. These figures are floating, alongside some other friends, inside the jar, but there doesn’t seem to be any liquid holding them up. Reading the catalogue provides some explanation–“Mixed Pickles” was a parlor game involving scraps of paper in a jar–and yet the image lingers in the mind because it’s a little bizarre.
Elizabeth Siegel, the Art Institute curator who organized the show, points out that these works were done in the era of satiric Punch cartoons and Lewis Carroll’s fantastical Alice in Wonderland, with its trippy illustrations by John Tenniel. “The British visual culture is very sympathetic to the absurd,” she says.
Turning friends into animals is a common motif, particular in the album of the wealthy and irreverent Kate Edith Gough. In one scene, her friends are rendered as floating ducks; in another, her family members become a pack of monkeys huddled in a tree, possibly a reference to the evolutionary theories of the new work by Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species.
The oddest images call to mind photocollage’s most significant 20th-century flourishing, in the Dada, Surrealist and Constructivist movements. Artists as diverse as George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Rodchenko and Salvador DalÃ used the crisp, clean quality of photography to make jarring juxtapositions of enduring strangeness. Just as the Victorians did, these artists subverted the medium’s promise of delivering an objective reality. In the wake of Freud’s theories and the horrors of World War I, photocollage was a natural way to arrive at dreamlike and disturbing images.
But there are, of course, obvious differences between the early 20th-century avant-garde and the elite amateur creators of photocollages in the 1860s. “It’s a different intention and milieu,” says Siegel, “but they did unwittingly anticipate Surrealism.” The playful fun had by the Victorians was a pastime with an artistic cast, not a movement by dedicated artists reacting to great horror and attempting to put art in the vanguard of social change.
A few of the works in Playing With Pictures rise well above the skill level of Sunday painting, in particular the scenes in what the curators call the “Madame B” album, probably created by a diplomat’s wife named Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier. In her watercolor of a fat turkey, for instance, in which each tail feather is adorned by a photograph (including her own), the red wattle merits close inspection for its fluidity and supple handling. In Madame B’s creepy-beautiful image of a spider web–possibly referring to her own web of friends–the spider at the center and the enormous, furry bats at the four corners of the composition are rendered with daunting skill and precision. The full-length, rectangular portraits that are affixed to the web seem almost an afterthought in this work.
The essays in the show’s catalogue make a good case for the albums’ power as social connectors–they were used variously to advance their maker in society, to display wit, to impress friends, or even to flirt. The one male artist in the exhibition, the railroad magnate Sir Edward Charles Blount, used his album to do what any enterprising Victorian gentleman would: He advanced his business interests by buffing up his image, composing an ode to the exclusive membership of Paris’ Jockey Club (including himself) with watercolor paint and decoupaged heads.
According to Siegel, Blount and the others were reacting in part to the ubiquity of cartes de visite at the time. They were traded with increasing abandon, leading a top journal of the day to put it this way: “Anyone who has ever seen you, or has seen anybody who has seen you, or knows anyone that says he has seen a person who thought he has seen you, considers himself entitled to ask for your photograph.”
That weary reaction to the concept of networking might make viewers think of our own age, a time when the Internet has helped turn the process of making “friends” into a strange hybrid of a game and a chore. As Siegel puts it, “It reminds me of Facebook.”