Monday, February 8, 2010

Jill Krementz covers The Art of Victorian Photocollage

Elizabeth Siegel, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Photography of Chicago.
Ms. Siegel edited as well as contributed an essay to the show's catalogue.
Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
February 2-May 9, 2010

In the 1860s and 1870s, long before the embrace of collage techniques by avant-garde artists of the early 20th century, aristocratic Victorian women were experimenting with photocollage. This is the first exhibition to comprehensively examine this little-known phenomenon.

Whimsical and fantastical Victorian photocollages, created using a combination of watercolor drawings and cut-and-pasted photographs, reveal the educated minds as well as accomplished hands of their makers. With subjects as varied as new theories of evolution, the changing role of photography, and the strict conventions of aristocratic society, the photocollages frequently debunked stuffy Victorian clichés with surreal, subversive, and funny images.

The show provides a fascinating window into the creative possibilities of photography in the 19th century.

The exhibit was organized by Elizabeth Siegel, associate curator of photography at The Art Institute of Chicago where it originated. Malcolm Daniel, the Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum, was at the helm of this beautiful installation.

Happy Valentine's Day!
Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.

The spider web is a recurring motif in photocollages and a metaphor for the album keeper herself, always eager to catch more prey in her volume. Victorians would have been familiar with the mythological figure of Arachne, a mortal whose arrogant boasting about her skill at weaving prompted the goddess Minerva to turn her into a spider. The motif of the spider web similarly alludes to wit and creativity in collage, a process whereby photographic portraits are woven into a new whole.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.

In this accomplished depiction of a peacock butterfly, the "eye" spots on the wings have been replaced with portraits. Such composition allowed Fournier to exhibit her artistic talents and her knowledge of natural history.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

A common leisure pastime in Victorian high society, card playing provided opportunities for socializing and flirting. Compositions involving cards are commonly found in photocollage albums, as if to emphasize the playfulness of the process of making such images. In many of these collages, photographic portraits replace the heads of kings and queens, elevating the subjects in rank and giving new meaning to the term face cards.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.

Photographs had been included in jewelry since the daguerreian era of the 1840s and 1850s. Such jewelry not only displayed wealth and fashion but also kept a beloved's or deceased's portrait close to the heart. The elaborate collages of jewelry bearing photographs in place of precious stones are thus part invention, part naturalistic depiction.

In this collage King Karl and Queen Louise of Sweden are shown on the two halves of an open locket just below their daughter, Princess Lovisa. King Oscar (Karl's brother and successor to the throne) and Queen Sofia are at the outer edges, with their sons toward the top.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.
Francis Elizabeth Viscountess Joceyln; from the Jocelyn Album, 1860s.

"Curiouser and Curiouser"

This famous remark from Lewis Carroll's beloved book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland provides an apt description of photocollages, in which photographs, often of children, were miniaturized and placed in fairy-tale worlds.
Elizabeth Pleydell-Bouverie and Jane Pleydell-Bouverie, The Bouverie Album, 1872-77.
Although the identity of the maker of this album remains a mystery, the initials E.P.B and J.P.B on two collages and the name Bouverie on another suggest that it belonged to the Pleydell-Bouverie family.

Some of the fanciful imagery in Victorian photocollages can be attributed to newly popular children's tales such as those by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Album makers reveled in the chance to play with the scale shifts among people and animals featured in these fantastic stories, and photographs of children made charming subjects for fairy-tale settings. This particular page may be related to Andersen's story of Thumbelina, a tiny girl who experiences misadventures.
André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, M. Forbes Campbell.

The introduction of the carte-de-visite portrait, promoted and popularized by the French photographer Disdéri beginning in the mid-1850s, brought photography to the middle class and celebrity to many of nobler rank. Using a camera fitted with four lenses and a sliding plate holder, a photographer could expose eight portraits on a single glass-plate negative. Depending upon the client's desires, the photographer could open all four lenses at once to make four images of two poses on the negative; open them two at a time, as in this example; or open each sequentially to obtain eight distinct poses. Once the negative was developed, all eight portraits could be printed in a single operation and then trimmed and glued to visiting-card-size mounts. This method of mass production made photographic portraits both abundant and affordable.
Carte-de-visite Album of Famous Personages, 1860-1870s.

The inexpensive eight-at-a-time method of making cartes de visite made it easy and inviting to give one's own portrait to friends and family and to collect theirs, along with pictures of notable public figures. This album is filled with portraits of the British royal family, beginning with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and including, at the left of this spread, Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Along with portraits of other European royalty, this album contains cartes of Dr. Livingstone, Garibaldi, Mark Twain, and Tom Thumb.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled Page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

In Lewis Carroll's popular Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which was published during the heyday of photocollage, the Queen of Hearts recklessly demands the beheading of insubordinates (and Alice) with the refrain "Off with her head!" In photocollages, heads are often severed from bodies and inserted into fantastical scenes: pasted atop animal bodies, juggled in the air, or blown like bubbles, as in
this image.
Wall text.
Charlotte Milles, Fanny Stracey from The Milles Album, 1860-74.

Milles embellished this painted teacup—a particularly English Symbol of the Leisure class—with a photograph of her sister Fanny. Like musical prowess, speaking French and other languages, dancing, needlework, and a variety of hostessing skills, China painting was among the appropriate accomplishments for a nineteenth century upper-class woman. Drawing and painting signaled not only refinement and talent but also the artist's ability to purchase manuals and pay for private lessons, thus advertising a certain status to potential suitors.
Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator, The Cator Album, 1866-77.

Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator filled these pages in the 1860s and 1870s with scenes of her childhood home, portraits of family members, and commemorative collages memorializing her father, who died in 1864, and a young niece who died as a child in 1866. Family mottoes and photographs of country seats belonging to relatives appear throughout the album, suggesting that it was intended more for family than for society. Set among all this seriousness, this image of a playful jester carelessly strewing photographs on the ground is surprising. Instead of serving as mementos of a loved one or records of an ancestral home, the jester's photographs are stripped of symbolic meaning and used in the service of a lighthearted composition.
Emily Clare Harvey (British, born 1844), The Harvey Album, ca. 1968; 30 pages.

According to the elaborately painted title page, Emily Clare Harvey gave this album to her sister-in-law Madge (Margaret Augusta Shaw) in remembrance of her marriage to Spencer Philip Harvey on February 19, 1868, and it is filled with pictures of Shaw and Harvey's relatives. What is unclear is whether the album was meant, like so many wedding albums today, as a joyous expression of the union of the two families, or whether it was made with memorial overtones after Spencer's death at age twenty-eight less than a year later.

Although not photocollages per se, the pages of this standard manufactured album were personalized with drawn and watercolor decoration surrounding each portrait. Madge's older brother, John Monson Shaw, is surrounded by motifs of hunting and fishing — characteristically masculine pursuits — while Emma Jane Mansel is surrounded by a more typically feminine spray of morning glories, daisies, and cornflowers, symbolic of affection, innocence and delicacy.
Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer, Untitled Page from the Filmer Album, mid-1860s.
Frances Elizabeth Bree, The F.B. Album, ca 1875.

The intertwined initials F.B. and the date 1875 grace this album's hand-painted title page, and evidence points to Frances Elizabeth Bree as its maker. The wife of Charles Robert Bree, senior physician to the Essex and Colchester hospitals, Frances managed the Colchester Industrial School, which trained underprivileged girls for domestic service. This album is one of the few in the exhibition that was not made by a member of the aristocracy, suggesting that the phenomenon of photocollage may have filtered down somewhat beyond the restricted circles of London society and country-house parties.

Depictions of albums within photocollage albums were not uncommon, but this collage possesses a unique feature: its pages actually turn.
Playing with Pictures showcases the best Victorian photocollage albums and loose pages of the 1860s and 1870s, on loan from collections across the United States, Europe, and Australia, including the Princess Alexandra Album lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Forty album pages are shown in frames on the wall and 13 magnificent albums are displayed in cases.

Jason Kaufman, art critic for The Art Newspaper, looking at one of the 13 intact Victorian albums on display.
"Virtual albums" on computer monitors allow visitors to see the full contents of eleven of the thirteen albums on display which, by necessity, are open to a single page.

Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator, Department of Photographs, takes the virtual tour inside the Victorian albums. Mr. Rosenheim is a curator for the Met's Department of Photographs and he organized the museum's recent exhibition of Robert Frank.
Visitors should take the time to access the albums virtually.
Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer (English, 1838-1903), Untitled Page from the Filmer Album, mid-1860's Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints.

This photocollage might be read as a matrimonial wheel of fortune with photographs of women surrounding a lone man. Filmer interspersed the photographs with watercolors of butterflies and flowers--roses, forget-me-nots, and pansies-which indicated "love," "do not forget me," and "I am thinking of you" in the commonly understood Victorian language of flowers. But rather than enduring love, this composition suggests coquettes "fluttering about the flower of love like ... butterflies," as an article of the time described them, participating in the fashionable amusement of flirtation.
And speaking of a matrimonial wheel of good fortune: Joshua Kessler, a photographer, and Joanna Bober, an editor of In Style, recently tied the knot. They met only a year ago in the express aisle at the Food Emporium on 12th Street and got married this past October at Norwood. Ms. Bober and curator Liz Siegel are longtime friends and were undergraduates together at Yale.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.

In the Victorian Era, as now, the turkey had unflattering cultural connotations. Fournier placed photographs of herself, her husband, and her daughter among the pictures decorating the tail feathers, perhaps as an affectionate joke.
The Milles Album, 1860-74

In 1859 Charlotte Stracey, the daughter of Sir Henry Josias Stracey, married George Watson Milles, an avid sportsman and aspiring aristocrat who served in Parliament. Milles probably assembled her album during the early years of her marriage, when she and her husband utilized their Lee's Court estate in Kent to launch themselves into elite society. Her collages display a refined watercolor technique and a penchant for picturesque landscapes. Permeating the album's pages is the theme of country-house life, which underscores the importance of property to aristocratic identity.
The drawing room, a remarkably common motif in photocollage albums, was the site of display for women's domestic accomplishments. Also used in many instances were borrowed backdrops which afforded collagists the opportunity to place sitters in fantastical and dramatic settings.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled Page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

The theme of travel suffuses Berkeley's album; here, photographs comically decorate luggage waiting to be loaded on a train. Berkeley's treatment of the umbrella might have been inspired by caricatures in Punch magazine in which heads were often paired with unlikely bodies, or by an illustration in an 1855 pamphlet produced by an umbrella manufacturer.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled Page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

Photocollage not only allowed for visual fantasy but also enabled the creation of images that would have been impossible given the technical limitations of photography at the time (those capturing rapid movement in low light, for example). This page may have been based on a contemporary illustration of Jules Léotard, who performed his revolutionary trapeze act in London on numerous occasions during the 1860's, inspiring the popular 1867 song "The Flying Trapeze." It surely amused Berkeley and her friends to see someone from their social set performing a death-defying feat in a public theater, dressed in the skintight costume that would soon bear Léotard's name.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled Page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

Photocollage albums contain many references to performance and theatricality, reminders that sitters were performing for the camera in their photographs and that collagists could stage social scenes using those same pictures. The spectators in this theater box are watching the performance, but they are also placing themselves on view for other members of the audience. Similarly, a drawing-room visitor paging through The Berkeley Album might have enjoyed the spectacle of the colorful and witty collages while maintaining an awareness of being seen and subjected to social judgment.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled Page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

In many photocollages, people were visualized as objects that come in sets, as if to underscore the fact that they belonged to a distinctive group defined by common social status, activities, and tastes. China Painting, among the pastimes considered suitable for genteel women in the Victorian era, is here transformed into a productive subject for photocollage.
Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer (English, 1838-1903), Untitled Page from the Filmer Album, mid-1960s.

Having evolved from the more feminine parasol, the umbrella became a popular accessory for both sexes by the mid-nineteenth century. Besides providing fashionable protection from the elements, umbrellas also facilitated flirtation, functioning as a screen of privacy on sunny days or an excuse for intimacy on rainy ones. In this composition, the Prince of Wales is featured in both the body of the umbrella and its handle, which would have been held and caressed by the umbrella's owner. If photographs already evoked the physical presence of the people pictured, combining them in photocollages with images of corporeal objects must have heightened their tactile and
evocative effects.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled Page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

The fan motif is quite common in photocollage. An upper-class fashion, a lady's fan enabled a silent, nuanced language and discreet flirtation. An 1870 exhibition of fans at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victorian and Albert Museum) proved immensely popular, displaying a wide variety of examples, including many on loan from noble ladies and seventeen from Queen Victoria herself. Collages such as this may have been based on actual objects, as some decorative fans with photographs in their slats were produced as novelties and gifts.
Producers of photocollage pasted cut photographs of human heads atop painted animal bodies, placed real people in imaginary landscapes, and morphed faces into common household objects and fashionable accessories with a casual irreverence. Wielding scissors, paste-pot, and paintbrush--along with no small amount of humor--aristocratic album makers changed the original meanings of the pictures with which they played.
Georgina Berkeley, Untitled Page from The Berkeley Album, 1866-71.

The drawing room was the most public space of the house, the place where social rituals were played out and photograph albums were often displayed. The drawing room's style, quality of furnishings, and visitors readily indicated to outsiders the social status of the hostess. In this composition, Berkeley cut out the furniture of the photographic studio along with portraits to stage the scene of her drawing room.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.
Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, Untitled Page from The Madame B Album, 1870s.
Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer (English, 1838-1903), Untitled Page from the Filmer Album.

In this scene, staged in her fashionably appointed drawing room, Lady Filmer depicts herself as a collector of photographs, standing close to her albums, pot of glue and paper knife. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, (a coveted guest whose presence was an impressive coup for any society hostess), leans jauntily against the table in the center of the room. Filmer and the prince 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, who is seated near the dog in the lower-right corner. By placing the prince next to her albums, Lady Filmer hinted that these volumes played a role in her social success and that the prince might have enjoyed her visual games.
A selection of cartes de visite.
Alexandra, Princess of Wales (English, born Denmark, 1844–1925), Untitled page from the Princess Alexandra Album, 1866-69.

Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints, The Royal Collection © 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The catalogue which accompanies the exhibit has been authored by the show's curator, Elizabeth Siegel. A combination of photographs and text, it is a comprehensive look at the little-known phenomenon of Victorian photocollage. $45 (200 pages, 40 b/w + 140 color illustrations).
Available at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bookstore online,
"In other recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan, we've shown masterpieces of 19th-century British photography by the period's most prominent professionals and serious amateurs (almost always men), whose works were often displayed at the annual salons of the photographic societies and sold by printsellers throughout England and Europe. What is so exciting about this exhibition is that we see a different type of artist—almost exclusively aristocratic women—using photography in highly imaginative ways, and creating pictures meant for private pleasure rather than public consumption. It is an aspect of photography's history that has rarely been seen or written about."
— Malcolm Daniel
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.