By: Michelle Jubin
There are few surprises in the latest nineteenth-century photography exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but there is plenty to delight in this jewel-box display of photocollages from the 1860s and 1870s. Works from the Met’s collection have been used as part of this exhibition, “Playing with Pictures: The art of the Victorian Photocollage,” which originated at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Met collection has always been skewed toward the connoisseurial, even before the scholarly Thomas Campbell took over the Montebellian reins as museum director in 2008. Its encyclopedic collection has traditionally been employed in the pursuit of Enlightenment notions of ideal forms and idealized iterations of these forms by a hierarchical coterie of artists.
In the case of “Playing with Pictures,” the elevated few whose works are displayed were, if not perhaps “artists,” certainly already high-society. What makes this exhibition interesting, however, is the focus on a practice that hasn’t always been fodder for “high-art” exhibition spaces. The catalogue terms it “photocollage,” but today we might also know it better as scrapbooking. Practiced within the home by mothers and daughters, often with the intention of creating a family heirloom or keepsake, it’s refreshing to see this slice of specifically female craft culture on display at a major museum. Long before Hannah Hoch got out her scissors and planted the Dada flag on the practice of reframing the photographic image, Victorian ladies were at it across the Western hemisphere. Their photocollages consisted of watercolor backdrops – usually domestic scenes, coquettish trompe l’oeil, or fanciful, delicately painted tableaux – with the visages of family and friends pasted atop in careful hierarchy. The exhibition reveals the intimacy of these collages, originally destined for private albums to be shared amongst close relations, and allows the viewer a novel insight into Victorian visual culture, a realm already heavily fetishized in academic and museum circles alike.
The exhibition opens with a “straight” photograph André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri a celebrated court and studio photographer of mid- and late-nineteenth-century Paris (reportedly, Napoleon stopped off at his studio en route to Waterloo). The format Disderi made famous is the eight-image carte-de-visite, the precursor to the modern multi-image passport photo, created with a multi-lensed camera. The curatorial team obviously wishes to make clear, in one checklist item, the increasing ubiquity of the photographic image from the 1850s onwards. The introduction of “wet paper” techniques from 1851 onwards facilitated cheap, easy, and quickly produced miniature studio photographs, and the opportunity to create not only one’s portrait but to fashion one’s public image. The photocollages created by aristocratic women with excess leisure time relied on this expanding technological field, turning it inwards, towards the privacy of the home.
Hung beside Disdéri’s carte-de-visite is a leaf from the Filmer Album of the mid-1860s, in which Lady Filmer has snipped away at family photographs to create a fanciful family tree in the shape of a green and black umbrella bedecked with five male relatives. The shape of the umbrella, as the wall text accompanying another collage employing a parasol suggests, points metaphorically to the popular nineteenth century accessory, used for flirtation or as a method of camouflage for gossiping underneath. The ‘Madame B’ Album – created by Madame Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, the wife of a career diplomat - displays photographs of family amidst carefully rendered snowy boughs. Fournier used her album to establish herself in the tricky familial position as her husband’s second wife, while also serving as a travelogue as she followed him from post to post across Europe. Other women patchwork their own families with members of various royal houses, reminding us again that the photograph could be refashioned in any number of ways to cement or suggest social status, linking one’s own family with kings and queens. Georgina Berkeley’s album shows nine figures pasted together within a viewing box, red drapes painted around them. The theatricality and performance of photographic poses are suggested innately in the arrangement of family figures taking in the spectacle of the opera.
The exhibition is successful for a few reasons, not least the fact that it takes a neat slice (two small rooms total) of ephemeral visual culture and creates a strong, convincing narrative for this practice within the origin story of photographic history. The exhibition also includes computer hubs where visitors can view further examples of photocollage, rather than cluttering the walls, and provides catalogues for public perusal with several essays by curators at the Art Institute of Chicago, including “The Page as Stage” and “Society Cutups.”
Photographic appropriation? Performance and play with social rules and roles? “Playing with Pictures” has it in spades, pointing to the moment in the nineteenth century that foreshadowed our own contemporary obsession with the post-production manipulation and the social spectacle of observation that are part-and-parcel of what the photographic means today. Richard Prince and Sherry Levine have nothing on these ladies.
Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage runs through May 9th
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Take to 6 train to 77th street or the 4 or 5 train to 86th Street
Museum Hours: Tues-Thurs, 9:30-5:30; F and Sat, 9:30-9; Sun, 9:30-5:30
Museum Website: www.metmuseum.org