It’s not often art with a capital “A” can be called charming. And rarely do we see artworks so little known that their appearance seems a novel discovery. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage” is both charming and new. “It’s art,” says Malcolm Daniel, curator of photography, “but it’s OK to smile and laugh.”
About 50 works from 13 photomontage albums created mainly by aristocratic Victorian women are on display through May 9. “You may think of [the exhibition] as a very un-Metropolitan-like show,” Mr. Daniel admits. “But it’s part of the full picture of the part played by photography in the 1860s and ’70s.”
In these albums upper-crust British ladies pasted cutout photographs on watercolor scenes they created themselves, often to hilarious effect. In one, Kate Edith Gough glued her head and that of her twin sister on torsos of two ducks placidly paddling on a pond surrounded by cattails. The sisters’ grave faces, crowned with impressive millinery, betray no awareness of the incongruity of their situation.
Most shows of early British photography, Daniel says, feature “large, ambitious pictures by great masters of the medium – almost always a man.” In contrast, these works “are made by women for personal pleasure, not public consumption.”
William Henry Fox Talbot introduced photography to England in 1839. Due to the cumbersome equipment and time and expense required, photographs were the exclusive purview of the wealthy. In the 1850s, however, commercial cartes-de-visite with photographic portraits (the size of business cards today) became, as Daniel says, “wildly, wildly popular – a worldwide phenomenon.” Collecting and displaying these pictures fueled a fad called “cartomania.” When Queen Victoria had her portrait made in the 1860s, 3 million to 4 million copies were made and sold. “It was the Facebook of the 1860s,” according to Daniel.
This accessibility and democratizing effect posed a problem for the “upper ten thousand” of high-society England. Wishing to re-establish the display of photographs as an elite activity, amateur artists adopted a cut-and-paste technique that required ample leisure not available to the masses. The female album creators collaged images of family, friends, and celebrities, mixing fact (photographs) and fancy (the sometimes irreverent settings they drew).
Standard art history credits Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque with inventing the collage in 1912. Not so. These amateur artists were more “avant” than the 20th-century avant-gardists. Some of their bizarre juxtapositions also anticipate the antic scenarios of the Surrealists.
“The most creative part,” Daniel says, “is not the photographs but how they were combined.” Just one generation after the birth of photography and long before Photoshop and digital manipulation of images – the current craze in contemporary art – these ladies were cropping and splicing with giddy abandon.
One of the most subversive collagists – clearly a cutup herself – was Georgina Berkeley. She drew a street scene in London populated by shills wearing sandwich boards. On each advertisement she pasted a head shot and penned slogans like “Go and see the clever woman” or “Great croquet match.” On another page, she painted a boy with fairy wings blowing bubbles. In each floating circle is the face of a member of her social set. Most daring would have been the head of an upper-crust gentleman pasted on a drawing of a leotard-clad acrobat plunging through a hoop.
Even Princess Alexandra, married to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, got into the act. Her album celebrates her five children, their images placed inside petals of vividly colored flowers. One tot’s picture lounges in a purple morning glory, while another’s head blooms at the center of a pansy.
Speaking of Prince Edward, in his salad days before ascending to the throne, he was known as quite a playboy. One society beauty used her album as a means of advancement in the blue-blood hierarchy. Lady Filmer, who was spotted canoodling with the prince at Ascot, attending the opera, and even fox-hunting with him sans her husband, exchanged calling cards with His Highness almost daily. A page from her album shows Lady Filmer standing proudly near her gluepot and album as the prince in his boater leans jauntily on the table. Her husband, half the size of the prince, sits downstage near the family dog. These albums, the curators point out, were effective tools of flirtation, belying the notion of the Victorians as irredeemably stuffy.
Many of the pages have a fantastic, fairy-tale aura, influenced by popular illustrated books by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Berkeley plopped an austere, petticoat-clad dowager astride a flamingo, as a pixie-ish tot perches on a turtle. In the Pleydell-Bouverie album, a cherubic toddler sits on a red toadstool near a little boy riding a frog.
The Viscountess Jocelyn (bridesmaid to Queen Victoria) placed her sailor-suited children comfortably on the branches of a tree, with two babes snuggling in a nest. A page from the Countess of Yarborough’s album (labeled “Mixed Pickles”) was likely the work of her niece Eva Macdonald. It shows Lord Yarborough brandishing a fork to spear figures floating in a pickle jar, including the notorious coquette Lady Filmer as well as Lady Yarborough and her brother-in-law.
One of the most skilled artists was Marie-Blanche Fournier, whose watercolor of a peacock butterfly features four bewhiskered gentlemen’s faces in spots on the wings. In a show of self-deprecation she placed her own face, and those of her husband, and daughter on the tail feathers of a turkey.
A common motif in these albums – long before the World Wide Web existed – is a spider web inhabited by pasted faces to show off one’s connections. Social media indeed. Just like “swagger portraits,” or oil paintings of venerable ancestors hanging on the walls of country estates, these are swagger albums. By making visual the web of one’s friends, the multitasking albummakers could brag about their social standing, advertise their artistic skill and imagination, flirt with higher-ups, and amuse their guests.
It’s no insult to call them charming.