This month the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City brings us "Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage," a small exhibit neatly tucked behind the 18th and 19th century European paintings that showcases photocollage art by Victorian women. The works displayed are taken from personal photo albums, are untitled, and were never meant for display at all. In fact, they were created for the very opposite. These were beautiful, crafty, and very elaborate inside jokes for the creator and her very small, very specific and closed circle of friends. The artists are nearly all British, and uniformly aristocratic. Their albums are of a very particular time and place-- the country-house-in-England party circuit of the 1860s and 1870s, the two decades after Andre Disdere's invention of the carte-de-visite process (a photo technique that produced small, cheap multiples of a portrait) launched a "cardomania" craze. At the same time, what these women did with the now-easily-available photographs of friends and celebs alike doesn't seem so outdated-- they cut them out, arranged them, put their friends in funny situations, put their crushes where they could look at 'em. Oh, the mutton chops on that Prince Albert Edward! Think 19th century Burn Book, but less girl on girl crime.
All Burn Books aside, the water color and photograph collages exhibited in "Playing with Pictures" were made by dexterous, capable, and clever hands. Mass-produced images of friends, husbands, the socially important, the royal, all were cut up and pasted into watercolor scenes both realistic and wildly strange. As museum literature points out, early 20th century avant-gardes, men like Pablo Picasso and George Braques, are credited for the debut of collage as a serious art form. While Picasso almost certainly never saw these albums or ones like them, their pages not only precede modernist and surrealist collage, they also show comparable wit, and enthusiasm for the subversive. Georgina Berkely carefully pastes an acquaintance's tiny head on a gentleman's cane. The saucy Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer plays with scale and with hearts by placing a very large and sexy Prince Albert Edward in the center of her living room, and a very small Lord Filmer in the corner with the dog. And the enlarged images of gentile lady heads on ducks swimming in a pond that flank the exhibits entrance are as freaky as anything Dali ever dreamed up.
"Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage" is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art now through May 9th. As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote earlier this month, it's "seemingly modest, almost scattered, yet strangely reverberant," cause decades after the Guerilla Girls first asked the question, it seems like the majority of women are still naked when they get into the Met.
Photo Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art