Feature

Playing With Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage

Starting around 1860, England’s fashionable women clipped photographic images of fine art and popular culture and placed them against new and incongruous backgrounds.

Through Jan. 3, 2010
The Art Institute of Chicago

Starting around 1860, England’s fashionable women began turning “their photo albums into a pioneering form of social networking,” said Lauren Weinberg in Time Out Chicago. Cheap photographs were then used as calling cards, and people began clipping figures “from the staid, artificial settings” of the cards to place them against new, incongruous backgrounds. “In various witty collages,” created from 1866 to 1871, Georgina Berkeley “sends three men, a woman, and two dogs soaring above the countryside in a hot air balloon, incorporates her friends’ faces into advertisements in a cityscape, and grafts an elegant man’s head to a trapeze artist’s body.” One purpose of the volumes now on display at the Art Institute was to show off one’s impressive social circle. But they also were creative outlets for a class of women not permitted to practice art professionally.

Most museumgoers associate such techniques with 20th-century avant-garde artists, such as the surrealists, said Claudine Ise in Newcity Chicago. But this exhibition suggests that collage is nearly as old as photography itself. “Armed with paper-cutting knives, watercolor palettes, and sticky pots of glue,” these proper Victorian ladies appropriated images from fine art and popular culture to “remix” their life stories in flattering ways. The precise arrangement of families and friends within a collage can often be telling. In one, a socialite places her husband, Lord Filmer, off to the side. She reserves pride of place for the Prince of Wales, “the man at the top of their social food chain and Lady Filmer’s well-known partner in flirtation.”

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