High Society Cut-ups

A whimsical new exhibit reveals the rarely seen art of photocollage made by aristocratic Victorian women, including works from Queen Elizabeth II’s private collection. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

Most art historians mark the beginning of collage as an artistic medium to the moment Picasso added a piece of cloth, printed with the pattern of chair caning, to a Cubist still life painting, nearly 100 years ago; however, a group of aristocratic British women had claimed collage as a creative pursuit nearly 50 years earlier. Now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, which runs through May 9, is out to set the record straight. Playing with Pictures presents 11 Victorian photocollage albums and 34 framed, loose album-pages of the 1860s and 1870s that were made, with one exception, by titled and upper-class women. The albums, which mix cut-up photographic portraits with drawn and painted backgrounds, were a way to organize pictures of family, friends, and acquaintances into a narratives that defined the maker’s interests and lifestyle and advanced her social agenda.

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A few of the album-makers were trained photographers, but most of them used carte de visite photographs—small portraits attached to calling cards—that were popular at the time. Members of society swapped cards with friends and purchased cards of the royal family and celebrities, such as authors and entertainers. Initially, the costly cards were kept in albums with cutout windows and shared with guests in the drawing rooms of city houses and country estates; but as “Cartomania” swept Europe and the rest of the world, the making and collecting of the carte de visite photographs became commonplace.

In order to restore the practice to an exclusive status, wealthy women put their training in arts and crafts to good use by cutting up the photos and placing them in amusing and surreal settings, which made looking at their personalized collections more entertaining. They made arrangements of people posing in parlors and theatre boxes, playing croquet and riding horses, and dangling in spider webs and trees. Meanwhile, placing friends’ heads on animals, playing cards, teacups, and necklaces added whimsy to their presentations.

This charming exhibition, which was curated by the Art Institute of Chicago’s Elizabeth Siegel and organized at the Met by Malcolm Daniel, covers the full range of playful possibilities. Standouts in the selection are Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator’s illustration of a jester strolling a country lane and throwing anonymous portraits in the manner that one would sow seeds; Georgina Berkeley’s dreamlike depiction of a mother and daughter riding an ostrich and a turtle on a beach; and Kate Edith Gough’s whimsical portrayal of ducks in a pond with hers, her twin sister’s, and her friend’s heads.

Other not-to-be-missed pieces include Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier’s depiction of a peacock butterfly with portraits of men in the “eye” spots on the wing; Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham (Countess of Yarborough) and Eva Macdonald’s parody of the parlor game Mixed Pickles, which shows family and friends being picked from a jar by Lord Yarborough; and a drawing room view by Mary Georgiana Caroline (Lady Filmer) that captures her showing her album to Prince Albert, with whom she was rumored to flirt, while her husband is relegated to a position near the dog.

Like the social networking that takes place today online, these Victorian albums gave their makers a voice that could be used for flaunting knowledge and wealth, competing with rivals and pals, advancing the family’s position, and rubbing elbows with potential lovers. Hidden from view for nearly 150 years, they offer a lively link to the past.

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Paul Laster is the editor of Artkrush.com, a contributing editor at Flavorpill.com and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.