Armed with paper-cutting knives, watercolor palettes and sticky pots of glue, the proper Victorian ladies who spent their leisure hours pasting cut-up family portraits into pointedly subjective new contexts were forces to be reckoned with. “Playing With Pictures” is a persuasively argued and richly engaging new exhibition that’s among the first to explore their activities in depth, showing how many of the era’s female aristocrats used photocollage not just as a creative outlet but as a canny form of autobiography that functioned as a tool for social advancement.
Many of the photocollages depict upper-class forms of recreation: fox hunts and garden parties, card games and chess matches played out in well-appointed drawing rooms. The background settings of these works were often drawn or painted by hand and populated with cutout photographs of friends and family, whose placement within the composition was always carefully considered. A collage by English socialite Mary Georgiana Caroline (Lady Filmer), for example, depicts the artist in her drawing room surrounded by children, husband, and visiting guests. Lady Filmer’s spouse, positioned off to the side in an upholstered chair, occupies a relatively small amount of compositional space, while Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the man at the top of their social food chain and Lady Filmer’s well-known partner in flirtation, is placed centrally, his figure one of the largest in the room.
As exhibition organizer and associate curator of photography Elizabeth Siegel makes clear, upper-class Victorian women were engaging in recombinative methods of picture-making well before twentieth-century century avant-gardists claimed photocollage for their own revolutionary ends. By cutting up photographs and placing them in scenarios of their own imaginative and sometimes satirical designs, Victorian women implicitly recognized the malleability of photographic “truth”—a recognition that would be pushed in more explicitly political directions by the generations of female artists that followed. (Claudine Isé)
Through January 3, 2010 at The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.