"Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage," an amazing exhibit that just showed at the Metropolitan Museum, illuminates a bizarre, fascinating art form. The Victorian ladies making these surreal photo-scrap-books were not kidding around - except when they were:
In the Victorian era, genteel ladies were taught to draw and paint. As adults, they were expected to ply these talents in a range of domestic crafts. Sometimes, this meant photocollage, a mix of, well, photographs and original artwork. Sound dull? It's anything but.
The first thing you think when you see these works, dating from the 1860s and 1870s, is: these women had a lot of time on their hands. These books - whimsical takes on photo-albums - are often incredibly elaborate and painstaking in their detail. After all, they were intended as keepsakes and it's not like photos came cheap. But what's even more striking is their whimsy, their skill, and the just plain weirdness of some of these images. Clearly, the women making these were having fun with it - and at times the surrealism verges on subversive. Not just a creative outlet, the albums are a look at a whimsy we hardly associate with Victoriana.
They're also surprisingly modern - or what we think of as modern. While the links to the avant-garde are clear, I was also immediately reminded of outsider art legend Henry Darger - as much by the elaborate fantasy worlds on view as the use of collage - and another friend commented that the images reminded her of the work of digital artist Maggie Taylor. In a time when, with few exceptions, the art world was both overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly staid, this purely domestic work continues to resonate today.