Society Cut-ups: Victorians and the Art of Photocollage

Sixty years before the embrace of collage techniques by avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century, aristocratic Victorian women were already experimenting with photocollage. The compositions they made with photographs and watercolors are whimsical and fantastical, combining human heads and animal bodies, placing people into imaginary landscapes, and morphing faces into common household objects. Such images, on view in Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, reveal the educated minds as well as the accomplished hands of their makers. With sharp wit and dramatic shifts of scale akin to those Alice experienced in Wonderland, these images stand the rather serious conventions of early photography on their heads.

Curator Elizabeth Siegel discusses the way Victorian women used photocollage to toy with their society and its conventions­­. These women, aristocratic amateurs showing off their wit and accomplishment for family and friends, unwittingly anticipated the twentieth-century avant-garde. The surreality of their compositions flouted the restrictions of female life in middle-class Victorian society, revealed their sense of contemporary intellectual culture, and allowed them to play with the assumptions surrounding photographic meaning. The collage was a means by which to give the middle-brow photo albums of commercial, infinitely reproducible cartes-de-visite into a unique, artistic, and intellectual volume.

Elizabeth Siegel, Associate Curator of Photography, The Art Institute of Chicago; introduced by Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Learn more about the exhibition Playing with Pictures:

Learn more about Victorian art on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History:

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