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Playing with Pictures

Malcolm Daniel, Senior Curator, Department of Photographs

Posted: Monday, March 22, 2010

natm_photocollage_filmer

Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer (English, 1838–1903). Untitled loose page from the Filmer Album, mid-1860s. Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints; 8 3/4 x 11 1/4 in. (22.2 x 28.6 cm). Paul F. Walter

«Most often, our special exhibitions highlight important aspects of the Met's collection or explore areas of curatorial expertise, but occasionally they give us the chance, instead, to present a type of work that's entirely absent from the collection. Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage is one such instance.» Although my area of specialization is early British and French photography—particularly the first few decades following the invention of the medium in 1839—my exhibitions and writings have usually focused on works of great artistic ambition, almost always by men, intended for public display at the annual photographic salons or periodic universal exhibitions and sold by printsellers throughout Europe—serious art! Precisely because the works included in Playing with Pictures are so different from what we normally collect and exhibit, I jumped at the chance to present it when the show was offered by my colleague Elizabeth Siegel, who organized it for the Art Institute of Chicago.

Playing with Pictures focuses on the work of aristocratic Victorian women: whimsical collages of watercolor and photographs made for private albums shared only with family and friends in the drawing rooms of great country houses and London homes. Because they were made for private pleasure rather than public consumption, they provide a particularly revealing glimpse of aristocratic life—a self-portrait of a certain slice of society. And that self-portrait is rather surprising—it's not the sexually repressed, socially uptight, house-bound lady that many people associate with the words "Victorian woman," but rather a sophisticated, talented, witty, flirtatious, and socially connected player in the London "season" and country-house party circuit.

For the presentation at the Met, we've added several introductory objects to the show, reframed some loans that looked more twenty-first-century than nineteenth-, and designed the gallery to evoke a domestic—rather than institutional—setting. But the truth is that these album pages need little help; they are irresistibly engaging. It's not often that we see people in the galleries smiling and chuckling as they go through an exhibition, but this is one of the funniest shows that we've presented, with images of human-headed ducks, people riding flamingos and tortoises, playing cards with real faces on the face cards, trompe-l'oeil albums, fans, envelopes, jewelry, and drawing-room scenes that give a wink and a nod to illicit romance. The spirit of fantasy found in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and in Grimm's fairy tales—new and very much in vogue at the time—hovers about these collages, too.

I'll be giving gallery talks about the show in The Howard Gilman Gallery at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 24, and Wednesday, April 21; and to bring the photocollage technique up to the present day, we're also showing a program of humorous stop-action collage animation films at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, April 27, in the Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall.

Malcolm Daniel is curator in charge of the Department of Photographs.

Related Exhibition
Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage
Through May 9, 2010
The Howard Gilman Gallery, 2nd Floor

Upcoming Events
Gallery Talks
Wednesday, March 24, and Wednesday, April 21, 11:00 a.m.
The Howard Gilman Gallery, 2nd Floor
Free with Museum admission

Short Films
Tuesday, April 27, 2:00 p.m.
Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall, Uris Center for Education
Free with Museum admission

Department(s): Photographs
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About the Author

Malcolm Daniel is the senior curator in the Department of Photographs.

About this Blog

Now at the Met offers in-depth articles and multimedia features about the Museum's current exhibitions, events, research, announcements, behind-the-scenes activities, and more.