Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage
October 10, 2009–January 3, 2010
Galleries 1–2

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During the Victorian era, photography became remarkably popular and accessible, as people posed for studio portraits and exchanged these pictures on a vast scale. The makers of the collages shown here cut up these portraits and placed them in elaborate watercolor designs in albums. With their sharp wit, absurd senses of humor, and dramatic shifts of scale akin to those Alice experienced in Wonderland, these photocollages stand the rather serious conventions of photography in the 1860s and 1870s on their heads, debunking stuffy Victorian clichés with surreal, subversive, and funny images. Oftentimes, the combination of photographic portraits with painted settings inspired dreamlike and even bizarre results: placing human heads on animal bodies; situating people in imaginary landscapes; and morphing faces into common household objects. Such images reveal the educated minds as well as accomplished hands of their makers, as they take on new theories of evolution, the changing role of photography, and the strict boundaries of aristocratic society. Together they provide a fascinating window into the creative possibilities of photography in the Victorian era and enduring inspiration for photographic experimentation today.

Playing with Pictures showcases the best of these albums and loose pages from collections across the United States, Europe, and Australia; 40 pages are shown in frames on the wall, while 11 separate albums are displayed in cases, accompanied by “virtual albums” on computer monitors for visitor interaction. One of the highlights of the exhibition is an exciting addition to the Art Institute’s permanent collection: the Madame B Album, a fascinating album of more than 140 pages of photographs and watercolor designs, which was acquired in 2005 and is on public display for the first time. “Madame B” has been identified as Blanche Fournier, the wife of a French diplomat. In her clever, whimsical, and surreal world, photographic portraits dot the tail feathers of a turkey, faces decorate the wings of a colorful butterfly, and a secret language of flowers communicates hidden meanings.

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Catalogue

Two catalogues, Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage by Elizabeth Siegel and The Marvelous Album of Madame B: Being the Handiwork of a Victorian Lady of Considerable Talent by Elizabeth Siegel and Martha Packer, accompany this exhibition. The Art of Victorian Photocollage constitutes the first full-length scholarly examination of the phenomenon of photocollage in the Victorian era, focusing on the themes and social meanings of photocollage as well as the avant-garde character of the art form. Published by Yale University Press for the Art Institute, the book reproduces 140 illustrations, most of which have never been printed before, and features essays by Elizabeth Siegel, Patrizia Di Bello, and Marta Weiss, and contributions by Miranda Hofelt. The Marvelous Album of Madame B reflects on both the experiences of the album’s creator, Blanche Fournier, as well as the history behind the photocollage album. With more than 55 pages filled with photographs, collages, and watercolor designs, the book features repeating pictorial themes such as pattern, the animal kingdom, and keepsakes. The Marvelous Album of Madame B is published by Scala Publishers for the Art Institute. Both volumes can be purchased at the Museum Shop of the Art Institute.

Other Venues

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
February 2–May 9, 2010

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
June 5–September 5, 2010

Sponsor

Major funding for this exhibition is generously provided by ART MENTOR FOUNDATION LUCERNE, the Smart Family Foundation, and Brenda Shapiro in memory of Earl Shapiro.

Additional support provided by The Hite Foundation in memory of Sybil Hite, and by Barbara Bluhm-Kaul and Don Kaul.


Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough and Eva Macdonald. "Mixed Pickles," from the Westmorland Album, 1864/70. Published by Scholastic.
Kate Edith Gough. Untitled page from the Gough Album, late 1870s. V and A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.