Constance Sackville-West (English, 1846–1929) or Amy Augusta Frederica Annabella Cochrane Baillie (English, 1853–1913), untitled page from the Sackville-West Album, 1867/73; collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints; 9 5/8 x 11 13/16 in. (24.5 x 30 cm); courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film
This wonderful collage combining photography and watercolor, part of an album created by relatives of Vita Sackville-West, is featured in the fascinating exhibition "Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage," which originated at the Art Institute of Chicago last autumn, made a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York earlier this year, and is now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto through 5 September.
Anticipating the avant-garde collages of Braque and Picasso by about six decades and showing a sly, absurdist sense of humor, aristocratic women of the 1860s and 1870s cut figures from photographic cartes de visite and glued them onto watercolor backgrounds in ways that created new and surprising narratives, simultaneously validating and parodying the exclusive circles in which they moved. Photos of people known to the artists, and in many cases photos of the artists themselves, imbue several of the collages with personal meaning. Others seem to be constructed in the same way that a teenager today would assemble magazine clippings of her favorite celebrities.
"The compositions are whimsical and fantastical, combining human heads and animal bodies, placing people into imaginary landscapes, and morphing faces into common household objects," say the Art Institute of Chicago curators.
Is it possible that the creators of these collages anticipated literary modernism, as well? Their works remind me of many contemporary novels in which minutely observed characters are foregrounded against the barest suggestion of a physical setting, forcing the reader's attention onto the specific and idiosyncratic. Playthings of the artist, plucked from disparate sources, the characters in these collages find themselves arranged against one another in dramatic juxtaposition, prompting the viewer to imagine the story behind each one.
What story does the Sackville-West collage suggest to you?
Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage (Art Institute of Chicago, 2009)
The Marvelous Album of Madame B: Being the Handiwork of a Victorian Lady of Considerable Talent (Scala Publishers, 2009)
New York Times, 4 February 2010, "The Pastime of Victorian Cutups" (exhibition review)
Toronto Star, 9 June 2010: "The Roots of Surrealism in Victorian Collage" (exhibition review)