New Art Institute Exhibition Pieces Together Rarely Seen Photocollage Albums

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New Art Institute Exhibition Pieces Together Rarely Seen Photocollage Albums
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 prints. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.

CHICAGO, IL.- Although collage is commonly thought of as a modern art form, the act of "playing with pictures" has a long, rich, and surprising history. Its roots are on full display in the unique exhibition Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, on view from October 10, 2009 through January 3, 2010, in Photography Galleries 1 and 2 at the Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition is the first to comprehensively examine the little-known phenomenon of Victorian photocollage, presenting many eye-opening works that have rarely--and in many cases never--before been displayed or reproduced. Playing with Pictures will receive its world premiere at the Art Institute before traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

A full 60 years ahead of the avant-garde--and more than a century before Photoshop--aristocratic Victorian women were already making radical experiments with photocollage. 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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