‘Facebook’ for the Parlor Crowd? Cartomania and Photocollage in the Victorian Era

BY Hari Sreenivasan  February 11, 2010 at 2:32 PM EDT

“What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?”

It’s a sentiment that could just as much belong to a child of our own hyper-visual, hyper-connected culture as it does to its original utterer, Lewis Carroll’s famous young heroine of 1860s England — before she falls into Wonderland.

The aristocratic ennui articulated by Alice — soon to be besieged by flights of fantasy — is a central theme of an exhibit currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Playing With Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage.” The occupation of young women of leisure was primarily to prove themselves worthy wives, which included accomplishment at the (approved) fine arts.

But hold the judgement; these Victorian women weren’t nearly as stuffy, bored or boring as you might think. Harnessing a popular, new photo craze, they applied a creative, modern (before there was such a thing) approach to the traditional arts of drawing and painting.

Cartomania, the once-surging sharing of small portrait photography, was a trend not dissimilar to a kind of Facebook for the Victorian set, says Liz Siegel, Associate Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibit originated. A periodical from the era, included in the exhibit’s catalog, explains, “Any one [sic] who has ever seen you, or has seen anybody that has seen you, or knows anyone that says he has seen a person who thought he has seen you, considers himself entitled to ask you for your photograph.”

Photography, the new, democratizing technology of the day, spurred a whole new visual culture for the Victorians. But the photograph was only a starting point, an element to harness for larger creative projects. Photos began to appear in conjunction with little watercolor paintings, in whimsical and occasionally subversive collage combinations. In one of the images in the exhibit, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution — maybe the most important intellectual development of that time period — is translated artistically in the service of mapping out someone’s own family tree: Little photos of relatives are attached to painted-in monkey bodies.

In addition to upending preconceptions of feminine Victorian decorum, the exhibit also sheds new light on the history of art and photography. “We tend to associate collage with 20th century, with Picasso and Braque, with the Dadaists and the Surrealists,” Siegel explains, “but this was happening 60 years before that.” Siegel argues that even in light of our “21st-century sophistication,” when we use Photoshop and other software programs to enhance and play with our pictures, the exhibit still impresses viewers by showing off the work of women who, way before our time, were also way before theirs.

After its current showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb. 2 – May 9), it will have a final stop at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.