Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Science and Art: Victorian Ctrl+X and Ctrl+V

This isn't a strictly "literary" issue, but it's fascinating nonetheless.  There is a really interesting slideshow over at Slate entitled "The Dark Art of Cut and Paste" which explores the Victorian trend of photo collage: mid-nineteenth century Englishwomen would paste photographs of their friends and family onto other images in a kind of proto-Photoshop.  (The exhibiton is currently on display at the Met, for those of you in New York.)

What makes these images especially intriguing is their seeming anachronism with the timeline of art history: "This is Saul Steinberg's world a century before his time. It is Surrealism 70 years avant la lettre. It is photomontage 60 years before the Dadaists did it in Berlin. It is collage 50 years before the Cubists 'invented' it in France."  I've discussed before the role that photography played in the shifting definition and purpose of art (by which I mean art which is in a medium other than photography), but this is slightly different, a kind of l'art pour l'art in the way that it was created in the home for the home.  It shows the way that rich women embraced new forms of art by folding it into more traditional ones (such as sketching and watercolors).  It was not mass-produced and it was not created to make a statement--rather, it was created to differentiate between the calling card albums of the social strata.  The fact that these women were far ahead of their time is absolutely amazing.

(Slate does manage to jump on the current Alice in Wonderland bandwagon by observing the influence of Lewis Carrol's  "puns and wordplay, misunderstandings, references to dreams, and bizarre transformations" on Victorian society, but the slideshow also traces evidence of Darwin's Origin of the Species in the Victorian cutting-and-pasting, as well, thereby redeeming itself.  God, I wish this exhibition comes to the Denver Art Museum, because I would be all over that like white on rice.)

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