The basement of the Art Institute yields endless wonders -- firstly, they house the excellent Thorne miniature rooms, and tucked away almost like an afterthought (as indeed they were) are the photography galleries. This Christmas I hadn't planned to be in Chicago, but crisis interceded, and allowed me to spend the afternoon wandering the museum with my oldest friend, Kyra (our parents were in Lamaze class together) and discovering these:
Constructed mostly in Great Britain during the second half of the 19th century by women of the leisure class from photographs and watercolors, these pieces illustrate entire social sets in fantastical and bizarre array:
This next one had me laughing uncontrollably, recalling Lady Bracknell's lines from The Importance of Being Ernest: "Mr. Worthing. I must confess that I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution, and I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? " --
I could imagine these suitcases being someone's parents. The accompanying text of the exhibit was fascinating, analyzing the subtext of the collages -- heads incorporated into the handles of umbrellas suggests physical contact, a gloved hand's caress on the subject ... racy stuff for Victorians. Though none of the images collected here involve spiders, webs and insects caught within them were a common theme, perhaps relating to the role of women in binding together society.
Fascination with the ideas of Charles Darwin and evolution may have led to these lady-headed ducks:
The watercolors were uneven in skill, but some were stellar -- particularly those of Princess Alexandra (there was a large album of collages lent by Queen Elizabeth).
If you're in Chicago, I regret that the show is no more. However, it has moved to the Met in NYC, and if it's anything like the exhibit in Chicago, I strongly recommend it. Up until May 9th. Find out more here.