Return to Articles


"SECRET VICTORIANS"

by Shirle Gottlieb


Matt Collishaw, "Catching Fairies,"
unique color photograph, 1994.





Hiroshi Sugimoto, "Queen
Victoria (from Wax Museums I),"
silver gelatin print, 1994.

(UCLA Hammer Museum, West Side) As Alice said to the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's classic fable, "Things just keep getting curiouser and curiouser." As the world spins through time toward the year 2000, we get the same surreal sensation. What is it about the end of each century that throws everything out of kilter?

The Getty compares Pop artist Andy Warhol to Nadar, a 19th-century Parisian photographer. The Huntington Library celebrates the life of the 18th-century "tragic muse," Sarah Siddons. And now, we are asked to reconsider and revise our conceptions of "The Victorian Age."

If this brief period produced such free thinkers as the author of Alice in Wonderland; the scientific explorations of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud; the social conscience of Charles Dickens; the wit of Edward Lear; the creative genius of Oscar Wilde--why does the mere word, "Victorian," evoke peals of derisive laughter?

Secret Victorians is out to change all of that. Organized by the Hayward Gallery in London, consisting of work by both British and American artists, it attempts to prove that 19th-century sensibilities are alive and well on the eve of the year 2000.

In fact, according to the exhibit's curators, there were energies fermenting beneath the stereotypical definition of Victorian society that are parallel to those today. This premise suggests that "repressive" and "restrictive" forces in each of these periods served to ignite and fuel the creativity of its artists.

In the case of Secret Victorians, twenty contemporary artists present work that is divided into four heady categories: "Ornament & Sexuality," "Photography & Death," "Collecting & Colonialism," and "Science & Crime"--each pair implying a conflict that is also subliminally subversive. Come prepared for a cerebral workout that will reward you with wit, humor, irony, paradox, even shock.

Erase the walls between "Victorian" and "post-Modern" and explore the commonalities: preoccupation with sex and morality; an assertive feminine force; a quest for novelty; a prosperous leisure class; mass consumerism; a goulash of wild decorative styles; riotous, outrageous color; the union of art and craft; a revival of the past (a.k.a. post-Modern appropriation).

Daring to venture into territory that may be considered off-limits are Steve Pippin, who transforms a train toilet into a pinhole camera, then documents the hilarious events that follow as The Continued Saga of an Amateur Photographer; Sally Mann, who photographs her small children in intimate, rustic scenes that carry a disturbingly sensual undercurrent; and Matt Collishaw who photographs a young man with a net Catching Fairies in the river.

In the "Science & Crime" department, Helen Chadwick extracts viral cells from her own body, then superimposes them across a computer-manipulated photograph of the English coastline. Even more gut-wrenching, she uses premature foetuses from medical museums as the subject for a series of cameo-portraits.


Lari Pittman, “This Discussion,
Beloved and Despised,
Continues Regardless,”
acrylic/enamel on
mahogany panel, 1989.



Sally Mann, “At Warm
Springs,” gelatin silver
enlargement print, 1991.

When it comes to "Ornament & Sexuality," you need look no farther than Lari Pittman. Overwrought with ornament, blatantly descriptive, loaded with sexual charge, This Discussion, Beloved and Despised, Continues Regardless speaks to the secret lives hidden from polite social discourse.

As for "Collecting & Colonialism," Nigerian-born Yinka Shonibare ironically makes authentic sculptural reproductions of Victorian china, costumes, and furniture, then installs them in all their decorative splendor with the names of the servants (and the dates of their servitude) that made the grandeur possible.

By revealing aspects of Victorian sensibility that manage to connect to contemporary art, this exhibit asks the artworld to reconsider its post-Modern position. Perhaps a strong continuity between the past and the present still exists; perhaps we are not "post" anything. In that case, "capitalist democracy," a.k.a. as "bourgeois society," is alive and well. Which means, according to the catalogue, that we are all secret Victorians and that's "a hell of a state."