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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Julia Margaret Cameron(English, 1815-1879). Sir John Herschel. April 1867. Albumen silver print from glass negative. The Rubel Collection, Promised Gift of William Rubel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (L 1997.84.6)
Upon learning from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that they were putting on “Julia Margaret Cameron,” I rushed to get there. I hoped that they would do a better job with this gifted portrait photographer (1815-1879) than MoMA did, when they staged “Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women,” back in 1999.

Cameron’s women, at least as presented at MoMA, were mostly insipid, the more so when photographed in diaphanous, classical-type costumes and acting out religious or literary subjects. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelite painters were doing this same thing so much better at the same time (fantasy, or at least 19th century fantasy, works better in paint than on film).

However, I somehow knew that Cameron’s men were another story, so I journeyed up to Columbia, and in the library there discovered a gorgeous book, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women, by Julia Margaret Cameron,” originally published in 1926 by Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press and with introductions by Roger Fry and Leonard’s wife, Virginia Woolf, who was also Cameron’s great-niece.

The book doesn’t need these familial associations, though. It stands upon its own merits, as a tribute to an extraordinary photographer---whose portraits of so many renowned Victorian men resonate through the centuries, as rugged personifications of character. The introductions by Fry and Virginia are so much gravy, although they do certify that these pictures represent the epitome of modernism (largely ignored in the 19th century, they were only rediscovered in the 20th).

The current show at the Met (through January 5) only partially captures the magic of the book, consisting as it does of only 35 prints, all drawn from its permanent collection and divided approximately equally between portraits of men, portraits of women and pictures of allegories or whatever.

The other night, I was watching “The Music Man” on television, and was reminded of those Cameron allegories by portly, big-nosed Hermione Gingold, playing the wife of River City’s mayor, dressed up and looking pretty slly in Grecian costume, along with a bevy of similarly portly, similarly attired & similarly silly town matrons.

Between Cameron's serious portraits & her Grecian ladies lies the difference between art and taste.

There is one striking portrait of a woman in the Met’s show, apparently of a paid model named “Mrs. Keene,” and thus a departure from Cameron’s usual subjects of family and eminent friends. Entitled “Cassieopeia,” it shows the head of a woman staring out at the camera, no fancy hair or attributes, just this startling, wide-eyed view like a police mug shot.

The portraits of men are limited both by the fact that they’re only one-third of the show, and because instead of all different subjects, some subjects are repeated. Still, I was willing to look at three different versions of the portrait of Sir John Herschel, astronomer & mathematician, with his magisterially lined old face & flyaway hair.

Among the other portraits I liked were those of Lionel Tennyson, the poet’s son, as an adolescent, Thomas Carlyle, the author, with his blunt, square, sea-green incorruptible head, and “Herr Joachim,” the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, with his violin.

Beyond that, I recommend the book, which has been reissued twice, once in 1973 and once in 1992, and, as a result, can still be bought at amazon.com (a used copy costs as little as $25, though the new ones go for $95 and up). I feel no qualms about recommending used copies when the authors are long since dead, and as a result are no longer in a position to be deprived of royalties.

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