Victorian Secrets

Cameron lucida: The artist's Pomona (1872).Photo: courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Although Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) is a beloved photographer of the Victorian era, her pictures are foreign to serious modern taste. Her reverential portrayals of soulful women and great male spirits of the age – the tossed-about hair of a genius, in a Cameron portrait, almost always looks like the Garden of Eden after the Expulsion – represent exactly what later photographers would forcefully reject. The use of a high-flown poetic style and carefully staged tableaux does not meet the modern taste for kaleidoscopic change, the hard unsentimental fact, and the eruption of the street into the aristocratic precincts of art. No less foreign is her presentation of the place of women, whom she often depicted in the elevated roles of holy mother, pure-hearted lover, and flower-bedecked maiden. In Cameron, there is nothing of the sharp-eyed Balzac – no acknowledgment of the crabby old maid or the calculating mistress, let alone any intimation of the proud suffragette waving a placard. Her moist melancholy is invariably High Church.

That is why she is today an artist worth confronting, not just enjoying in the nostalgic way that people approach Masterpiece Theatre. The 58 photographs in “Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women” at the Museum of Modern Art, an exhibit organized by Sylvia Wolf of the Art Institute of Chicago and coordinated for MOMA by M. Darsie Alexander, offer a challenge to the modern prejudice in art against an idealized view of humanity. At heart an unembarrassed Platonist, Cameron took no interest in life as it is actually lived, only as it is dreamed. (“Living?” said the French wit. “We’ll leave that to the servants.”) And she did not tolerate the lower sort of dream, either. Only the lofty reveries of Art. Whereas most very early photographers fell in love with the facts of the world, even when they followed the stylized conventions of painting, Cameron saw in the new medium an opportunity to transfigure reality, revealing the divine light in the facts of the flesh. She was literal – about the spirit.

The MOMA show includes a fine collection of Cameron’s portraits of her niece Julia Jackson (Virginia Woolf’s mother). While such pictures are often admired for their psychological penetration, Cameron is a B.F. artist (Before Freud) whose best portraits are less concerned with depicting a particular psychological state than with creating a powerful sensation of a deep inner life. Cameron’s subjects had to sit very still – the exposures were several minutes long – but they also had to breathe and blink, which created a shimmer around the eyes and body. A technical limitation that Cameron turned into a blessing: Her women seem to blur, slightly, from an internal tremor of the soul. (An upthrust of chin or a turn of head may also reveal the pressure of the life within.) Her illustrations of biblical, classical, and literary themes are more difficult for today’s taste to take seriously; many are as stilted as a Wagnerian stage set. But even here, Cameron’s art has a power well beyond camp or kitsch; the failure of the flesh to achieve perfected form, to satisfy the mind’s eye, is strangely poignant. And sometimes she does succeed in entirely enchanting a living being – the woman in Mary Mother appears equally human and divine.

There is one unexpected way in which these photographs cast an interesting reflection on our own culture. Cameron accepted as a matter of course that women must perform certain roles. The world, and Cameron’s art, were a stage. Through a door in this exhibition you can see, by chance, an image by another melancholy artist with stagy instincts – Cindy Sherman, a postmodern photographer known for portraying herself as a kind of mannequin who assumes the different roles that society assigns women. In Sherman’s art, such roles are an imprisoning form of cultural dress-up; the clothes become the woman. In Cameron’s art, however, the traditional female roles are a way for an individual to reach her best or highest self – the stage allows her to transcend the limits of ordinary existence.

Victorian Secrets