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The Stamp of Fantasy

Jeu de Paume - Hotel de Sully, Paris

The Visual Inventivenesss of Photographic Postcards at the Start of the 20th Century. The exhibition features over 500 postcards as well as a selection of works by Man Ray, Giacomo Balla, Maurice Tabard, Herbert Bayer, El Lissitzky, Andre' Kertesz, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Hannah Hoch, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Paul Citroen, Andre' Breton, Paul Eluard, and many others. Curated by Clement Cheroux.

comunicato stampa

Curated by Clément Chéroux

The Stamp of Fantasy documents a little-known aspect of photographic history: the visual inventiveness of postcards in the early 20th century. It thus confirms what, over the past twenty years, has been a growing interest in the historical study of photography in relation to its material forms and the media in which it is disseminated. This interest has already inspired numerous publications and exhibitions (such as Kiosk in Cologne in 2001).
This exhibition brings together an ensemble of 500 photographic fantasy postcards, dating from about 1900 to 1920. Borrowed from two major private collections, those of Peter Weiss and Gérard Lévy, this ensemble is complemented by a selection of some thirty works by avant-garde artists of the period, which afford a critical perspective.
The Stamp of Fantasy is not a survey of Belle Epoque imagery, nor is it an exercise in nostalgia. Rather, it sets out to put into perspective an economic, social and cultural phenomenon that represents a nodal point in the interplay of image-making technologies, ways of looking and the relations between art and photography.

The postcard was invented in Austria Hungary in 1869 for short missives. Producers were quick to add images and, in around 1890, the postcard became a support for photography. As such it proved a great popular success. The number of cards sent in France rose from 8 million in 1899 to 52 million in 1900. Production of postcards for the two years 1905 and 1906 was no less than 600 million units. The craze simply overwhelmed the postal administration.
The emergence of this inexpensive medium fostered the development of an anonymous and playful style of popular imagery known generically as “fantasy postcards” whose rich visual curiosities are well worth studying. If fantasy was so prominent a feature of the postcard boom between 1900 and 1920, this was to a large extent due to the technical potential of photography, which allowed very striking effects.
The very title of this exhibition, “La Photographie timbrée” (The Stamp of Fantasy) reflects the entertaining and wacky side of the images presented here, both in the treatment of the subjects and in the photographic techniques, and also the epistolary nature of these objects of communication and exchange. Massively distributed, the fantasy postcard became part of the life and visual habits of an age. Its effervescence influenced not only photography but also art. Many artists in the 1920s and 1930s were fascinated by this early manifestation of the industrialization of images. Collected by Paul Eluard, André Breton and Salvador Dalí, postcards also inspired Hannah Höch, Herbert Bayer and Man Ray, who reused them or quoted them in their own work, using strategies of displacement and appropriation – two notions that have continuously questioned the nature of art from the age of the avant-gardes to the present.

Set out over four rooms, the exhibition examines the different sources of photographic postcards: publishers’ cards, the production of studios and photographers, and amateur pieces. These are shown in vitrines, while works by avant-garde artists are hung on the walls.

Publishers’ postcards
At the start of the 20th century publishers opted for diversity, offering a range of topographic, political, commercial or fantastical images, the last category being richly inventive. The generic “fantasy” category included greetings and birthday cards, burlesque or erotic scenes, visual puns and optical curiosities, a whole range of light-hearted images designed for ocular pleasure. In order to keep offering visual surprises, the photographers working for publishers used a whole range of technical effects, from montage and overprinting to optical deformations and close-ups, which in those days were known only to professionals. A few years before the emergence of the illustrated press and book, the postcard was the first medium to allow for the mass distribution of photographs and to reveal all their visual potential. Furthermore, the “unauthored creativity” of these images established a kind of collective visual language and struck a chord with the avant-gardes, which appropriated anonymous images and readymade objects in order to enrich their vocabulary and artistic practices.

The collection of Paul Eluard
The fantasy card was a great source of inspiration for artists, and for none more than Paul Eluard who, between the late 1920s and early 1930s was a passionate collector of postcards. Greetings cards, Easter cards, erotic images, portraits of monsters, bouquets of flowers, birds, women’s bodies, cars, children, horses – Eluard constituted his own “Lilliputian hallucination of the world,” which can be glimpsed in the four albums presented here.

Studio postcards
Shortly after 1900, photographers who set up their stalls in fairgrounds, at holiday resorts or in garrison towns also started adopting some of the ideas found in fantasy postcards. They thus offered to photograph their customers in sets or with accessories referring to popular iconography: a joyous dance, adulterers caught in the act, a pair of lovers on the moon, an intrepid climber on the Eiffel Tower, etc. By offering these curious or amusing poses printed on postcard paper, and therefore designed to provoke comment and exchange, these portraitists made their customers the heroes of their own fantasy cards.

Amateur postcards
After professionals, amateur photographers were quick to make the postcard their own. In this they were encouraged by the photography industry, which made available various accessories, including special paper on which they could immediately display their images. In the private sphere, a world of recreational images developed, teeming with ideas, invention and curiosity and much inspired by the playful imagery of the fantasy postcard. Avant-garde artists also used postcards as a favoured medium for their correspondence. Their cards were often adorned with a witticism, a drawing or a collage. Some Dadaist photomontages were even made directly on postcards and posted as such.

Image: Erwin Blumenfeld, Président-Dada-Chaplinist
Kunsthaus Zürich © Pro Litteris, Zürich 2007 13,4 x 8,8 cm

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Jeu de Paume - Hôtel de Sully
62, rue Saint-Antoine
75004 Paris
métro Saint-Paul or Bastille
Tuesday - Wednesday - Friday: 12:00 - 19:00
Saturday and Sunday: 10:00 - 19:00
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