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Surreal Illusionism: Photographic Postcards of the Early 20th Century/FI/
Month of Photography 2017 - Exhibitions
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The exhibition, featuring 127 photographic postcards from a past era, presents the viewer with a cornucopia of pictorial innovation, artistic vision and photographic allure. Packed with surreal fantasies, mysterious dreams, delightful role-play, glamour and irony, the postcards transport us into a fascinating, largely forgotten era of industrial photography in the early 20th century. New vistas are opened to suggest untold histories of early modernism.
The late 1890s saw the emergence of a number of photographic factories in Europe, set on creating a new form of popular art. The postcard was the new medium at the turn of the century. Photographs were not printed on the cards, as they are today, instead real photographs were produced by using mechanised exposure and development processes. Over 95% of the cards exhibited consist of real photographs, mostly hand-coloured silver bromide or silver gelatine prints.
The exhibition presents stunning samples created by leading European photographic companies of the era, such as Neue Photographische Gesellschaft in Berlin. Most of the cards presented were made in Germany and France.
Between 1900 and 1914, the production of photographic postcards, also known as "real photo postcards", grew into an important European industry, and the end products were distributed as far away as South America and Australia. While the phenomenon only lasted for some two decades, it resulted in millions of photographs circulating globally. Today, these cards are coveted collector's items.
From the perspective of photography, postcards are a particularly compelling study thanks to the inventive photomontage techniques used. The combination of photography and drawing, cut and paste montage and multiple exposure were some of the methods used extensively over a hundred years before photoshop. Because colour photography was not yet in extensive use, each print was coloured by hand. This craft finish gives the mass-produced images a unique touch, while the synthetic colour effects further enhance the sensual mystique of the images.
The golden age of photographic postcards drew on the urban popular culture that emerged in the early 20th century. The rise of cinema, the topical fashion of sun-bathing, circus and theatre, erotica and variety shows inspired the imagery of the cards. Technical innovations, such as the aeroplane, stimulated the imagination. At the same time, symbolist and synthetist movements in fine arts merged with photographic pictorialism to create a visual style yet to be grasped by art history.
With the advent of the First World War the golden age of postcards began to wane. The aesthetic innovations, however, lingered on. Artistic ideas such as synthetic cubism and collage were based on techniques that were pioneered in postcards at the very start of the 20th century.
In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of avant-garde artists and poets began to draw inspiration from dreams, fantasy and the depths of the unconscious. An art movement known as surrealism emerged. The photographic postcards presented at this exhibition were "surrealist" before the word was even invented!

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