The picture that started it all…

I first learned about Zoë Mozert by mistake. Her works came to my attention through the random vicissitudes of a keyword search—not in a scholarly database, but rather through eBay of all places. My research on bodybuilder Eugen Sandow had taught me that the online retailer could be an excellent place for finding ephemera and objects related to early celebrities that weren’t often included in museum or library collections, and sellers were often meticulous about tagging their wares with ample keywords in order to sell them to interested parties… a motivator perhaps even more powerful than the ideals espoused in Information and Library Sciences seminars on digital collections management. So it was that my searches for “mutoscope,” intended to reveal archival objects and images related to an early motion picture technology, introduced me to hundreds of pin-up cards—and Zoë Mozert. 

When I first saw the many pages of hits for “mutoscope cards” I was somewhat bewildered. The “mutoscope” I intended to research was invented around 1896—a coin-operated machine that allowed viewers to watch an early moving picture by turning a crank as quickly or slowly as they desired, with cards turning on a reel inside the machine like a flip-book of black-and-white photographs, offering the illusion of movement. Like its more famous relative, the kinetoscope, it was a peephole device, often found in arcades and amusement pavilions, and from what I understood, it had gone out of fashion fairly early, eclipsed by films projected in theaters to assembled crowds, although scattered examples persisted in the early decades of the 20thcentury.

Left: A diagram from the International Mutoscope Syndicate, The Age of Movement, shows the inner workings of a mutoscope machine (1901).
Right: Young girls look at a Mutoscope and other arcade machines in John Sloan’s 1905 etching Fun, One Cent (Delaware Art Museum).

But the multi-colored cards of scantily-clad women I was seeing were entirely new to me. Their printing technologies relied on innovations achieved decades later (in the 1940s), and although they often depicted women in movement—jumping a fence, roller-skating, or pulling up stockings—they were isolated images, more like postcards.

An assortment of mutoscope cards, ca. 1940- “Artist’s Pin-Up Girls” series, as sold at Hake’s Auctions, 2008.

I momentarily dismissed them as a somewhat amusing afterlife of the arcade machine that offered “racy” imagery to popular audiences… but one listing in particular grabbed my attention.

It showed not only the small, colorful mutoscope card, but also a photograph of a woman grinning at the viewer, her pose and costume identical to the tiny card in the corner. In her pose and props, she assertively associates herself with the tropes of artistic identity, brandishing palette and paintbrush, a beret slightly askew on her head. They both confidently meet the viewer’s gaze, smiling triumphantly; in the mutoscope card, the extended paintbrush in the artist’s hand slowly drips thick drops of yellow paint toward the floor. Perhaps this tactilely seductive mess is what her caption refers to: “I Must Learn Where to Draw the Line.”

Zoë Mozert, I Must Learn Where to Draw the Line, studio photograph and mutoscope cards, ca. 1940.

I clicked on the listing to learn more. According to the seller’s description, the photograph depicted not only the model for the cards, but the artist herself. The ebay vendor listed two other paired mutoscope cards and photographs for sale, but in both of these, the “artist” disappears into her role as model, posing in traditional pin-up domestic fictions: in one, she pensively gazes at the phone, waiting for it to ring while showing off her profile in a scanty negligee; in the other, she has apparently fallen “behind in rent” and been summarily kicked to the curb with her luggage and inconveniently-ripped knickers, which she turns to mend.

Zoë Mozert mutoscope cards and studio photographs, as seen on eBay. Left: I Got a Little Behind in Rent; Right: There Must Be Something Wrong with my Line.

Like the “artist” mutoscope card, the woman who keeps watch over her telephone (captioned “There Must Be Something Wrong With My Line”) is troubled by the possibility of a malfunctioning “line,” but here the line is one of technology and connection, a conduit for someone else to contact her, while she can only wait passively—in contrast to the assertive “line” drawn by a practicing artist who still strives to learn the lessons of her craft. Still, signs of her creative production are visible in the backgrounds—finished canvases or printing proofs lean against the back wall of the studio. Behind the legs of the stool and through the lace of the figure waiting for her phone to ring, we can even catch a glimpse of the picture of the artist holding her palette.

I sat back from my laptop, flummoxed to learn of a woman artist who painted pin-ups, using herself as a model and dispensing her pictures via vending machines to national and international audiences. What did it mean for a woman to turn her own image into a pin-up, to arrange herself into a seductive image? How did this fit with a feminist narrative of female artists? How could I understand her agency and even complicity in the system of creating and dispersing idealized images of women? And how might this work fit into popular perceptions of artists and artistic creation?

A few months after stumbling across the eBay listing, I serendipitously met Allie (http://alisonjcarr.net) when we were both participating in the Terra Summer Residency. Allie’s work productively engages with the popular culture of the early 20th century– analyzing the self-aware producers, actors, and models in films, cigarette cards, photographs, and performances– while also critically probing key scholarship in the field (for example, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”). Her work helped me to understand Mozert’s practice in a new light, opening my eyes to the ways in which artists could embrace questions of spectatorship, self-presentation, glamor, and play within the framework of critical inquiry and a feminist practice. I had found a collaborator who could help me interrogate the works themselves– and my own assumptions.

Although I don’t think we’ll find definitive answers to all of the questions above, I look forward to exploring them and to hearing the thoughts of others– and thinking through new questions. How does Zoë Mozert’s work affect your understanding of women artists and illustrators working in the 20thcentury? How might it influence- or be in dialogue with- artistic practice (and celebrity culture) now? What can we learn from Zoë Mozert’s body of work?

Ellery Foutch

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