Last September, while in Paris, I was dazzled by the exhibition on Impressionism and Fashion which had just opened at the Musée d’Orsay. My slight reluctance to go to a show dealing with what I thought could be a rather frivolous subject melted away the minute I set foot in the area reserved for the exhibition and entered the completely enchanted realm where dresses and petticoats, silks and muslins, satin and lace, pumps and bottines, parasols and umbrellas, furs and boas, hats and feathers were elevated, through the oils and brush strokes of some of the most celebrated painters of the 19th century, to the acme of artistic expression.
I had never realized how fashion was addressed in so many masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Morisot, to name the most important. I hardly knew anything about James Tissot, so many of whose paintings are in this exhibition. I was again thrilled to see Caillebotte’s Rainy Day in Paris, after having discovered the Caillebotte brothers at the wonderful show at the Jacquemart-André. Of course, all or almost all of the paintings were very familiar, but I had always viewed them in different museums, and had always focused more on the overall quality of the painting than on the part played by fashion in their composition. I had never really concentrated on the dresses in, say, Monet’s “Le Déjeûner sur l’Herbe” or “Femmes au Jardin”. But then, in this exhibition, they, and many other Impressionist paintings, were ingeniously brought together in a quest no longer only for the greatness of artistic creation, but also as means to research and beautifully illustrate the history of 19th century costume. But there is much more to this exhibition than this already intriguing idea. At the Musée d’Orsay, the treatment given to the exhibition was that of a spectacular theatrical mise-en-scène which dramatically increased the impact of works which are already stunning to begin with. And this task was allotted to the extremely talented Robert Carsen, to whom we also owe the majestic production of Strauss’s Cappriccio which I saw at the Palais Garnier and reviewed in the article I called “A Tale of Two Operas”.
So the show was nothing less than dazzling. The first obvious, but probably far from easy, thing to be done was to pair the paintings with actual dresses, hats and shoes that were displayed in windows in the rooms where the paintings hung. That alone would have enhanced the show’s interest enormously, but what made it magical was the manner in which the rooms were organized and decorated. Some looked like shop windows in the streets of Paris, others like the interiors depicted in the paintings, including piano music in the room where paintings of young women at the piano were shown. But two were absolute stunners: one room was done like a fashion show, with rows of graceful gilt and red velvet chairs, each bearing the name of a famous actual or fictional figure of the time who might or might not have attended such an event: the painters themselves, writers like Proust, Baudelaire, Flaubert or Zola, musicians like Debussy, Satie, Berlioz or St Saens, politicians such as Doumer, Briand or Clémenceau, socialites and demi-mondaines, real and imaginary: Liane de Pougy, Odette de Crécy, the Duchesse de Guermantes, the Princesse de Polignac… Many of the people named wouldn’t have been caught dead in a fashion show, but the brilliant idea of this room was that of a sort of contextualization of the times through its fashions. The chairs lined the walls, while larger than life paintings hung on partitions in the middle, reflected by beautiful mirrors and creating an irresistible impression of luxury and movement. And suddenly, as one advanced to the next room, it was like switching from a ball to a garden party, in a room with green grass and trees in bloom with outdoor scenes on the walls. This was where one could see the reassembled “Déjeûner sur l’Herbe”, the “Femmes au Jardin”and other idyllic al fresco depictions. However skeptical one may have entered the exhibition, I doubt anyone left it other than floating on a refreshing cloud of deeply significant frivolousness.
I had forgotten that this exhibition, as so many nowadays, was intended to be transported to other art houses, namely, New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Being forgetful has its advantages, as it allows for wonderful surprises! There was this enchanting exhibition coming to my own backyard so that I could once more happily bask in luxuriously rendered rags. I rushed to the Metropolitan member’s only preview, ready to take in all of Carsen’s magnificence again.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I realized that the Metropolitan had completely shunned the Orsay setup, choosing to present the exhibition in a completely different, MMA production. I have always been a great fan of Metropolitan exhibitions, usually done with exquisite taste and didactically very effective, witness the recent Matisse, and Indian miniatures, and Schiaparelli and Prada shows. But this rather stark treatment of a frothy subject was a letdown.
Had I not seen the Orsay version, I would probably have enjoyed the tame display of lovely art and beautiful dresses, but I now knew better. Why on earth did the Metropolitan decide to stage this watered down production of the exhibit? Yes, the rooms are beautifully appointed in the usual great color schemes, matching slate blues and taupes and grays which I am sure to try to imitate at home, as they bring out the paintings magnificently. But this time, I realized how very repetitive these backdrops are. And all the dresses in vitrines, without any attempt at inventiveness, just matching the outfits to their representations.
I suppose this has to do with cost – royalties, copyrights, whatnots I’m unfamiliar with. I thought the production could just be transported from one museum to another, in toto, like opera productions go from one house to the next, but I was wrong.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Metropolitan show is not worth the visit, but if you saw the Paris version, this one comes as an anti-climax. I had already noticed the addition of “modernity” (“L’Impressionnisme et la Mode”, in Paris, and “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” in New York) to the title. I don’t really know where it comes in in the concept of the show, but I guess I’m a bit annoyed at the obvious attempt at intellectualizing and “defrivolizing” the subject matter, which might denote a slight superiority complex of the New York art intelligentsia vis-à-vis the lighter, bubblier audience in the capital of fashion. This is totally unwarranted as there is probably no other place in the world (Italy maybe?) where fashion is taken so seriously and given such a brilliant treatment.