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Published 08/03/2013 email E-MAIL print PRINT

A Highly Calculated Affair: Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity

Musée d’Orsay, Paris
   25 September 2012 – 20 January 2013
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
   26 February – 27 May 2013
Art Institute of Chicago
   26 June – 22 September 2013

by CINDI Di MARZO

What could be more pleasant than an afternoon spent in the company of the Impressionists – Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, et al – at one of the world’s great museums, in a city filled with art, culture and high society?

A 2012–13 travelling exhibition brings many of the most famous Impressionist paintings – along with elegant, meticulously detailed works by James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and other champions of realism, and a selection of fashions that mirror or, in fact, were worn by the painters’ models – to three great institutions, offering audiences in Paris, New York and Chicago a window into the roots of modernism.

Impressionism and Fashion debuted in fall 2012 at the Musée d’Orsay and has just opened at its second venue, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. (In the US, the show is titled Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity.) At the Met, the show fills eight galleries and consists of more than 80 paintings (including Manet’s Nana (1877), Degas’s The Millinery Shop (c1882-86), Renoir’s The Swing (1876) and Monet’s Women in the Garden (1866)); period fashions and accessories; fashion plates and prints; illustrations and periodicals; photographs and cartes de visite. When cumulative attendance is tallied after the show closes at its final destination, the Art Institute of Chicago, it will most likely register as one of the most popular museum events of the past few years.

Rather than position fashion as an art in itself, as many recent fashion- and designer-focused exhibitions have done, this display forges links between high fashion, thinkers, writers and artists from the mid-1860s to mid-1880s, when Paris experienced dramatic changes: Baron Haussmann’s transformation of the urban landscape; the launch of a lucrative and competitive fashion industry; and widespread embrace of a new concept of modernity (i.e., fast and fleeting, urbane and irreproachably stylish).

In her catalogue essay, “The Social Network of Fashion”, exhibition co-curator Gloria Groom points to an oil painting by Berthe Morisot, The Sisters (1869), as an example of the degree to which fashion was a “highly calculated affair”. The scene depicts Morisot with her sister clad in identical day dresses, seated in their genteel family home. While well-placed women planned their wardrobes to achieve specific effects and elicit particular responses, painters dressed their models to draw patrons, as well as to comment on society. A few of the Impressionists came from families in the trade; for example, Renoir’s father was a tailor and his mother a dressmaker. Others, like Manet, had enviable wardrobes themselves. Some collected women’s fashions for their models and research.

Because fashion was such an all-consuming concern of critics and social philosophers of the time, often paintings were judged by the message broadcast by a model’s attire. Morality was encoded in cloth, colour, style and setting. On the commercial side, the same women who read the new fashion magazines, collected fashion plates and ordered manufacturers’ catalogues and pattern books were quick to notice when an artist captured on canvas what, today, we would call a “cutting edge” style: Seurat, for instance, in Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), which was as notable for the novelty of a prominent bustle on a female figure as for the novelty of Seurat’s painting style.

For the spectacular catalogue*, edited by Groom, scholars in the fields of art history, fashion, comparative literature and photography contributed essays on such topics as the rise of department stores, the role of the fashion press, fashion illustration and magazines, portraiture, painting en plein air, photography, menswear – a staid uniform that, paradoxically, imparted a similar ease and confidence to that achieved by women with their elaborate couture – and Paris’s urban environment, where the interplay of fashion, art and modernity was acutely observed and observable.

Lively commentaries on particular paintings like Manet’s The Parisienne (c1875) and Renoir’s Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children (1878) are refreshing interludes between denser sections of text teasing out multiple, complex factors in the captivating story of modernism’s defining moment.
Studio International spoke with Groom, Mary and David Winton Green Curator, Nineteenth-Century European Painting and Sculpture, at the Art Institute of Chicago for insight into some of these factors.

Cindi di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with Studio International, Gloria. First, let us congratulate you and your colleagues – Guy Cogeval and Philippe Thiébaut at the Musée d'Orsay and Susan Alyson Stein at the Met – on developing an array of great beauty and depth. Beyond the gorgeous artworks and fashions, the exhibition is a guide to reading social and cultural messages encoded in them. Where did the idea for the show begin?

Gloria Groom: As with any subject of interest, once you start digging deeper, more avenues of research open up and more questions surface. This is what happened when I asked a simple question: “What is she wearing and why?” and received a long descriptive answer from a costume historian. I think I’ve always known, but have never really stopped to think why, the choice of that particular fashion mattered to the artist, to his model, and whether or not it was fashionable. And then, because this question pertained to Renoir, the poorest of the Impressionists, yet the son of a tailor and seamstress mother, I began to think about his own use of fashion as social signifier, dependent upon a knowledge of the trends in colours, fabrics and, above all, silhouettes, to make it seem immediate and modern.

What is so special about the Impressionists’ era is that it marks the breakdown of hierarchies, the end of the court and the beginning of the Republic, and with this a breakdown of barriers both artistic and social. The status of portraiture – typically to present a flattering view of the sitter’s physiognomy and material wealth – shifted, especially among progressive artists like Manet and his circle, to an interest in art as lived experience. Instead of portraits, these are models, whose identity is less important than the fashions they wear. The more I read about the rise of middle-class consumer culture, the same middle class that spawned the Impressionists and their clientele, I realised that the fashion industry was not just background music for the Impressionists’ approach to a new kind of painting – experiential and immediate – but that fashion was actually a vehicle.  For example, the same metaphors that describe fashion were used to describe the “new painting”: accessible, ever changing and transitory.

To test this theory, I held a kind of pre-colloque at the Art Institute and invited scholars from different disciplines to look at the exhibition’s theme and desiderata for objects. Armed with the insights of scholars including fashion historians, I focused the exhibition more confidently on the confluences with art and fashion in literature, architecture, photography, manufacturing – for example, sewing machines and machine-made laces – and, of course, the popular press. Some of these ideas can only be explored in the catalogue, but we have tried to make this exhibition as visually compelling as possible while all the time focusing foremost on the paintings.

CDM: The exhibition opened to much fanfare at the Musée d'Orsay, where the fashion industry was born, during fall Fashion Week 2012. The size and diversity of the audiences indicate the enduring appeal of Impressionism, as well as an insatiable fascination with the details of fashion. Can you describe the Impressionists’ view of fashion?

GG: The Impressionists were definitely interested in trends in fashion, but they were less interested in the details than the effect of wearing this or that fashion; in other words, the experience not the narrative. For them, fashion was as much about how it is worn, how it moves, how it catches the light, as it was about the fussier details that you see in paintings by James Tissot or Jean Béraud. That is why I wanted to feature iconic paintings, paintings that were exhibited and talked about by the critics, by the Impressionists and also by other artists in their social circles who were exploiting fashion for very different ends. 

CDM: The exhibition explores powerful, multi-faceted changes affecting Paris during the mid- to late-19th century: a radical redesign of the architectural landscape by Baron Haussmann under Napoleon III, an industrial revolution, the launching of department stores and fashion magazines, and new literary theories and philosophies articulating a modern aesthetic. Can you describe some of the hallmarks of modernity at that time?

GG: Many of these social, industrial and historical confluences are expressed more fully in the catalogue, but we have tried to suggest these by offering examples of fashion plates, advertisements, catalogues for department stores and dress patterns to emphasise the extent to which consumer culture, popular press and fashion merged. One has to remember that the Singer Sewing machine was available at an affordable price by the 1860s and that the paper pattern was also invented around that time. In the English version of the catalogue, we provided a brief synopsis of important dates in the fashion industry. Department stores offered for the first time fixed prices and “sales” on fabrics, accessories and even some ready-to-wear that made fashion more available to a larger number of people. Even the large plate glass windows ubiquitous to the grands magasins allowed one to see and be seen, as did Haussmann’s urban renewal of Paris, which turned the capital into one giant fashion show.

CDM: The link between clothing and fine art is a popular topic. What we discover in Fashion, Impressionism & Modernity, though, is an on-going dialogue between contemporary tastemakers, cultural commentators and visual artists. Tissot, for example, collected and studied fashions. Is this true for the Impressionists?

GG: While our exhibition points out that fashion played a powerful role in the early careers of the Impressionists, their understanding and access to fashion varied. Manet and Morisot benefited from family wealth and connections so that fashion was literally on display at their family get-togethers. One has the sense that Manet, in particular, “played” with fashion as a way of dressing up his favorite model, Victorine, and letting her play grande dame or coquette. Renoir and Monet were more aspirational; one senses in their earliest full-figure paintings of mistresses – Lise and Camille – that they were announcing themselves as “fashionable” painters through their choice of up-to-the-minute dresses, which may or may not have been owned by model or artist. On the other hand, Degas was an astute observer of womens’ fashions. We know from his letters that he enjoyed visiting dressmakers with female friends, and the millinery shops that he painted throughout most of his career.

CDM: Clothing is a potent marker of identity, public and personal. This notion was a primary concern for writers, thinkers and artists during the period you cover in the show. These personalities range from avant-garde French poets Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé and novelist Émile Zola to visual artists whose styles are seen to be antithetical. For instance, Tissot and Stevens versus the Impressionists. Yet, seen in context with Impressionist paintings from the same period and amplified with period costumes, Tissot’s work argues persuasively for inclusion under the umbrella of “modernism”. Can you spotlight a few elements that bring opposing aesthetics closer than, perhaps, their creators would acknowledge?

GG: As I argue in the catalogue, Tissot, Stevens and Carolus-Duran were fellow-artists within the Impressionists’ orbit, and they offered yet another expression of “modernity”. In the 1860s, one sees a closer affinity between the two groups – Monet and his circle and what Zola called the “peintre-couturiers” – especially when confronted by their full-scale portrait-like images of fashionable women. By the late 1860s and 1870s, the divide widens as Monet, Renoir and other Impressionists increasingly stress instantaneous painting as if they were catching modern life on the fly. They offered a shorthand transcription of reality rather than its mirror in their works, using looser, visible brushwork to integrate figure to background, ambiguous facial expressions, and a total absence of narrative.

CDM: The exhibition as shown in Paris, New York and Chicago diverges in some ways, with different fashions and additional paintings included in the States. Canadian theatre designer Robert Carsen did the design for Paris and Chicago, and the Met’s Michael Lapthorn created the New York look. Aside from these variations, putting together a travelling exhibition involves sharing – and transporting – many major works. Can you give us an idea of the decision-making process involved in the selection?

GG: I am so pleased that the Paris and New York installations offer such different experiences. To me, an exhibition is like an opera, which travels with different set designers, costumers and lighting professionals, while sharing the same score and libretto. I wanted the paintings to remain central, and we tried hard to obtain the same works for all three venues. One of the most important factors was the loan of 23 works from the Musée d’Orsay to both US venues. Douglas Druick, then curator and now director [of the Art Institute] and I first approached Guy Cogeval, Orsay’s president and director, knowing that the only way we could possibly undertake the exhibition was with loans from their iconic collection.

But the costumes they presented from the Palais Galliera, Musée des arts décoratifs, [were too fragile] to travel to the US. Thankfully, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was also early on board as a partner. [The Met] has an amazing paintings’ collection from this period. The Costume Institute has costume conservators and curators who have advised us at every stage of the project, and they have made it possible for us to show the same costumes in New York and Chicago.

As for our decision-making conversations, Guy was tirelessly enthusiastic and had the genius idea of bringing in Robert Carsen to set the stage [in Paris]. Curator Philippe Thiebaut was also tremendously engaged with the project and came to Chicago to brainstorm ideas for the exhibition. Gary Tinterow, the Met’s curator, was first involved with the exhibition. His departure in early 2012 left Susan Stein to masterfully curate the exhibition, running with the themes to create a very different installation than Paris, but no less beautiful and intelligent. In the end, collaboration was not difficult since everyone believed in the thesis. Our goal was to ensure that this was, foremost, a paintings exhibition. Each institution was free to create its own exhibition appropriate to the space, audience and the way it wanted to tell the story. 
[Editor’s note: Tinterow now directs the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and contributed to the catalogue.]

CDM: Can you describe the role that fashion played for women Impressionists like Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès, who are represented in the show? Are there apparent differences by gender?

GG: These strong, affluent and well-educated women were also incredibly well connected with the literary and artistic avant-garde through their families and friends. Morisot and Cassatt were also personally involved in fashion as female consumers with strong personal styles that appealed to their artist-friends – Manet and Degas, respectively – who painted them. In the US venues, we have included the original glass negative and photograph of Berthe Morisot, from Musée Marmottan, wearing the same black dress with which she “fashioned” her young model in the delicious little painting Before the Theatre.

CDM: The exhibition highlights certain figures as archetypes of the time: the flâneur, or observer, and the Parisienne, the exquisitely attired woman of taste. These characters strolled Haussmann's boulevards in great splendor and are featured in many Impressionist paintings. Can you point to a few works in the show that excel in capturing these icons of the age?

GG: To me, Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), is the poster child for the experience of walking Haussmann’s Paris and is, in some ways, a monumental distillation of Jean Béraud’s small genre scenes of fashionable quartiers.Both Paris and New York devoted a gallery to paintings of well-heeled men and women at the opera, theatre and at the ball, representing another arena for fashion on display.

CDM: Certainly, Caillebotte’s painting stands as one of the most memorable images in Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity. Thank you for revealing its symbolic quality for us, Gloria, and for speaking with Studio International about the exhibition. Your comments add much to our appreciation of the Impressionists, their works and their methods.

* Catalogue distributed by Yale University Press in hardcover (US$65/UK£45) – with a paperback edition available at the Met and Art Institute (US$40).

 



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