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Canvas and Sash – A Meet at the Met

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Feb 26-May 27, 2013  —

At first glance Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, on view at the MET through May 27th, looks less interesting than it actually is. Just in case a large-scale exhibition of great Impressionist paintings doesn’t pander enough to the tastes of the general art going public, this exhibition pairs Impressionist painting with the actual gowns and accessories worn by their sitters. What could possibly be more appealing than a show that brings together the great lifestyle portraitists of the late 19th century and the bourgeoning reputation of modern Parisian fashion? While it sounds like a vacuous blockbuster, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity forces its viewers to consider art and fashion in the same context and through a similar lens, dispelling many of the hierarchical misconceptions that surround art and fashion.

The direct comparisons and indirect juxtapositions of the exhibition render it subtly but subversively provocative: perhaps more so even than the curators themselves intended. Not every painting in the exhibition, of which there are over eighty, has a corresponding dress, and not every accessory was painted, but there are enough of both to create many unusual dichotomies. Like art that utilizes text, while sometimes the two can work in tandem, often viewers spend their time trying to assess which is more interesting, the art or the text. Something of a similar nature also happens in this exhibition. When the garments grab our attention the paintings surrounding them fade into the background, and yet are also few garments that can compete with the paintings of the Impressionists. The mood and character captured in their impromptu brush strokes often trumps bows, stripes, and ruffles. This tension, however, gives the exhibition its strength. Viewers find themselves wondering at every turn what makes a painting captivating, a garment great, and how our understanding of each changes when the two are presented side by side.

The caliber of the paintings in Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, vary greatly from room to room, illustrating the problematic nature of picking paintings for their fashion rather than for their success as portraits. As a result, many of the works, primarily those by James Tissot, Frédéric Bazille and Carolus-Duran, are simply decorative portraits. The paintings by Monet, Manet, Renior, Degas, and Cassatt, on the other hand, stand out as emotive masterpieces. Together the artwork reminds us that it is not just fashion that can be commercial, and artists even today span the gamut between the commercial and the conceptual. Though the paintings in the exhibition were curated together to exemplify modern, Parisian fashion, they actually prove that fashion is not what makes Impressionist portraits, in hindsight, so powerful. While viewers might not actually need this confirmation, the exhibition smartly highlights how differently art and fashion communicate.

The first painting viewers see upon entering the exhibition, Claude Monet’s Camille from 1866, is a perfect example of Impressionist painting overshadowing the corresponding fashion. A massive work over seven feet tall, Camille depicts a statuesque woman with her back to us, head turned over her shoulder in profile. Her stately figure, the shy but deliberate tilt of her head, the subtle gesture of her raised hand and the pensive expression on her face are all captured in expressive detail by Monet. It’s not her striped green gown, with its flowing train, nor her black, fur-trimmed jacket that commands our gaze, but rather the timeless personality we see embedded into the canvas.

Like the great painter he was, Monet captured the modernity of Camille. Letting her garments fade into the murky, neutral colors of the foreground and background, our eyes go immediately to her pale, highlighted face. Her confident yet self-contained countenance elicits wonder and curiosity, and we desire greatly to see beyond her presented identity. It is only after we turn away from Monet’s memorizing portrait that we realize Camille’s lavish green gown is displayed only a few feet away. Faded and out-of-fashion, it looks like a relic from another time, and while it stands before us in the round it feels lifeless, flat and ordinary next to Monet’s portrait.

The direct comparison that happens between the art and fashion, however, is not a total loss like it first seems. It’s impossible to ignore, for instance, how each draftsman chose to render the garments. Similar to how our eyes interpret and recognize color by comparison with other colors, viewers can compare and contrast the garment and the painting in the most literal fashion possible. Stepping inside the mind of the artist, viewers see how much artistic license he or she took with color, form, and pattern. They see the shorthand used to capture a complicated textile, or silhouette, and how three-dimensional objects are turned into two-dimensional renderings. The clothing acts like an inspirational photograph or sketch, giving viewers the rare opportunity to see the artist as a translator, morphing reality into a highly individualized approximation of it. More than any of the actual supporting materials displayed in the exhibition—magazines, illustrations, literary quotes—the artwork and garments are each others supporting materials. As the fashion gives weight to the paintings, the art lends gravity to the garments.

Fashion today looks toward technology for inspiration, and the painters of the 1860s looked to fashion to bring modernity, “the look of the moment,” into painting. By illustrating the progress of modern style, the Impressionists hoped to capture the essence of an exclusive and idealized Parisian life. Depicting leisure pastimes such as plein air picnics, elaborate concerts theater boxes and opera houses, the garments in the exhibition are presented much like they would be today on a style website or fashion blog. Each room of the exhibition is devoted to a trend that feels strangely familiar.

There are day dresses, evening gowns, the white dress, the black dress, and a whole range of accessories to match: parasols, fans, hats for men and woman, gloves, stockings, satin shoes, opera glasses. The fashion in this exhibition tells a very different story than that of the paintings, and it is one that is inseparable from antiquated, though not wholly unfamiliar, ideas surrounding femininity and modesty. The garments, casting the spell of a different time, dominate particular rooms of the exhibition, and the paintings simply provide a sublime backdrop for the meticulous craftsmanship of great Parisian designers.

Everything about the clothing in the exhibition speaks to a rapidly changing society, as modernity quickly ushered in and out of style varied new silhouettes. Bending preconceived notions of beauty and modesty with the shifting shapes of bustles and corsets, offering an exposed ankle or bust, Parisian designers created news look for women and new ways of looking at them. The silhouettes that literally and painfully sculpted these women seem strikingly restrictive now, with their floor length hems and high collars that creep up the throat, but they were revolutionary for their time. The summer day dress worn by Madame Bartholomé in the Painting In the Conservatory, 1880, is stunningly beautiful with its fringe, purple polka dots, stripes, pleats and large bows, though it doesn’t exactly look like a “summer day dress.” It’s hard not to speculate, judging by the clothing exhibited, whether or not the women the Impressionists painted into bight scenes of dancing, laughter and frivolity, were really so carefree.

The most interesting aspect of the garments displayed rests in the contradictions between the garments, the women who wore them, and painters who captured both. The garments themselves reflect the timeless contradictions between fashion and femininity, and Parisian designer’s seemed unable to decide whether or not they wanted women to be graceful and elegant or demure and disarming. The materials, silk, lace and satin with so many tiny buttons, ribbons, and bows, only enhance these contradictions. Each garment has a sophisticated silhouette that has been smothered in an abundance of childlike embellishments, a trend that is still seen in fashion today. In contrast, the Impressionists, blind to these problems of dress, painted women who were mature and self-composed, wise and thoughtful, joyful and carefree. Without the comparisons of this exhibition unearths, we might take for granted the differences between what women wore and how they wore it.

Though Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity stumbles visually, being full of weak links where both the fashion and art is concerned, some truly fascinating and unintentional conceptual comparisons are brought to our attention. It’s not often that an exhibition forces viewers to engage with two familiar subjects in an unfamiliar manner. The exhibition proves that great fashion does not a great painting make, and that a great painting does not necessarily enhance good fashion, but in doing so it shows us why this distinction is so important to understand. Seeking to bring together Impressionist paintings and Parisian fashion, the exhibition works best when each makes viewers forget about the other.


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