While I was in Paris earlier this month, I had the chance to finally check out the current exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, L'Impressionnisme et la Mode. I tried to visit during Paris Fashion Week back in October as well as Nuit Blanche, and both times, found myself locked out either by reason of queue or closure. While I'm no art historian, I would like to share with you a few of the thoughts that popped into my head whilst I wandered the salon-style exhibition, surveying works of cloth and canvas, and why I think this exhibition, as well as a more general consideration of how the "Impressionist" attitude relates to the conceit of fashion, is worthwhile exploring.
The exhibition opens, first and foremost, with a framed newspaper clipping dating March 3, 1884, celebrating the grand opening of Printemps. "Primtemps" which literally means "big store" is located, of course, on Boulevard Haussmann, in and of itself one of the strongest symbols of the "New Paris" that dawned with the Industrial Age. That the exhibition starts here, not with a painting or a pretty summer dress, is telling, as it emphasizes the centrality of the idea of store-bought goods, consumption of clothes in a new way, for a new era, that set the turn of the century apart from all the ones that had preceded it. I remember from my 19th century art history class in college that fashion, suddenly, in painting, became an indicator of a change in society, a fluctuation in social standing. Now that women could merely save up and purchase manufactured (as opposed to seamstress made) clothes in a department store, anyone could (and did) dress up. The lines of where the gentry ended and the bourgeois began were blurred incongruously for the first time in history. For painters like Degas and Manet, the question of whether a woman was a prostitute or an aristocrat was posited in canvas after canvas. Dressing above one's station, fashion as means of social currency available on a wider scale than ever before changed the rules for all time.
Alongside early pages of fashion plates and magazines, behind glass displays there are sequestered delicate slippers and intricately crafted handbags, bottles of perfume and petite parasols, everyday accessories that spoke to the level of meticulousness to which these women adhered their personal style. Fashion was not about a single item or singular beautiful dress, it was a culmination of an obsession with detail, right down to the tiniest satin-covered button. Linking back in to societal concerns addressed by the Impressionist painters, the idea of "le progres" was everywhere; the composite pieces required to adorn a single outfit (of which an aristocratic woman would wear many in a day), emblematic, so to speak, of the commercially driven ethos of progress. Ever changing styles, down to the smallest fan or bejewelled trinket, coupled with the ability to manufacture the items faster and faster, fueled a newly exploded hunger for consumption. Progress, so to speak, by its very nature, underpins and defines the cycles of fashion perpetually hurdling forward even today.
Moving into the main exhibition space, Impressionist masterpieces were displayed amidst a plush-red salon, reminiscent of fashion showcases of day's gone by. The final room, turf-covered and littered with benches, highlights the centrality of the outdoors to the fashion, art and the leisure class. The term turn-of-the-century "resortwear" pops cheekily into mind. The late 20th century Parisiennes had their park promenades, and we, flitting to the tents of the Tuileries during fashion week one hundred plus years later, are no different. This curation nicely hits upon that other aspect of L'Impressionnisme, notions of viewers, viewings and being viewed. Viewing art, fashion, the mere act of gazing, as one of consumption heightened by a newly Haussmannised predisposition to promenade or parade leisurely down the newly christened wide swept avenues of Paris. To see and be seen, this was an ethos of fashion that emerged in this period, and thrives on today (what is: street style? red carpet?), and this was something that intrigued the painters.
Here are my non-expert "impressions" of a handful of paintings that caused me to linger longest...that is, until the clock struck 5:30 and I was shooed away with the rest of the flâneurs back to the gift shop, which, of course, remains open until 6:00. Enjoy!
Manet, Le Balcon, 1868
Watch and be watched...the three figures in this painting indulge in the ultimate sport of modernity: flâneurie. Do they perch in their finest on their "balcon" because they are curious to see what's going on below, or perhaps for those below to look up and behold them in all their splendour? Or the third possibility, for us as viewers to behold them beholding others? Though the two women sit sequestered out of the sun's reach on the balcony, the one nonetheless holds a parasol, the other a fan, but neither object is in use. They are mere decorative accessories, perhaps, one could say, just as the two women are for the man. As the dog is to them, they are to him.
Renoir, Portrait of Madame Charpentier and her Daughters, 1878
The distinguished Madame, alas, resembles more her dog than her daughters. Well-kept, well-groomed, reclining somewhat horizontally across the canvas, they both abound in strokes of black and white, creatures of that feminine space to which the exhibition also dedicates a space: the interior.
Gervex, Rolla, 1878
This Gervex was one of the paintings that fascinated me most. I even bought a postcard of it. Prostitute or no, here is a woman, reclining after certain calisthenics, her clothes, crinoline, corset and all piled beside her on the floor, pearls languishing droopily off the bedside table. The garments, interestingly enough, share a colour and texture with the linens of the bed, the facilitators of seduction, both before and during. But in the after, there is only her form, the simplicity of her flesh unadorned, naked in its timelessness, unlike the discarded heap on the floor that dates squarely to 1878. Fashion, more than anything (those who can name this season's Givenchy print will know) is a precise marker of time. And it is there, to her unadorned nudity, that the man's attention is drawn, the view that captivates him despite the modern sprawl of Haussmann's city beyond the double paned windows. There is something naive about this painting that suggests that, despite all the layers of finery with which we swathe our bodies, or the splendour of the surroundings in which we wear them, beneath it all, we are simply man and woman, and always will be.
Béraud, Une Soirée, 1878
To end on a more optimistic note, because, for all the whimsical beauty that we now associate with the Impressionists, in my opinion, the methods do not meet the message, as the undertones expressed the contemporary concerns of the artists--as all art is meant to do. Nonetheless, what I'd like to point out about this painting is the instrumental role of fashion in elevating the visibility of the woman. While women were always objects to be worshiped and admired, in art and in history, in the eras preceding the "modern" one, men too had their share of fashion flair (we've all watched The Tudors). It is in this period that he begins to recede into the background, clad in suits of black and white, with subtle accents like ties and top hats. In the modern era, the era of the Impressionists carrying right on through today, it is the women who shine. The birth of fashion as an industry as we know it has sculpted it into one that is first and foremost associated with the female, necessitating the use of the prefix "men" when discussing clothes worn by men. Fashion as an industry, is first and foremost, female. And that, in and of itself, one could argue, is a true marker of "Le Progres."
25 September 2012 - 20 January 2013
Open from 9.30am to 6pm daily, except Mondays & late night on Thursdays until 9.45pm