The Pola Art Foundation is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and as part of this, the Pola Museum of Art has organized an ambitious exhibition that aims to present a cross-disciplinary view of art, product design and women’s fashion of 19th- and early 20th-century France.
With two floors of vintage clothing, beautifully crafted cosmetic paraphernalia, archive illustrations and paintings by some of the big names of impressionism and post-impressionism, the exhibits are diverse in form and function. This combination of media works especially well when magazine pages or paintings depicting a particular type of dress are shown with actual items of clothing from the period in question. The exhibition opens, for example, with a delicate English cotton and silk afternoon dress, ringed with eggshell blue stripes, dating back to the 1860s. Displayed alongside is the 1865 painting “The Beach Near Trouville” by Eugene Boudin, which shows society belles dressed in a similar fashion.
Though the title of the show is “Modern Beauty: Art and Fashion in France,” most of the sample dresses are in fact from England. However, with trends being carefully followed from across the channel throughout the Industrial Revolution, this is not a serious impediment to understanding the major shifts in style. In both countries the high-waisted neo-classical Empire-line dress gave way to corsetry, hooped skirts and crinoline around the 1820s. This was followed by a flattened front, achieved with tight lacing and corsetry, and the exaggerated posterior of the bustle, a contraption made of wire and/or padding that is iconic of the complex nature of Victorian-era sexuality.
The exhibition provides a pristine example of a dark brown American silk and satin afternoon dress dated 1883. The dress is from the “second bustle era,” after the pronounced posterior had once gone out of fashion only to be brought back, courtesy of the House of Worth, for one last voluminous hurrah. The bustle was finally extinguished by criticism of the uncomfortable posture, lampooned at that time as the “Grecian bend,” and followed by the advance of the more relaxed “aesthetic” dress, championed by fin de siecle artists and intellectuals such as Oscar Wilde.
The final section of the exhibition, titled “Liberation,” shows how comfort and freedom of physical movement superseded the fussiness of scaffolding. The simple tube silhouette of the Empire-line dress returned, but with the variations of a low asymmetrically tied waist, higher hemline and geometric rather than floral designs, signalling the era of the “flapper.”
One of the exhibits in this section is Jules Pascin’s “Princess Ghika,” a 1921 painting of erstwhile courtesan, Folies-Bergere dancer, writer of lesbian fiction and wife of a Romanian prince Liane de Pougy. De Pougy is depicted wearing a floppy bicorne hat, a style made popular through silent-era swashbuckling movies, a fox stole, and a loose-fitting off-the-shoulder yellow blouse with a blue-black skirt cinched by a colorful patterned brooch. Next to the painting we can see a close replication of this outfit — complete with a real fox stole and a brooch of the same pattern.
The work of Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond would have fitted perfectly into the show, but the only contribution by a female artist, Marie Laurencin, a contemporary of Picasso and Braque, comes in this last part of the exhibition. In other words, the focus is primarily on women as fashion consumers. At its most comic, and occasionally sinister, this is evident in illustrations from fashion magazines such as the 19th-century Le Moniteur de la Mode and La Mode Illustree which go out of their way to show minute differences in the dress design, but in which the women appear as awkwardly posed half-human mannequins, devoid of distinguishing facial features or individual character.
The inclusion of Edgar Degas’ sympathetic 1879-80 rendition “The Mante Family,” in which a mother gently fixes her daughter’s red choker as the young ballerina prepares to go on stage, while her older sister stands idly by, bored and distracted, only serves to highlight how little women’s internal emotional lives are acknowledged in the exhibition.
Another missed opportunity is that, apart from a line or two of text that notes the 19th-century fads of chinoiserie and Japonisme, the huge impact of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints on the development of modern art is left unexplored. Had it not been for images of the “floating world” of the geisha, it is questionable whether the impressionists would have portrayed the Parisian demi-monde in the flattened pictorial space that they did. Similarly, the subject of ordinary women in the act of combing their hair or bathing, a recurring subject in ukiyo-e, might not have taken on such prominence.
But enough mansplaining; as a contextualized view of modern art in France and the business of beauty at the turn of the century, the exhibition is definitely worth a visit. It is not exceptionally a la mode intellectually, but then, as is made abundantly clear, it’s not easy keeping up to date with the latest fashions.
“Modern Beauty: Art and Fashion in France” at the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, runs until Sept. 4; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. ¥1,800. www.polamuseum.or.jp
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