Friday, June 8, 2012

Is it Art? Reflections on the “Impossible Conversation” at the Met

Elsa Schaparelli, Jacket
French, Synthetic and Leather, 1937
New York, Metropolitan Museum, Costume Institute
After about two months of difficulties with walking and standing I’ve finally returned to some museum going. But, although I had imagined that my first visit would be to the current Met exhibition “Byzantium and Islam”, it was to something entirely different. The Met is also currently staging an exhibition from its Costume Institute that is framed as a conversation of words and works between the legendary designer Elsa Schiaparelli (died 1973) and the contemporary designer Miuccia Prada. Indeed, the conversation of works is dominated by projected snippets of the conversation in words. This is an actual conversation, staged between the real-life Ms. Prada and an actress (Judy Davis) playing the part of Schiaparelli. The video conversation was directed by the theatrical director, Baz Luhrmann. The walls of the galleries become the screens onto which their discussion is projected. The discussions cover topics that include their life stories (Prada’s early fascination with mime, Schiaparelli’s love life) and their work (Schiaparelli’s collaboration with Dali, Prada’s ideas on how clothing affects self-image).

Schaparelli and Prada, Waist Up/Waist Down
In this gallery the jackets are by Schaparelli and the skirts by Prada
New York, Metropolitan Museum
Meanwhile, the actual objects on display are the dresses, skirts, jackets, coats and accessories created by the two women. The “conversation” theme applies here too. The clothing is shown in pairings, centered around several themes: “Waist Up/Waist Down”, “Ugly Chic”, “Hard Chic”, “Naif Chic”, “The Exotic Body”, “The Classical Body”. For example, according to the subtext of the “Waist Up/Waist Down” section which opens the show, Schiaparelli, living in the era of “café society”, where women were seen primarily from the waist up, focused her creativity above the waist. Conversely, Prada reserves her highest creativity for the skirt. The items on display include spectacular Schiaparelli evening jackets (any of which I would be happy to wear today) and almost equally spectacular skirts by Prada (although here, actually wearing a couple of them could present some interesting technical problems).

Schaparelli, Zodiac Jacket
French, Summer 1937
Silk, rhinestones, metal, plastic
New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute
Prada, Skirt
Italian, Spring/Summer 2005
Photo © Toby McFarlan Pond

One of the most arresting facets of the projected “conversation” that particularly spoke to me was the contrasting opinions of the two women on the issue of whether art is fashion or not. Schiaparelli states quite directly that “Dress designing…is to me not a profession but an art”, Prada doesn’t think that it is anything of the kind. Her comment is that “Dress designing is creative, but it is not an art. Fashion designers make clothes and they have to sell them. We have less creative freedom than artists. But to be honest, whether fashion is art or whether even art is art doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art. Who cares!”1   And, interestingly, they are both right –- for their own eras and for their own collections.
Schaparelli, Shoe Hat
Photo from L'Officiel, October 1937
Photo © George Saad
Les Editions Jalou, L'Officiel

Schaparelli, Insect Necklace
French, Autumn 1938
Plastic, metal
New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute

True to her belief in fashion as art, Schiaparelli worked frequently with other artists, particularly with Dali and other Surrealists. Her 1937 and 1938 collections must have been particularly interesting in this regard. In 1937 she collaborated with Dali on producing two of the most whimsical hats that I’ve ever seen: the shoe hat and the lamb chop hat. These hats look like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They look like – well – a shoe and a lamb chop. The lamb chop hat is even adorned with a frilly “panty” just like a real, elegantly served lamb chop. In 1938 a number of her designs, including a very famous necklace, incorporated enameled metal insects. The necklace featured a clear plastic base and, when worn, created the impression of insects crawling over the skin.

Schiaparelli’s creative genius shone most brightly in evening wear, especially in the stunning display of evening capes and jackets on display in the first gallery of the show. The very first item, in fact, is her beautiful evening cape, known as the Apollo of Versailles.

Schaparelli, Apollo of Versailles evening cape
French, Winter 1938-1939
Silk velvet, metallic beads, rhinestones
New York, Metropolitan Museum, Costume Institute
On black velvet, the image of the Apollo from the principal fountain at Versailles is recreated, with his horses, in a tour de force example of bead embroidery, using seed beads, bugle beads and sequins in metallic finishes of silver and gold, along with glittery crystal elements for the eyes of the horse and the interiors of the clouds. The opposing number from Prada featured a skirt of orange silk twill, black felted wool, orange plastic fringe and orange-dyed feathers that reminded me of nothing so much as a punk version of the French maid in Disney’s film of “Beauty and the Beast” who, during the period of enchantment, was portrayed as a feather duster.

Farther into the exhibition are some sensational clothing from both designers reflecting, not surprisingly, their different temperaments and different eras. Schiaparelli’s clothing remained always on the exalted plane of haute couture which, during the era in which she was designing was very haute indeed. Only a few pieces seem to touch the earthy everyday.

Schaparelli and Prada, The Classical Body
In this gallery view the three long dresses are by Schaparelli and the short dresses are by Prada

Prada, Dress
Italian, Spring/Summer 2011
Photo © David Sims
Prada, on the other hand, while definitely able to turn on the glam, also seems more workaday, as well as more problematic. Of course, what is on display is only a fraction of her output, but this predominantly features extreme examples of her aesthetic.

Prada, Lips skirt
Italian, Spring/Summer 2000
Photo © Toby McFarlan Pond

Among these are: her famous lipstick and lips skirts (covered with either lipstick tubes or with big red lips), the latter contrasted with a black suit by Schiaparelli (see above, worn with the shoe hat), with embroidered red lips on the pockets. There is also a Prada pinkish double knit dress covered from neck to hem in synthetic dyed-to-match faux fur and an odd coat with pants, impeccably tailored, but in a fabric so loud and ugly that it puzzles the intellect. However, her work also illustrates the lowered aesthetic level of much of contemporary design. Here I am not speaking about quality or imaginative use of fabric, but merely about the design itself. Contemporary design seems so pared down to essentials that it almost ceases to exist. Often it seems to be merely an upscale version of items available at Old Navy.

Prada, Lipstick skirt
Italian, Spring/Summer 2000
Photo © Toby McFarlan Pond
This observation also seems to reflect their differing statements about fashion as art and Prada’s question about whether art is art. Once such a question would have been both impossible and completely non-sensical. Art seemed obvious, and the definition of art seemed settled. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary provides this traditional definition of art “The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” And the dividing line between “high art” and “low art” seemed assured. As defined by the 19th-century critic, John Ruskin, “High art differs from low art in possessing an excess of beauty in addition to its truth, not in possessing excess of beauty inconsistent with truth.”2  
Or, as John Keats would have it
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’3

Apparently this is no longer the case. If art cannot be defined, then anything can be art.  And this seems to be the key to much of what we have seen from contemporary art in the last few decades.

1. These quotes from Schiaparelli and Prado are taken from the wall cards of the exhibition. The exhibition runs through August 19.
2. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. III, p. 33.
3. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, 1819.

© M. Duffy, 2012

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