Art Institute exhibit ponders binding ties between fashion and painting
BY KYLE MACMILLAN June 18, 2013 9:08PM
James Tissot's 1870 "Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby" is part of the "Impressionism, Fashion, Modernity" exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.
When: June 26-Sept. 22
Where: The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
Tickets: Free with regular museum admission
Info: (312) 443-3600; artic.edu
Updated: July 20, 2013 6:19AM
Given the hundreds, if not thousands of Impressionist exhibitions in the last few decades alone, simply assembling a heady assortment of eye-catching works by the likes of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas is no longer good enough.
To secure loans of key artworks from other museums, persuade institutions to sign on as touring venues and pique the interest of increasingly over-saturated viewers, curators have to come up with shows that offer fresh, innovative ways to look at this pivotal artistic era.
And that is exactly what curator Gloria Groom has done in a groundbreaking exhibition running June 26-Sept. 22 at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is the biggest and most important Impressionist presentation to be on display there in nearly two decades.
The offering’s straightforward title, “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” lays out the basic intent. Other exhibitions have examined Impressionism and modernity and at least one has looked at the movement’s tie to fashion. But no previous show has delved into the interrelationships among these three powerful cultural forces in such an in-depth and large-scale fashion.
“Our premise is that fashion mattered for these artists,” Groom said. “You think about what was happening around the Impressionists, and they were looking to make their name, and they know that modern life is where it’s at. And what is more modern than fashion, which changes constantly and has that same excitement and nouveaute?”
The exhibition, co-organized by two of the world’s other great repositories of Impressionism, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, contains 75 paintings, 17 dresses and an array of fashion accessories, works on paper and related ephemera — about 300 objects in all.
Because landscapes dominated Impressionism, many of the mostly 1860s and ’70s works of this exhibition, which tend to be portraits and interior scenes, are lesser known, and some are being seen for the first time in the United States.
That said, the exhibition contains its share of oft-seen masterworks, such as Renoir’s “The Loge” (1874) and “Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children” (1878) and Mary Cassatt’s “Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge” (1879), not to mention well-known selections from the Art Institute’s own collection, such as Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884” (1884-86).
That choice of subject matter also helps explain why certain major Impressionists, such as Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, are nowhere to be found, and other, slightly less well-known ones like Berthe Morisot and Frederic Bazille are amply showcased.
The exhibition’s thesis is relatively simple: By the mid-19th century, with the rising importance of an upwardly aspiring middle class, industrialized production of apparel and new attitudes toward dress and social life, fashion played an increasingly influential role in modern French society.
Indeed, a new kind of independent-minded, fashion-oriented woman emerged, a type that came to be known as La Parisienne, a moniker that recurs repeatedly throughout this show and serves as the title of two of its two key selections: a full-length 1874 portrait by Renoir and competing one a year or so later by Edouard Manet.
The Impressionists not only seized on fashionable women — and stylish men — as part of their bid for a new brand of realism, but they also saw the inclusion of such subjects as a kind of proof of their own modernist bona fides.
Perhaps even more fascinating is how contemporary viewers would have read these paintings and drawn clues — right or wrongly — abut about the types of women being portrayed. Well-heeled women, for example, supposedly only wore white corsets, and only courtesans and other less reputable women would don colored corsets, such as a red one tossed on the floor near a nude libertine sprawled across a bed in Henri Gervex’s once-scandalous “Rolla” (1878).
To help illustrate the connections among between the art and fashion of the era, some of the paintings are paired with dresses similar to the ones featured, and examples of other kinds of apparel and accessories pictured are also on view, including hats and corsets.
To further help transport visitors back to the time when these artworks were made, the galleries have been given a period feel, with curved-window vitrines like those in a 19th-century French dress shop. The floor of a gallery displaying works depicting fashion “en plein air” is lined with artificial grass and recorded bird calls play overhead.
“Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” offers a new way to look at an old subject, and it serves a refreshing reminder that this once-revolutionary art movement was about much more than boating parties and pretty paintings.
Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.