Thursday, 28 February 2008

Larry Clark: more KIDS a couple decades on

Larry Clark: Los Angeles 2003 – 2006

Larry Clark, one of the most admired photographer-filmmakers of his generation, renowned for the cult classic “KIDS” and further, if slightly more obscure and controversial films such as “Another Day In Paradise”, “Bully” and “Ken Park” – now exhibits his photography in London.
Berkeley Square is a far cry from the deadbeat sun-drenched Los Angeles that is the subject of the exhibition, and affects a strange irony as neo-yuppies eye malcontent tear-aways.
LA is present in the reflections caught in the eye of the main muse, a young Latino boy who grows up with each click of the shutter, LA is the atmosphere and the aesthetic, the mood and the moon that gives the boy’s coming of age a rhythm and a context.
The exhibition is the latest installment in a life-long artistic preoccupation with youth in its urban sprawl, transformation and descent, intimacy and detachment. The exhibition unfolds Jonathan Velasquez’s personality before the lens as it shifts and retreats, as he steps forward and withdraws, doubt and bravado in turn glimmering in his expression, his personality both revealed and constricted by the deadening lit setting of LA.
Larry Clark started working as a photographer at thirteen for the family business in Tulsa, by sixteen was shooting amphetamines and pictures of his friends shooting amphetamines and it was a preoccupation and subject matter he never left. His work has sparked outrage and discussion about social issues since the sixties and today it is no less astute and illuminating. He continues to capture the essence of youthful experience and the momentary sensuality and vulnerability of the dispossessed or distracted. He has inspired countless young photographers and artists; Bret Easton Ellis notably cited his work as inspiring his legendary novels, “Less Than Zero” and “The Rules of Attraction”. Even at sixty Larry Clark continuously captures youth with a combination of hard-earned wisdom and the same candor and freshness caught in the faces of his subjects.
This collection of photographs continues Clark’s exploration into the heart of adolescence, into motion without meaning and quietude without drive, into fleeting enlightenment and falling darkness, into what it is to be individual and alone in one shot and at one with the group the next. The drama of human identity on speed, unfolding and developing and evoking in the viewer an intimate connection with the photographer, the boy and and the atmosphere of tension and torn vanity.
Larry Clark is a photographer whose motive is honesty. He does not glamorize his subjects, he does not smother their identity with make-up or bleach them with clever lighting (see Vanity Fair Portraits if your preference is glamour). He depicts his subjects at their most vulnerable and personal without preying or prying or disturbing. The click of the shutter sounds so faint it could be mistaken for the beat of time, as he chronicles with a sort of modern naturalism what it is to be young and to lose it.

Larry Clark: Los Angeles 2003 – 2006
Simon Lee Gallery
Berkeley Street W1J 8DT

Friday, 22 February 2008

Big Bang: Creation and Destruction in 20th Century Art

The Pompidou Centre, Paris
15 June 2005-27 February 2006

The Pompidou Centre does not usually present its art works thematically. But, as its latest exhibition, 'Big Bang' demonstrates, its approaches are expanding and developing and the Pompidou is indeed the space of iconoclasm it was intended to be. Its exhibition really is a blast. As Catherine Grenier, Curator of the exhibition explains:

'Big Bang' is an entirely novel experience ... This change of approach is based on a theme which is critical to understanding art since the beginning of the 20th century: the modern Big Bang. By demanding radical liberation and shattering established values, modern art produced a kind of creative destructiveness ... Released from the weighty burden of History and the constraints of the academic approach to art, the artists of the 20th century introduced a rich and entirely new way of perceiving the world around them which has had a profound and irreversible influence on our contemporary consciousness. This new approach to structuring the collection has been based on the idea of continuous expansion of forms and creative forces emanating from the destruction of the original centre.1
Nietzsche's announcement in the 19th century that God is dead was significant in art's 'Big Bang' for the explosion of philosophy that succeeded it: a destruction of the original concept of God preceded the creation of humanist philosophy, which in turn influenced art and literature. The parallel 'Big Bang' of the Industrial Revolution - the spark of globalisation and political explosions - the first two world wars and the Russian Revolution in particular preceded not only an intensely violent period in world history, but a scientifically and artistically progressive one, in that ideas and constructs were and are continuously challenged. Many argue that society, and, therefore, art, has been regressive rather than progressive - recently Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons echoed this sentiment with a paradise lost on campus - and others insist on essential rotundity; Sisyphus still pushes the rock up the hill. 'Big Bang' at the Pompidou encompasses all of this: planets turn around within progressive galaxies, but, essentially, progression supersedes individual absurdities. The Pompidou sees the bigger picture.

Each main theme - 'Destruction', 'Construction/Deconstruction', 'Archaism', 'Sex', 'War', 'Subversion', 'Melancholy' and 'Re-enchantment' - is then split into several rooms and sub-themes. The rooms are linked by artists whose exhibits cross over themes - Warhol, Picasso and Duchamp, for example - and the beat of partly acoustic installations, whose sound carries through the rooms. Just as the mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland carries a ticking clock, so the presence of time is domineering throughout this exhibition, with a variety of works that tick and chime so that the beat goes on and on.

In the first room is a work suitably named 'My attempt to raise hell'. It is a small iron sculpture of a sitting man, whose head loudly clashes with a large bell, with large enough intervals in between so that the trick affects screaming, laughing and expressions of horror from unsuspecting viewers. In other rooms, a man counts numbers and monotonous music plays. The cause and effect of this is parallel to a theme explored in The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. In this novel, Gatsby is obsessed with time:
... His dream founders on his impossible insistence that time can be not only reversed but erased ... The attempt he is making to stop time, but elsewhere the clocks are ticking like mad. There is an unusually large number of time words in the novel - over four hundred.2
The habitual rhythm is a constant reminder of the presence of mortality - of life, of time running out, and the immediate problem of being lost in such a wonderland, and such a wasteland.

As the exhibition points out, in a subtle display of significant literature of the 20th century (Beckett, Kafka, Sartre), art and literature are two galaxies created from the same Big Bang. They are parallel worlds, in fact, where only the mirrors look different, but the beats differ in pace; hence the residual chaos. There is an atmosphere of flux in a space that sprawls with people of all ages and backgrounds, filled with artists whose only common denominator is their involvement in the 20th century. Hunter S Thomson, the explosive American writer, who committed suicide in 2005, wrote recently that a Chinese wise man cursed him, 'May you live in interesting times'. His curse was universal for bohemian habitués of the 20th century, for they all lived through such fascinating blues and jazz.

The exhibition certainly brings together highlights from the zeitgeist. It is wonderland, a circus, a hell, a paradise, and a parody. It is a curriculum vitae of the 20th century, a dolce vita captured on canvas, a vital stab at human suffering.
One room named 'Mirrors/Entropy' is filled with mirrors and illusions, designed to play with your perceptions. The adjacent room is constructed around childhood, and there is a garden of fake flowers and grass, aluminium and body parts, all much larger than an ordinary garden. There is also a video film where children are shown dressed as adults in their own garden party, with adult voices dubbed over their movements and gestures, in a comic manner.

Juxtaposed against playful illusions and childish games are outright confrontations with the darkness in the night skies - the wasteland - and the grotesque aspect of this circus, our world. A piece by the recent winner of the Venice Biennale, Annette Messager, entitled, 'Les Piques' (1992-1993), shows dolls smothered in black transparent fabric, pierced with five foot sticks in a voodoo fashion, lined up against a white wall, as if massacred - the valley of the dolls systematically destroyed by another firing squad. The piece is disturbing but somehow familiar, taking advantage of the common experience of childhood to create a violation that is universal in identification. 'Jeux d'enfants' by Sigmar Polke (1988) is another work of similar point, which shows two children playing in a wild battlefield. Everywhere in Paris, in self-promotion for the city's bid for the Olympic Games in 2012, was the slogan 'L'amour des jeunes' under the famous photograph 'Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, Paris' by Robert Doisneau. The juxtaposition of two young children playing in a no man's land and two young people embracing is ironic and touching.

To understand art's 'Big Bang', it is important to examine the actual Big Bang, and its implications for its metaphysical counterparts. It is widely assumed that the universe began with the Big Bang. But what is relevant now is what this explosion precedes: that is, the universe in the present and the future. The exhibition at the Pompidou gives a brief history of 20th century art: but what now? What next?

The stars in a galaxy cannot move away from one another because gravity holds the galaxy together. However, the galaxies themselves are moving away from each other and astronomers do not rule out the possibility that all galaxies will come together in about 70 billion years. This would happen if the universe contained more of a substance called dark matter, than the matter that is seen in galaxies. The gravitational pull of the dark matter would slow the expansion and all the material in the universe would eventually collapse, then explode again. The universe would then enter a new phase, possibly resembling the present one. The search for dark matter is a major area of research.3

Now, in art, the revolutionary movements that began so simply with cubism, fauvism and surrealism have expanded and moved away from each other, into new independent galaxies of thought and practice. And yet, some of these movements have come together in new forms - post-everything - and the original definitions are blurred and ambiguous. The stage has come where dark matter overwhelms what already exists in the art universe. As modern artists, such as Annette Messager, increasingly confront the dark matter of these terrorised times - an artistic instinct - so these differing movements and media combine to an essential observation and understanding. Therefore, it is indeed timely that the Pompidou should bring together such diverse movements of art, which represent the post everything return to an essential understanding of creation and destruction, and the realisation of dark matter, the subject matter of today. 'The Triumph of Painting' exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London bears witness to this: 'The search for dark matter is a major area of research.'

So, as the 20th century has recently closed and artistic movements congregate in Paris, where they began in the original Big Bang, it seems that after the dark matter, a new explosion is imminent. The art world will enter a new phase, which will be the real test: will it be progressive, or will it simply resemble the world that passes slowly? One thing is certain: it will be even bigger:
And the astronomers - could they have understood and calculated anything if they had taken into account all the complicated and varied motions of the earth? All the marvellous conclusions they have reached about the distances, weight, movements, and disturbances of the celestial bodies are based on the apparent movement of the stars round a stationary earth - on the very movement I am witnessing now, that millions of men have witnessed during long ages, that has been and always will be the same, and that can always be trusted. And just as the conclusions of the astronomers would have been idle and precarious had they not been founded on observations of the visible heavens in relation to a single meridian and a single horizon ... He heard Kitty's voice ... She would not have been able to make out his expression had not a flash of lightning that blotted out the stars illuminated it for her. The lightning showed her his face distinctly, and seeing that he was calm and happy she smiled at him. This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I dreamed it would ... But be it faith or not - I don't know what it is - through suffering this feeling has crept just as imperceptibly into my heart and has lodged itself firmly there.4
'Big Bang' explodes all residual dark matter of the past, of the 20th century, and precedes new movement, subtle as the transition may be. As the installations at the Pompidou tick and chime, so we wait for it all to go off again. We are addicted to the beat. Our ears still ring from the last explosion and that ringing has been orchestrated into a masterpiece at the Pompidou.

So even when it all blows up, there will always be stars and there will always be dark matter: for this is the art world.

Christiana SC Spens

1. Grenier C. Big Bang: Creation and Destruction in 20th Century Art. Paris; Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2005.
2. Tanner T. Introduction to The Great Gatsby. Penguin Classics, 2000.
3. Brecher K. World Book: the Universe. 2003.
4. Tolstoy L. Anna Karenina. London; Penguin Books, 2003.

French Book Art/Livres d'Artistes: Artists and Poets in Dialogue

5 May-19 August 2006
The New York Public Library

'Never give into routine; at each step, through books or in a wider context, everything must begin anew, from zero.'1 So Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet and Henri Michaux forewarned after World War Two, a catastrophe whose destruction sparked a new wave in the development of book art in France, which began in the late 19th century with the publication of L'Après-midi d'un Faune in 1876 by Stéphane Mallarmé.

The period in which book art gathered momentum in the interrelated art forms of visual art and writing was defined by tempestuous and dangerous times, by wars, poverty, rebellions, flux and a widely spread need to grasp some sense of comprehension; to resurrect oneself and one another through art. With such passion in both the literature and art of the time, it seems inevitable in hindsight that the two art forms should have collaborated in what was, effectively, a wartime romance of the most powerful modes of human expression and emotional renewal.

Magritte separately played with the relationship between words and pictures in his paintings, in which he subtitled paintings of everyday objects with contradicting texts, to expose the convalescence between a thing and its linguistic definition. In the Surrealist ideology, he broke down the relations we assume between a thing and its representation - visual or literal. His paintings expressed a broken relationship between actual and art, and between painting and words. He was a Surrealist, and this movement, although with clear artistic influence thereafter and into the modern age, scattered when war began: 'The sense of chaos, of panic, which Surrealism hoped to foster so that everything may be called into question, was achieved much more successfully by those idiots the Nazis … Against widespread pessimism, I now propose a search for joy and pleasure'. So Magritte and his fellow Surrealists signed in a manifesto: Surrealism in Full Sunlight. After that, Magritte entered a Vache period, an explosion of political satire and grotesque ridicule, albeit affecting no more than nausea in the critics of the time. Those critics were prone to nausea, though.

More importantly, his stance had changed from the deconstruction of the relationship between Art and Reality - and Painting and Words - to a style that, despite being essentially satirical and critical of the world he saw, was an attack against the negativity of the world rather than an attack against its salvations. With the oncoming of war, therefore, the mood changed. Artists did not disintegrate their forms, did not expose the inadequacies of art forms - but rather they expelled those inadequacies by collaborating with one another. The poet needed the artist to elaborate his meaning in visual terms - and the artist needed a spark of inspiration, a leg-up. They needed each other equally. Amid the devastation of war, artists and poets recognised the most essential front against absolute destruction - human solidarity. In their works, therefore, they formed excellent dialogue, in which the brilliance and possibilities of human relationships are celebrated.

This romance of the two complimentary art forms, poetry and painting, proves itself to be extraordinary with the careful and informed curation of the 'French Book Art/Livres d'Artistes' exhibition on show in the middle of Manhattan this summer. It is the realisation of the original concept for the show by Yves Peyré and has travelled previously from The Fitzwillian Museum, Cambridge, England; to the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon; and the Sorbonne, Paris. With clear admiration for the artists and writers whose collaborations star under delicate spotlights, the exhibition represents a wide range of artists, mostly based in Paris, but also New York later in the century, through 126 artists' books. Other related works from corresponding periods and artists furthermore complemented the books, as well as photographs and sculptures that enrich the exhibition. The technique and care with which the exhibition is arranged parallels the incredible skill and sense of perfection with which the books were originally published. The exhibition, in a sense, is simply the continuation of a line of thought - where collaboration, sociability and mutual artistic sensibility are the centrepiece ideas. As one book expresses the imagination and creativity of two artists, so the exhibition publishes the entire movement with appropriate understanding and finesse.

The setting of the New York exhibition, furthermore, is ideal. It resides in a large room of the New York Public Library in the middle of Fifth Avenue, surrounded by other manuscripts and delicate works in other rooms … with people writing angry and yet eloquent letters to Mayor Bloomberg concerning the snatching of a million or so dollars of public funding for the institution by the entrance to the French Book Arts exhibit. The day I happened to see the exhibit, employees were rushing around in preparation for that night's 'The Beautiful and The Damned' party in another room. There are granite lions guarding the Fifth Avenue entrance and Fitzgerald's spirit drinking bourbon in the bar (it is a rare thing indeed to find a library with an open bar, with such a discreet elite). Never before has a library been such a happening place.

But chandeliers, fashion editors and glitterati aside, the Livres d'Artistes is a soirée that the masses can attend: why, admission is free of charge. Even a Fitzgerald whose inheritance has still not come through - or a Picasso who has smoked all his dollar notes with tobacco - could afford to see this exciting exhibit. Such is the democracy of the New York Public Library: the rich and famous dress as flappers, raising funds so that the artists can be enlightened for no expense. It is a beautiful thing.

One of the most illuminating features of the exhibition, never mind the pretty lights and bourbon in the air, is the timescale of the represented cultural association. The book art movement, subtle and understated in comparison with other movements that exploded and burned out quite rapidly, stretched over more than a century. More than that; the books are interrelated, not by simple form - a concept that these days, given the boom in graphic design and so on, does not seem so revolutionary. Rather, the books form a single and yet encompassing movement, at one with its central ideas of dialogue in reaction to destruction - a clear link between war and relationships - with the first ‘Make Love Not War’ banner to exist, where a love heart described the idea in place of the prose, but only in the context of the worded statement.

To print and paint had its developments and ramifications in the visual arts to such an extent that one cannot go into any collection of contemporary art without seeing some wordplay. Likewise, whether or not they admit it, most people do judge a book by its cover, as publishers realise, and they exploit the desire for a seductive picture with approaches that vary according to country. American publishers, for example, I am told by someone in publishing that night at the party, tend to describe the whole plotline in one revealing photograph, whereas the British remain inclined to provoke the reader, or viewer, with a suggestive detail. Words and pictures these days are inseparable - so inseparable, in fact, that it seems a strange concept that books were ever plain prose, in a superficial manner, or that paintings demanded no poetic license.

To see the Livres d'Artistes exhibition - in New York or anywhere else - is to fall in love all over again. It is to see the most luminous and yet understated mutual expression of solidarity in the face of disintegration. These books were made during war, in the grieving silences that followed, and in the fever that precipitated a new one: in a time when all three modes seemed to be playing grotesquely at once and when dialogue, writing and art were needed more than ever before. 'Manuscripts don't burn', Bulgakov wrote,2 and one statement with its entwined picture remains especially clear through all the smoke - it just sparkles in reactive romance: 'Make Love Not War'.

Fitzgerald isn't even at the Beautiful and Damned party: he crept downstairs, a Manhattan in hand, to see the soirée of poetry and painting, so silent and yet so musical, a discreet romance in the dusk of the library, as the revelry and glitter colours the sky pink in renaissance.

Christiana Spens

1. Exhibition Introduction. Yves Peyré, Director, Bibliotheque Litteraire Jacques Doucet, Universités de Paris.
2. Bulgakov M. The Master and Margarita. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

ANDY WARHOL Self-Portraits

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
12 February - 2 May 2005

Andy Warhol is best known for his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Jackie Kennedy. However, in this exhibition the focus is on the artist (or perhaps artiste) as he saw himself, or as he wanted to be seen. The works are portraits of the artist's masks and their ambiguity lies in whether they are, in fact, accurate representations of the real Andrew Warhola, or simply a means of deception - an act in pursuit of privacy.

Every portrait in the exhibition projects both a vacancy and an allure, but essentially a superficiality that appears to betray no clear feeling. The artist's face drifts or stares blankly as if bored by the attention. In averting the gaze of the viewer, Warhol seems to deflect analysis and confrontation. He appears to say, 'Look at me, look at me! Stop staring, stop staring', both craving and scared of the attention. When he cast himself next to Hollywood's most famous, his own worth of celebrity was questioned - he had become well known by association with other famous people and by depending on the kindness of photogenic strangers. An actor out of place in the show, Andy's sketch was more in the tradition of Samuel Beckett than Hollywood. Part of the frustration induced by the self-portraits is their tendency to tease the audience in its attempt to understand Warhol:
We end up knowing everything and nothing. So it is that artists' self-portraits, whether intended as disclosure or as concealment, remain as fictional as their other work … Andy Warhol's self-portraits constantly shift back and forth between telling us all and telling us nothing about the artist, who can seem, even in the same work, both vulnerable and invulnerable, both superficial and profound.1
The viewer is waiting for the real Warhola, waiting for some insight, some depth, something more than the superficial. But the paintings do not, in fact, go anywhere; they do not show anything except a grey void behind dead eyes. Although the portraits were completed over a period of several decades, the expression hardly changes through the collection. There is no movement or vivacity beyond tension, no narrative and little communication, like a single frame in a film of a mime act, repeated many times.

Even when Warhol is at his most serious and confrontational, for example, in his series of portraits with skulls, there is an underlying black humour that dismisses any real sincerity. Connotations of Hamlet talking to Old Yoric's skull imply a theatrical prop and Warhol's earnest dialogue with his own mortality becomes another artificial play. Another painting of Warhol, wearing an exaggerated expression of horror as he is strangled, implies a B-grade horror film rather than anything more serious. And yet, to dismiss these explorations of mortality is perhaps to be too cynical. Warhol also painted guns, 'wanted' criminals and car crashes: his use of death as subject matter was not a passing whim, but a motif in all his work. It reflects his own near-death experience after he was shot three times by the deranged Valerie Solanas and pronounced clinically dead on the operating table. Although this subject is treated sardonically by Warhol in his film 'Andy Warhol TV', where he reflects upon the importance of good make-up in the coffin, the gravity of his expression, which is present in nearly all the portraits, suggests genuine fear and loneliness; but as a clown, he chose to paint it as a joke. He also turned Hollywood - through repetition of its symbols - into a theatre of the absurd and his own presence in the great parade turned it to parody:
'One of the standard devices of the art of clowning is endless and unbearable repetition. It serves as an excruciating illustration of the fate that condemns humanity to repeat itself - the same mistakes, the same recurring illusions borne of the same impossible dreams. Like Camus' Sisyphus, clowns express a condition of absurdity from which only awareness and feigned submission can offer any hope of emancipation.'2
Warhol was aware of the absurdity of celebrity, of Hollywood and Western society, proven by his own place in it. He was both the prima donna and Pierrot of Pop Art, tragi-comic in essence. Only through his ability to ridicule the art world – by selling repetitions of soup cans and portraits of his masks, by avoiding the gaze of the viewer, by sending an actor incognito to lectures in place of himself and by giving monotonous 'yes', 'no' and 'I hadn't really thought about it' answers in interviews – could he gain liberation from the masquerade in which he was trapped. Only by acting like a clown could he be an artist.

A mask can have a number of uses: to scare, to entertain, to conceal, to deceive and to exaggerate. Warhol's self-portraits do all of these things; his works are an expansion of his masquerade and an insight into an artist who was a clown. Ultimately, in their vacancy, the self-portraits are not informative or insightful, but disarming. There is no person, no celebrated artiste, behind the masks any longer; only these portraits – the masks themselves – that will never fulfil the audience's curiosity towards an invisible man whose legacy was a collection of his own and others' masks. Warhol gives the viewer nothing more than the superficial, and the implications of absence. Here, there is no record of the actor, only the act. If Warhol was speaking the truth when he said, 'Just look at the surface of my films and my paintings and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it', then he admits that behind his mysterious persona there was no substance, no meaning. Either the self-portraits are an accurate portrayal of a man who was nothing but a superficial construction, or a portrayal of a man who did not want to be seen as anything more than that; they are the invisible man's silver-grey hairpiece and dark glasses. He appears to have been dehumanised by his art, which often represented the nihilistic vacancy of society and celebrity. He came to epitomise his subject matter, or rather, the artist used the actor to represent the insubstantial masquerade that he became a part of.

In this collection of paintings, Andrew Warhola has not portrayed himself, but painted Andy Warhol, the star, the act, the mask. His self-portraits are a trick, teasing the audience with the implication of a man behind the mask. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Double, 'I put on a mask only for a masquerade.'3

Christiana SC Spens

1. Rosenblum R. Andy Warhol’s Disguises. 2005
2. The Circus of Cruelty: A Portrait of the Contemporary Clown as Sisyphus. In: Clair J (ed). The Great Parade. Yale University Press, 2004: 35.
3. Dostoevsky FM. The Double. Dover Publications, 1997.

Elsa Schaparelli

L’union centrale des arts décoratifs (l’ucad), le musée de la Mode et du Textile, Paris
17 March-29 August 2004

Elsa Schiaparelli, the flamboyant fashion designer of the Art Deco period, is renowned for her fabulous eccentricity and innovation. She changed fashion and people's attitudes to it with her scandalous dresses and colourful personality. Her legacy of spectacular designs and an entirely innovative approach to fashion design has moulded contemporary fashion and inspired countless fashion designers, including Galliano, McQueen, Gaultier and Yves Saint Laurent. In short, Elsa Schiaparelli was the woman who shaped fashion as we know it today - creating the pattern for all dresses to come.

The lady who defined 20th century fashion was born in 1890 into a wealthy and distinguished family in Rome, where she spent her childhood. She was outrageous from a young age, offending the nuns who taught her in her strict Roman Catholic school and disgracing her family when she attended a ball in Paris wearing only a length of fabric wrapped around her body, which promptly unravelled. When she was 23, she first travelled to Paris, and then to London, where she met William de Wendt, whom she married the following year. In 1919, Elsa Schiaparelli gave birth to a daughter whom she named Gogo. The marriage, however, did not last - due to financial difficulties and William's unfaithfulness - and the couple divorced in 1920. This left Schiaparelli a single mother, and fuelled her determination to succeed independently in the fashion world. She moved to Paris and met the celebrated designer, Paul Poiret, who introduced her to the art of couture.
Elsa Schiaparelli never learnt to sew, but relied on couturiers and seamstresses to materialise her designs - a method of couture production that has been widely adopted by contemporary designers. She sketched designs on paper and directed her assistants in the construction of the dresses - instructing alterations until the final design matched her vision. Schiaparelli first became successful as a designer with the creation of a line of innovative sweaters. An American friend who was visiting her in Paris wore a simple yet stylish top that inspired Schiaparelli to design a sweater that was tight fitting and elegant. She made contact with an Armenian seamstress, and the two agreed to go into business together. The new business acquaintance agreed to reproduce a simple design of a big white bow outstretched like a butterfly on a black woollen top. The American shop Strauss saw the potential in this innovative sweater and ordered 40 to be made in a fortnight - they sold out. This initial success was only the beginning of Schiaparelli’s fantastic career.

Schiaparelli became famous for being superbly original in her fashion design and in her marketing. She printed press releases on fabric, for example, and produced fashion shows that were uniquely spectacular. These days such performance in relation to fashion is commonplace; in Schiaparelli’s time it was unheard of.

Her collections and shows most often had themes. One collection was inspired by African iconography; another drew inspiration from sailors’ tattoos, and dresses bore snakes and anchors. Other collections included 'Musical Instruments', 'Butterflies', 'The Pagan Collection', 'The Astrological Collection' and 'The Circus Collection'. Each collection of highly original and often eccentric clothes caused scandal and success - and Schiaparelli became famous.

Schiaparelli’s success caused intense envy on the part of Coco Chanel, her greatest rival. The two were continuously compared and constantly competed with one another. While Chanel was minimalist and conservative, Schiaparelli was outrageous and flamboyant and the pair fought to achieve popularity with the Parisian fashionistas. The rivalry was also heightened by the fact that the two designers moved frequently in the same social circles, with similar ambitions and aspirations.

As well as envious acquaintances, Schiaparelli had a wide circle of friends, with whom she often collaborated. She was good friends with the writer, filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau; Schiaparelli once reproduced a drawing by Cocteau on an evening cape in embroidery. She was recognised as an artist by such people as Marcel Duchamp, Picasso and Stravinsky, and closely connected to the Surrealist movement - for example, Schiaparelli’s 'Lobster Dress' was a collaboration with Salvador Dali. This connection with the wider art world set Elsa Schiaparelli apart from most other fashion designers - she was not merely interested in beauty or fleeting fashion trends, but in art, culture, ideas and innovation. Essentially, Schiaparelli was distinctive in her involvement with the wider intellectual and creative world.

Schiaparelli was a true innovator, and the first person to make fashion available to the masses. She opened a clothes shop - the House of Schiaparelli - in Paris in 1927, where she sold designer clothes off the rail. Before this, all haute couture was 'made to measure', and customers had to be fitted before tailored clothes were made for them. This meant that only a very few elite members of high society could wear fashionable clothes. Schiaparelli's shop was the first step in changing all of this: the clothes chains and availability of fashionable clothes all started with Schiaparelli. She also started, parallel to Chanel, the trend towards comfortable sports clothing, rather than restrictive couture, as acceptable daywear.

When the Second World War started, Schiaparelli moved to America, where she continued to be a successful designer and entrepreneur. However, when she returned to Paris after the War, she found it to have changed profoundly. There was no longer the demand for scandal and flamboyance that there had been before, and her designs no longer captured the public mood. Meanwhile, a new generation of designers - particularly Christian Dior - were becoming the new stars of the Parisian couture scene. In 1954, Schiaparelli closed her clothes shop and ceased to work as a designer. Her perfumes ensured that she had a good income up until her death in 1973.

Schiaparelli is remembered as the woman who changed fashion profoundly, a lady who made scandal and flamboyance chic, and who has inspired countless fashion designers. She was a true innovator, artist, entrepreneur and style icon, whose legacy of fabulousness has never gone out of fashion.

Barbara Kruger: Politics, Pop and Protest...

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow
21 April - 26 September 2005

Barbara Kruger, American artist and political activist, is exhibiting in Scotland for the first time, contributing to the 'Rule of Thumb: Contemporary Art and Human Rights' programme of exhibitions, workshops and events that confront the exploitation of women. Her exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow features an installation that fills the whole of Gallery 4 - the floor, columns and skylight windows - with enlarged newspaper articles and slogans. In an interview with Amnesty International early in 2005, Kruger commented:

I try to address notions of power and how they make us look and feel: how they dictate our futures and our past. How power is threaded through culture impacts both men and women. We all live in a world constructed through the dense machinations of trade and expenditure, of pleasure and desire, of labour and wages. I think that pictures and words have the power to make us rich or poor. I try to engage that power using methods that are both seductive and critical.
Barbara Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1945. She attended the Syracuse College of Visual and Performing Arts, before studying under Diane Arbus at Parsons School of Design in New York, emerging out of the New York art scene in the 1970s. Kruger's ideals and methods are reminiscent of the Guerrilla Girls - albeit in a less radical form - but her work is not new. It is perhaps even passé; but this may be a response to a political and social situation that has changed little in the past few decades and whose particular issues are still relevant. The exhibition effectively communicates the extent of domestic abuse, prostitution and general exploitation of women in contemporary society. This aspect of her work appears to be socially conscientious and compassionate, but it is only one side of a paradox. Although the exhibition does not show a large amount of Kruger's work - it is a single installation rather than a retrospective - it does give access to the artist's other work through a well-stocked gallery shop. In fact, her work is suitable gift shop material; her pictures reproduce well, and her puns are entertaining. The concern is that there is little to distinguish between Kruger's work, which has been exhibited in the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the comic retro kitsch to be found universally in pretty gift shops. Kruger's work, tinged with politics for sincerity, sells well - but has Barbara sold out?

As with many Pop artists, Kruger has a background in advertising. She began her career working for Mademoiselle magazine and uses such techniques to publicise her cause. As well as the visual arts, Kruger writes essays and articles and a collection of these entitled Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearances is for sale, giving an insight into the artist's concerns and political orientation. Although of honourable intention, displaying a clear drive for social reform and cultural liberation, her writing is reminiscent of American film-maker Michael Moore's book, Dude, Where's My Country? when she comments:
In a society rife with purported information, we know that words have power, but usually when they don't mean anything ... This concerted attempt to erase the responsibilities of thought and volition from our daily lives has produced a nation of couched-out softies, easily riled up by the most cynically vacuous sloganeering and handily manipulated by the alibis of 'morality' and false patriotism. To put it bluntly, no one's home. We are literally absent from our own present.
Kruger attempts to solve the apparent lack of perception in modern society by facing the viewer with outsize slogans splashed across photographs; if people do not notice statistics about domestic violence in newspapers, then perhaps they will if they are blown-up and pasted onto billboards. It is the same concept used by Michael Moore, whose films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911 were shown in cinemas globally. Similarly, Kruger fights against a selective media with media of her own that is bigger, more colourful and in residence in a large city for six months. She is using art for activism, just as Moore used cinema to expose the American nightmare. It has become a dirty game.

Hidden somewhere amid the metre-long letters there must be some small print - the art world's fee for giving political activism space to advertise - as in this otherwise reputable and refreshing art gallery, there is no art in Gallery 4. There is a gift shop where you can buy a T-shirt with the - ironic? - slogan, 'I shop therefore I am', but there is little original substance here to balance the style. In imitation of Barbara Kruger, I quote The Strokes: 'Is this it?'

Paris Architecture

Centre Pompidou, Paris
27 April - 29 August 2005

Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) has, in many ways, been forgotten outside of Paris, and to those who have studied his work, he is often described as a relatively unimportant architect in comparison with Le Corbusier and other modernists. At the Pompidou Centre, in summer 2005, his work was resurrected from the dust and given the platform to be criticised afresh. Sixty years after his death at the end of World War Two, he has finally been given a wider audience.

Very much an Art Deco designer, Mallet-Stevens exhibited in the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris - he designed film sets and grand interiors as well as buildings. The main attraction of this exhibition are his illustrations, but his colour drawings and simple, black and white diagrams are also featured. His 'Ideal City' is particularly interesting and aesthetically attractive: the collection of individual buildings includes a school and a hospital, among other expected features. Although they are pretty rather than technical, the drawings are worth seeing, if not for their architectural significance, then for their decorative qualities. As Tamara de Lempicka's work was criticised for being too stylish at the expense of substance during a recent retrospective of her work in London, so Mallet-Stevens appears to have made his ideal city impractical. Indeed, the structures are merely hypothetical and wishful in conception - a deeper analysis of their practicality would ruin the fantasy. Against the backdrop of the mass destruction of war, however, it may have been better if Mallet-Stevens had developed the technical insight to parallel his stylish experimentation. There is always a regret, when viewing fantastic designs, that they would be impossible to realise.

However, Mallet-Stevens did not only dream of buildings. Although the 'Ideal City' was not constructed from the debris of war, other buildings materialised from his commissions from wealthy patrons. The exhibition shows the original drawings, models and actual buildings of the Villa Noailles (1923-1928), specified by the aristocratic Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles to be, 'A little house, interesting to live in, to take advantage of the sun.' After a series of enlargements and alterations, it later became a backdrop for Man Ray's surrealist film, 'Les Mystères du Château de Dé'. The small, modest house eventually became a large villa, 2,000 square metres in size, with a studio, swimming pool, a high, stained glass ceiling, squash court and 60 bedrooms. Other elaborate buildings designed by Mallet-Stevens are Villa Poiret (1921-1923), home of the great couturier Paul Poiret, as well as Villa Cavrois (1929-1932), a synthesis of the modernist conceptions of the European avant-garde. Rue Mallet-Stevens (1926-1934) is also featured, though it would make sense to go and see the actual buildings in Paris, in the 16th arrondissement, and Barillet House and Studio, nearby, in the 15th arrondissement.

The drawings are beautiful, and rather mesmerising; particularly the 'Ideal City', which is quintessential escapism. The rest of the exhibition is interesting in that the architectural processes are well presented and there is proof that fantastic buildings can be materialised after all, even if a uniformly decorative city is unlikely. However, to see a city that is more realistic in its juxtaposition of clashing styles and approaches to architecture, and so fantastic that it is beyond the limits of a single imagination, you need only walk out of the Pompidou and explore Paris itself.

200 Trips from the Counterculture

Jean-Francois Bizot, Barry Miles. London: Thames and Hudson, 2006

As I wandered around another bookshop feeling visually deprived and in a vague search for something to stimulate my senses, I caught in a faraway glance a big fat book with Sixties graphics and a picture of a girl sitting in the feathers of an emu, with blue stripes like sky in the background. I moved a little closer and like Alice in Wonderland with the bottle that says 'Drink me', this book was saying, 'Read me. Now'.

Not one to turn down such an invitation, I bought it, pronto. Inside, as the title promised, were 200 trips pulled from Sixties underground press and counter-culture illustrations of protest, provocation and pot. Articles exploring the mind-expanding properties of LSD and marijuana, not to mention an article in the Berkeley Barb called Numb's the Word: Copping the Cocaine Horrors, with a big dark photograph of Freud, referring to his secret cocaine links. It reads, 'On the third day we slept. Or at least part of us slept … It was not blood that moved the body, that kept the body in cosmic harmony, that burned the energy of time and space in explosions of omniscience. It was cocaine and all else seemed beside the point'. Ooh, trippy.

Aside from a collection of curios concerning vintage controversies and ironic dalliance, '200 Trips from the Counterculture' is a history of underground graphic art, the experimental and surrealist illustrations and montage that inspired generations of provocative magazines such as The Face, Dazed and Confused, Little White Lies and Vice, and the ever-growing branches of internet magazines. This book is the genealogy of the phenomenon.

It is like reading a collection of vintage zines from the time of peace and love, only all the pages are smooth and perfectly reproduced, and the pages won't disintegrate in your fingers. There are excerpts from the French zine Actuel, The East Village Other, the Los Angeles Free Press, Interview (edited by Warhol) and the San Francisco Oracle (home of Ginsberg). There is social commentary, dolce vita, youthful rebellion and the dialogues and crowded texts of the writing that played alongside art of the avant-garde.

Aside from Wonderland-esque illustrations and political montages, hallucinatory skies for heads in clouds and grounded analysis to balance, Trips from the Counterculture includes material such as the first discussion about the greenhouse effect (in the Sixties they were worried), the African American Civil Rights Movement in the USA and even articles hand-written in French, if you're swayed in that direction. The graphics are incredible and altogether the book is endlessly entertaining and provocative. These are postcards from trips that inspired a generation of art, music and literature. They were the pages that illustrated Dylan, Woodstock and LSD. 'How to be a Magician in Your Spare Time' reads one page. This book tells you how; and, more importantly, it tells you why – why we have to keep writing these articles, illustrating ideas, expressing the tune of the age in colour and shapes and letters scattered dishevelled on a page.

Modes en Miroir: la France et la Hollande au temps des Lumières

Musée Galliera, Paris
28 April - 21 August 2005

After the recent decision of the Musée Galliera to collaborate with other European museums and collectors, 'Modes en Miroir' continues the theme of contemporary Europe sharing stories of a mutual past: free trade has gone cultural. The latest in a line of exhibitions, such as 'Modes Russes' (Russian couture) in 1999 and 'Marlene Dietrich: Creation of a Myth' in 2003, the current exhibition is the debutante celebration of royal court couture in the 18th century.

In each room (dimly lit so that the lavish silks and lace may be protected from the scorching rays of modern days), mannequins display the elaborate and magnificent creations that have been exceptionally well conserved in museums in the Netherlands during the past couple of centuries. With a careful eye - for much of the beauty of the textiles is in the finer details - it is clear to see the diversity of riches that were found in the royal court. Men's robes are embroidered with flamboyant flowers and tiny red roses, stitched in rows of 40 or more, framed by lines of peach and fine emerald green. Even in the dusk-like ambience, carefully placed spotlights illuminate the ethereal shades of pink, yellow, blue and gold that are the soft canvases for applied patterns and appliqué - tones that radiate a luxury not to be found today, even in the most elaborate fashion houses.

As a whole, the collection presents fashion's antiquity in a balanced and graceful manner, juxtaposing complicated textile patterns with minimally patterned, but elaborately structured, dresses. Bustles and corsets are draped with expertly gathered fabrics and men's clothes are given a structure that is masculine enough to justify the lavish flowers and plants sewn over seams and pockets.

The ladies' couture, however beautiful, is no surprise; corsets are familiar enough and princesses even more so. In terms of drawing interest, it is the men's couture that is so exotic and detached from today's lame trends. In the final room, a man's corset stands out: its display happens to coincide neatly with the Gay Pride parade taking place out in the Parisian daylight, away from the soft dusk of the museum. The man's corset looks rather sultry under the low lighting, a welcome contrast from the brash exhibitionism outside. The real queens are all here in the Musée Galliera, pondering the corsets of antiquity, and doubtless the casanovas who once wore them, for their own coming out into society.

One of the joys of the fashion collection lies in the technical magnificence of the couture - the vast palette of colours and sumptuous silks, the gardens stitched in thread. The other source of fascination lies in the implications of the costumes - the lengths to which an imagination may go to sketch out the people who wore the clothes, the balls they attended and the dangerous liaisons in which clothes played supporting roles. These clothes, illuminated carefully in soft light, were the fabric of seduction, the masks of masquerades, the accessories to scandal and the only material insight we now have into a vanity fair past.

If you have ever dreamt of masquerade balls in Paris and Amsterdam, the Musée Galliera is, quite simply, the fabric of such dreams. It is also an illustration of vain antiquity, an advanced lesson in couture and a sultry retreat from the hot heat of a Parisian summer.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
3 May-4 September 2006

Attracting those amorous of Englishness, the socialites and libertines who wear Westwood so well, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 'AngloMania' exhibition this summer has featured internationally in haute couture magazines of the fashionable. Capturing an impression of a nation's notorious vanity, a romance with itself, and the eccentric desire of English designers to re-establish the establishment, the Metropolitan presents quite an odd phenomenon: the Englishness the Western world knows through myth and condescending glances - the notion of a nation.

The myth began once upon a time in the midst of the Enlightenment, when England was perceived as 'a land of reason, freedom, and tolerance' and drove Voltaire to exclaim, 'If ever I come a second time on Earth, I will pray God to make me born in England, the Land of Liberty'. Presumably, he was happy enough that his first life on earth was set in France, though, and one can see why from the little Francomania accessory to the wider exhibition in the 'Croome Court Room, Worcestershire, ca. 1771', which shows tapestries woven at the royal Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. The Earl's wife had a fetish for all things français, and enjoyed wearing couture from the marchands de modes on the rue Saint-Honoré, pieces of which drape the mannequins. The roots of modern French influence in British fashion are traced back to the House of Worth, whose clothes were characterised by Parisian elegance, the romance of France romanticised further by the dreams and ideals of the British designers. These days, British designer, John Galliano, follows the pattern by designing the Dior collection and, in so doing, translates the Paris he perceives with the outsider's subjective romanticism into frills and fun of the highest order. England and France have traditionally played games of vanity with one another, especially in the 18th century: the English wore idealistic couture of the French, and the French wore Anglomanic creations in turn. They waltz together in a ballroom decorated with mirrors, and as they dance, they catch their own reflections in the mirrored décor, slightly more interested in the spectacle they create with each turn, rather than each other. They court one another, that is all.

The court, of course, is the game at play here. It has shifted setting - from the palace to the Metropolitan - but it remains the same. As displayed by such princesses and eccentrics of the modern age, including Kate Moss, Vivienne Westwood, Lindsey Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sophie Dahl and Sienna Miller at the Costume Institute Ball, the art gallery is New York's answer to the palace - or at least one of its answers - and, appropriately, that is where its 'royalty' court the attention of the press. New York has invited England to the Metropolitan - a lovely exchange from one island to another - and 'AngloMania' is a kiss-kiss as part of their romantic bond.
English wit sparkles in the conversation and commentary, and New York responds with a fluttering giggle. Part of the joke is that although France is mentioned in a little Francomania vignette of the museum, it is dismissed rather than embraced, and there really aren't that many French people around. France and England have always acted as each other's particular companions in the world's masquerade, but it seems from this exhibition that New York has stolen England's affections for a while. In the wider world of fashion and society, New York and England now share a closer bond than England and France. Society girls would rather flick through American Vogue for an education in manners than actually have to learn grammar. Shoes or verbs? That is the question. The pretty shoes hardly touch the ground for all the dancing they do.

'AngloMania' is the obsession with Englishness - although a fever provoked by grounded realities is a mania mostly of the mind, a fever of nerves, a pretty madness, a fictive flourish … Englishness is a myth, a mutual fantasy whose ideals are attune with one another. As 'The Hunt Ball' section suggests, British style and couture also react to political dramas, gelling in seductive antagonism with the mannequins bearing punk-ish attire, shouting that whether in high society or low society, subversion is the fun to be had. The central irony of British fashion, and British society at large, is that the factions possess the same style, the same glare and the same pout, inherent in all the fox fur and chains of generations.

Whether for a punk or a princess, British fashion is much more than frills and frolics; it encompasses every nuance of the masquerade and rebellion ongoing in British society at every level, excluding perhaps the bourgeoisie. Britishness, that self-affirming glance in the mirror at one's undeniable beauty, is a reaction to the horrible rain, the nauseating shade of grey the sky insists on wearing and those mean dregs of humanity who just have a thing against the upper classes. It is make-up and make-believe painted prettily on the face of adversity. It is a gin-in-teacups and mud-on-lace kind of style that attracts Anglophiles as the years roll by, and shows no sign of ever going out of vogue. Looks like the myth is here to stay.

The Art of Lee Miller

“The Art of Lee Miller”
15 September 2007 – 6 January 2008

Lee Miller was the golden girl of New York City as it fell from dizzy heights into an unprecedented Great Depression, a Vogue contributor of fashion and war stories alike, In London, Paris and Manhattan, she was a flapper with a talent, and a Jazz Age heroine. The first woman to make it as a model and photographer in American Vogue, Lee Miller broke boundaries and set the cameras rolling from a young age. She was the pupil and lover of Man Ray and Picasso’s muse, a party girl and a professional. She was born a hundred years ago and died seventy years later, and the present exhibition at the V&A, lit up in neon, celebrates her life and great contribution to the bohemian and glamorous art world of the early twentieth century.

Born Elizabeth Miller in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, the little girl who enjoyed climbing trees and playing with the boys became one of the great beauties of her time. She was photographed throughout her childhood by her father, Theodore Miller, an amateur photographer. Significantly she was raped at seven, contracted a disease and had to suffer years of excruciating and invasive treatment. Before she fled to Paris, Miller was all too familiar with the themes of Surrealism, the perversities that inspired escape and the more difficult realities of human suffering that caused the group of artists and writers to react with images of parody and outrage in equal measure.

The archetypal Modern Woman before it was at all typical, Lee Miller (as she was called from the age of 20 onwards) created for herself a flamboyant and iconoclastic career with exhilarating success and style. She started modelling in 1927 as a striking and elegant twenty-year-old at the very top – for American Vogue – and was photographed by the stars of the day. She was notably versatile as a model and embraced the characterisation necessary to illustrate fashion stories and photographers’ imposed narratives, partly thanks to her training in theatre arts in Paris in 1925 and at Vassar College. When in Paris she tracked down Man Ray and swiftly and rather poetically became his muse, lover and pupil. She happened also to star in “The Blood of a Poet” by the original Enfant Terrible, Jean Cocteau. A popular and inspiring young woman, Lee Miller, a girl from a rather ordinary American family and with a sad past, became the darling of the avant-garde in a few parties, photo shoots and magazine covers. She discarded her previous pain for a glorious life out and about in Paris and London.

With Man Ray, Miller learned how to use lighting and printing and develop her burgeoning talent as a photographer. Together they discovered “solarisation” – a method in which tones are reversed and interesting effects are achieved, such as turning highlights to blacks and vice versa. She started working for Paris Vogue and made a number of portraits, satirical drawings and captured elusive Parisian street scenes and radical nude photographs of Surrealist sensibility.

In spite of the Great Depression casting misery and poverty over America and indeed the world, Lee Miller still managed to keep her cameras loaded with film and even set up her own studio in 1932, setting up the electrical wiring and lighting solo. As the money burned, Lee Miller photographed couture and stars, celebrities and decadence even as it quickly turned to decay. The star of New York was on its wane but Lee Miller captured its beauty, even as it faded like a shooting star. She was the first to cast herself as both model and photographer for American Vogue (presumably saving on model’s fees), exhibited at Julien Levy’s iconoclastic art space and worked closely with Joseph Cornell. Just before she eloped to Cairo, she was commissioned to photograph the cast of “Four Saints in Three Acts”, an avant-garde opera with a score by Virgil Thomspon and a libretto by Gertrude Stein, which opened in 1934. Flying the flag for the early Civil Rights Movement and earning controversy points with an all-black cast, the play was ground-breaking and inspired George Gershwin to write “Porgy and Bess”.
Following a slight disillusionment and boredom with commercial photography, Lee Miller fled New York and married Aziz Eloui Bey in 1934, offspring of a prominent Cairo family and the Director-General of the Egyptian Ministry of Railways, Telegraphy and Telephones. While frolicking under the Cairo sun, Lee started taking photos again, and created some of the most original images of Cairo of modern times.

When war was declared in 1939, Lee moved to London. She moved in with Roland Penrose and catalogued the chaos of war-torn England and the Blitz spirit lighting up the wreckage. Her Surrealist background would have familiarised her with chaos in a fictional sphere, but as with the other Surrealists, Magritte especially, who became notably disillusioned with the perversities of the movement during the war, it is unlikely Lee Miller could have been prepared for the desolate reality of the Blitz. “Grim Glory” was published in 1940, a catalogue of images inspired by the war, about the same time she started working for British Vogue.
She covered documentary, portraiture and fashion, moving with apparent ease from glamour to war – from love to death – decadence to destruction – to the light staccato of the camera’s click. She created a profile of Ed Murrow, of American broadcasting fame, in the same period she documented the chaotic and tragic scenes of a Normandy field hospital, the death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald (under the heading, simply and effectively: “Believe It.”)

It is the integrity and dedication with which Lee Miller tackled life and art, the flamboyant and yet very real portrayal of such versatile worlds as a death camp and a masquerade, paradise portrayed versus chaos revealed – that illuminates Lee Miller as a great artist, muse and heroine of the first electrical century. She had couture and she had a conscience, and her star refuses to wane. As important and iconoclastic now as decades ago, the London V&A exhibition does justice to her brilliance.

Letter from Stockholm


Winter can be a dark time, especially in Scandanavian North, where the sun sets early and snow chills the ambience and the skies are clouded with blizzards. Stockholm is lit up with art and allure, however, and possesses this time of year a spectacular array of artistic pursuits and exhibits and enough well-heated museums and galleries to protect any visitor from the cold outside.

The Moderna Museet, especially, houses an exciting permanent collection of Picassos and Modiglianis, an architectural museum and, presently, a much anticipated exhibition of the South African artist, William Kentridge.
Inspired by the magical and fantastical, the melancholy and noir, Kentridge has for a long time received worldly acclaim for his sometimes childish, sometimes serious drawings, animations and theatre productions. Stockholm’s premiere modern art museum now presents two of his most recent and ambitious projects, “7 Fragments for George Melies & Journey to the Moon (2003)” and “Black Box / Chambre Noire (2005)”.It follows the recent group exhibition, “Africa Remix” at the same museum, in which, “Johannesburg: 2nd Greatest City After Paris,” was included.

In darkened rooms, black and white silent films are projected onto shadowed walls, playing in conjunction and on repeat, and creating a magical and alluring atmosphere suggesting the theatrical, the dark, the crevices of human psyche and nuances of Surrealism and childish dreams. There is a playfulness and cinematic naivety in the twenties style, juxtaposed with undertones of adult themes and connotations of slightly manic temperament. They are inviting and yet disarming, provocative and yet distant and preoccupied. There is no sound – only the breathing of viewers, the walking steps around a little room as people move from one film to another. A heavy ambience of unpredictability and the dark unknown, the strange animations that don’t really tell stories, but instead hum tunes somehow familiar, somehow forgotten, nuances of things unspoken. It is this concentration on the moving visual, the obvious lack of noise, the busy silence, that is so disarming, and somehow so exciting.

In the next exhibit, “Black Box” the atmosphere of darkness is taken further, with an entrancing theatrical show – a small stage on which images are projected, and actual objects and puppets interact with the shadows cast upon them by the filmic projection. It is a spectacle to behold. Although some people seemed disarmed by the sometimes morbid, melancholic subject matter – war-torn and carnage and strange objects pacing the little stage – I found the whole show incredibly engaging in its delicacy, its careful movement and dynamics and choreographed provocation. Similar to a magic show, and utterly memorable in its inventive form and provocation, its dark matter and childish show, it is a spectacle hard to forget, depicting the universal dark crevices of the mind and quickly inhabiting individual memories, and the shadows of one’s psyche, in the tradition of the Dada mavericks, Rodin’s portrayal of strange dreams, and Edgar Allen Poe’s dark stories of dark places and black cats and strange shapes moving in the damp shadows and slush of melted snow…

After all that magical melancholy sparking up a war-torn skyline, magical illusions of another kind were a worthy and pretty distraction and I stepped through the snowy streets and shadows in the direction of a fashion show… Parallel to London Fashion Week just across the North Sea and just before the Fashion Weeks in New Work, Los Angeles and Paris, Stockholm was having a little spectre of its own. A following day I was taken to see the Fall 2007 collection by the Fashion Label, Minimarket, cutting edge young designers – twins and their older sister – Sofie, Jennifer and Pernilla Elvestedt. They are a young business, but are going places fast – with outlets in New York and London already. Their combination of business suave and attractive designs have not gone unnoticed by the wider fashion industry, and the label recently won the H&M scholarship at the Elle Awards, whose jury enthused: “It is not only the thoroughly worked through forms, daring choice of patterns and clever details in the garments, it is also the team’s strong will to succeed in the big fashion market that makes these girls winners.”

They are very accessible designs that look comfortable as well as chic and understatedly glamorous. Furthermore, they are extremely versatile pieces that encourage a playfulness in the putting together of an outfit, a simple joy in fashion and unpretentious celebration of couture. They are simple, and yet sensual, carefully arranged and attractive, clothes that celebrate the female form and yet suggest carefree androgyny at times, with big shirt buttons, plaid prints and baggy trousers juxtaposed with feminine floral prints and soft sunshine-coloured blouses. These girls know the cuts and combinations that work, which teamed with a playful and flirtatious understanding of modern femininity and attraction, makes for an exciting collection and a label with longevity. This is only the beginning for Mini Market, and an exciting development in the next generation women’s fashion design.

And fashion-du-jour is not all that Stockholm promises for couture enthusiasts. A city offering centuries of fascinating and aesthetically pleasing historic artefacts, couture is well covered as a subject of interest, not only in cutting edge fashion shows, but also in an exhibition of the shoes of antiquity, a permanent exhibition of Royal Court wear.
It is also worth visiting the K. A. Almgrens Silk Mill, where one can learn about the history of silk manufacture and its international trade, and look at samples of state-of-the-art textiles.

The Dance Museum (Dansmuseet) meanwhile, is hosting a retrospective of the Czechoslovakian Art Nouveau painter, Mucha (2 February – 29 April 2007) the who worked in Paris mainly, in the early Twentieth Century. His images have been used for decorative purposes for nearly a century, and still attract people with their unique and sensual style, his incredibly decadent and yet natural aesthetic, a truly Romantic designer. It is surprising, therefore, to find that as well as stylishly portraying feminine beauty, Mucca also painted politically, with the patriotism of his country in mind, and had a clearly Slavic aesthetic in many of his later works especially. As a decorative artist foremost, however, Mucca excels in using his natural style and Romantic ideals to produce paintings that exude sensuality and joie de vivre, and a celebration of liberated and natural feminine charm.

Outside, and the snow is falling prettily from the powder blue sky and the fresh Baltic air dazzles the atmosphere with a fine glow of winter and beatitude, in a city harbouring delights of culture and couture, secrets hidden in the dungeons of the castle, lit up in the palace, moving with the stride of fair models and to the music of modern glamour and casual elegance… Stockholm is a winter palace displaying in its own style the treasures of antiquity and modernity alike, bejewelled with curios and bright young things, magic and shadows, experiments and artefacts… So court its treasures and play in its shadows before the snow melts.