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Sparks & Beauties: Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity at the Art Institute of Chicago

It has been a remarkably chilly week for mid-July: the coldest July since 1980-something, according to local meterologists. I don’t exactly mind, really, except for the whole global climate change things, which is admittedly pretty apocalyptic-inspiring. My world is full of ups and downs, peaceful meadows and tumult, and I’m sort of in a very “WHERE IS EVERYBODY/GET AWAY FROM ME” headspace. And since I can’t really figure out the middle ground between the two, I’m kind of just being a recluse. But a glamorous one!

Anyway, there are some bright spots on the horizon: Eleanor Whitney, author of Grow, which I big-upped earlier, gave my book a great write-up at her blog, which made me so happy. As a writer, it is always so wonderful to know your work makes some kind of impact in the hearts and minds of the people who read it. Thank you, Eleanor! And academic superstar, fellow punk expat and feminist of color firebrand Mimi Thi Nguyen gave props to my old fashion blog nogoodforme.com in her recent interview at The Feminist Wire, which made me feel so proud. Anyway: this edition of Sparks & Beauties is devoted to one giant gorgeous firecracker of an art exhibition. I hope you enjoy it!

One beautiful thing possible when living in a city like New York: you get to have up-close and personal relationships to museums. And when I lived in NYC and was going to Columbia, I got to have lots of them, because one advantage of paying nosebleeds of tuition was free admission to places like the Metropolitan Museum and MOMA. After my two years of intensive coursework, I tried to go as often as possible — and I noticed I had very specific relationships to each museum. For me, MOMA was a bit like that person you date who looks good on paper — you think it aligns perfectly with everyone you ever thought you wanted in someone, but there is something missing. Some human eccentricity, some hidden dork factor that makes them genuinely fun to be around.

The Metropolitan, though, was my true love in museum form. For one thing, it was just so immense — I went almost weekly and there were still rooms I’d stumble into, having never seen them, so there was a constant sense of discovery. I had particularly favorite rooms and galleries: I loved the 19th-century American and European painting sections, for example: I’d sit for an afternoon in one of the galleries and just write or read. (I graded a whole sheaf of papers there once, much to the amusement of the guards.) I loved the decorative arts wings, and marveled at Marie Antoinette’s furniture. When I needed to think, I sat in the Temple of Dendur and the immense echo of the large room often soothed me.

I don’t really have a steady relationship with a museum anymore, and that’s a pity. So, in some major respect, my whole take on the “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” exhibition currently at the Art Institute of Chicago feels incomplete — it doesn’t quite benefit from the feeling of having lived with and experienced the work in a way that intimacy and familiarity grant it. I also feel as if, since leaving NYC, I’ve lost the “art muscle” that comes from seeing, hearing about and discussing art on a regular basis. It used to be easy for me to “keep up” with modern art, but since being isolated in the Midwestern semi-countryside, this kind of thinking doesn’t come easy to me anymore. Still, I gave it a try on my recent trip into Chicago: I spent almost three hours at the exhibition, as a result, felt like I was cramming in all the beauty and insight that it offered — because it’s truly an astonishing exhibition on aesthetic, intellectual and historical levels. It did its job, though: I walked out of it feeling thoughtful, inspired and energized — appreciative of how the past shapes the present moment, and full of a kind of serene lightness that only spending time with such wondrous art can give you.

Let’s Be Modern, Shall We?

Fashion and art have often gone hand-in-hand, but one things this exhibition does is explore how deep and long-lasting the symbiosis has been. The avant-garde at this time — not only artists, but writers, philosophers and the like — were very well aware of their changing historical moment, what with rapid changes in economics, production and great social migrations on the horizon. More than anything, many Impressionists — Monet’s haystacks be damned — were preoccupied particularly with how this modernity was expressed through the growing influence of cities. Scenes of cafe life, street scenes, new forms of leisure like going to the beach: we take these for granted because urban life has become a trope for a certain kind of sophistication, perhaps, but it was in the mid 1800s that these tropes began to acquire this meaning. Cities were consolidating significant economic power, and people from all walks of life swirled in the streets, hoping to catch an updraft in the motion to transport themselves to a better place.

And fashion, of course, was one way of aligning oneself with progression, with modernity, with a kind of forward, restless movement. And this was true especially for the women of the time. One thing the exhibition does well is note how women (of a certain body, race, economic stations, etc.) began to enter the public sphere visually at this time: they got jobs as milliners, they were nannies that took children on outings in the city, they strolled the Bois de Boulogne in a quest to see and be seen. They attended the opera; they held salons in their homes; they worked in shops.

To fit into this broadened sphere, women needed the right clothes, of course, and the exhibition makes it a point to display the actual garments next to the paintings they resemble, sometimes to stunning effect. The curators also did an excellent job of recontextualizing some iconic paintings as street-style shots of an earlier era: the show ends with Seurat’s famous “A Sunday on La Grande Jatee,” an acknowledgment of the striking bustle that forms one of the painting’s most prominent visual highlights.

What strikes me, of course, is both how subtle the differences in fashion could be and what a big impact they could make — the change from hooped underskirts to petticoats, for example. But also how little it changed to accommodate women’s growing mobility: it was amusing to note the full length skirts and sleeves of a “seaside” costume, the only concession to the setting being a lovely aquatic blue and cream color scheme. Of course, I think about women’s ability to move and navigate the world now, and how fashion constricts and enables this: what to make of the weird trend a few years ago, of course, to the spindly S&M stilettos in the past, and the more sensible kitten heel phase now? We like to think of ourselves as free, but are skinny jeans, for example, necessarily a point of liberation for all women? It’s something to think about…

Early Fashionista-ism

You could say that the fashionista as we know it was born out of the iconography of the Impressionists, and the exhibition makes a strong case for this idea, as well as how fashion was often used to subvert social status or catapult oneself to a different one. “There are only two ways to be a Parisienne: by birth or by dress,” notes a quotation on the wall, said by Arsene Houssaye in 1869.

When we talk about fashion, of course, we talk about women: what women should do, be, say, appear, and aspire to. Collectively, as a whole, painters of the movement often used to subvert the existing social order, at least in how it was represented in painting. Yes, you had your grande dame society ladies — but they were often portrayed with a kind of disarming intimacy, arrayed in loose, casual peignoirs. You had your prostitutes and actresses — perilously close to one another in terms of social status at this time — but they posed with a kind of froideur reserved for social belles, armed with imposingly formal dresses. When we think about and wear fashion, we’re of course fashioning ourselves. One thing I liked about the exhibition was how it noted that mechanical advances of the time — better sewing machines, for instance — helped make possible different kinds of garments, and different modes of production to support them. (There would be no ready-to-wear, for example, without these more high-powered machines. And without ready-to-wear, certain kinds of aspirational fashions would not be available to the “aspirers.”)

It also noted the growing “fashion culture” emerging at the time as well: magazines, fashion plates. Mass media was just beginning to consolidate, providing a powerful conduit for “fashion” to reach more people and be exposed to its ideas, dreams and fantasies. The exhibition makes some clever connections between some of the painters and these plates, and how they used them as visual references for their own work. There was no doubt that many of the great Impressionist painters were familiar with this emerging source of visual information — some even portrayed their sitters reading these publications. Is is any surprise then that they’d draw on this new strand of visual culture in their own work?

Redeeming Art from the Dentist’s Office

Impressionism gets a bad rep sometimes, mostly because it’s relegated to what I call “dentist office decor” — meaning it’s become banal by how commonplace it’s become. But one thing I really loved about “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” is how it recasts the art movement as avant-garde, groundbreaking and even feminist in its way (once you get past the idea of all these dudes having teenage mistresses, ugh).

One insight that struck me while swanning through the exhibition was how much the “lens” through which we imagine and see women, city life and fashion expanded through the Impressionists’ project. I thought of this in terms of a literal lens, with focal length and film lenses: in other words, Impressionists’ seemed to work both in wide lens, medium shots and, most crucially, close-up. I was looking at a Renoir painting — a painting of a woman in a loose robe — noting how delicately and precise the woman was rendered, compared to the blur in the background, and suddenly realized how, through brushstrokes, he was creating a kind of sharp focus: a close-up that created separation, interiority and intimacy, separating the foreground from the background in a kind of visually intimate embrance. It’s the same effect we use in our photo apps, where we tap on an element in the picture to create a halo of crispness, leaving the rest of the image in a pleasant blur. The impulse to “see” in close-up was always there; it’s just now that the technology makes it possible for anyone.

And of course, you just cannot talk about the exhibition without a mention of the sheer sensuous beauty of much of it. To have such a large concentration of important work is a rare thing, and apparently it took much coordination between the Metropolitan, the Art Institute and the Musee D’Orsay to make it happen. There’s really just something about seeing the work in person that makes thinking about art and its impact much more visceral and immediate — just seeing the intensely detailed brushwork of Renoir’s figures versus the rough sweeps in the background, for example, yielded so much insight. And there’s nothing like seeing a rare large-scale Monet glowing in the distance to make you understand the impact of the art in the physical world — and get a glimmer of how remarkable it was the audiences back then.

It’s a bit bittersweet to talk about an exhibition, because chances are, unless you saw it already in NYC or are traveling to Chicago, you probably won’t see “Impressionism, Modernity and Fashion” anytime soon. And that’s a real pity, really. It was with great pleasure to explore how Impressionism was connected to a larger social impulse to expand the visual representation of women. Women’s growing social status and mobility, of course, was an important part of modernity — to me, you are truly not “cutting-edge” unless you somehow advocate in ways great and small for the rights of all to move, think and be freely in the world. In a time when “cutting-edge” fashion and art often seems puerile, navel-gazing or divorced from notions of social justice, it’s a pleasure to rediscover the connection — and to have it rendered in such luminous, sensuous colors and light, of course, makes it all the more alluring, seductive and powerful.

Like what you just read? Maybe you'll like my book as well

All Things Glorious and True: Love Letters to Pop Culture, New York, Fashion and Other Objects of Affection is a collection of essays exploring how my crushes on music, dive bars, books, outfits and so much else gave me a braver soul, more open heart and even love. All Things is like a great, stylish mixtape: surprising, kind of punky, fun and often heartfelt.


Tags: , Art Institute of Chicago, , , , Impressionism, Metropolitan Museum of New York, modernity,