The latest exhibition to be hosted by the Brooklyn Museum, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, is an extravagant wonderland of beauty, design, and style, organized by Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Dior Archives and was curated by Florence Müller, Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion, Denver Art Museum, in collaboration with Matthew Yokobosky, Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture, Brooklyn Museum. The show has had several forms since its debut in 2017: when it began in Paris it focused strongly on Dior’s personal and professional relationships with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ collections. In London, attention shifted to the designer’s interest in British culture. Here in New York, the exhibit highlights various groundbreaking business decisions made by Dior after a trip to the US in 1948: to manufacture clothes here with American fabrics, open a branch of the firm on Fifth Avenue for clients and the trade, sell clothes in American department stores, and expand into profitable licensing agreements for accessories and cosmetics.
The display begins with the most famous garment of Christian Dior’s career: the Bar Suit, a deceptively simple calf-length black pleated wool skirt paired with a tailored cream-colored silk shantung long sleeve jacket with a curved hem and fabric-covered buttons. The quantity of fabric used, the gentle sway of the skirt drawing the eye to a woman’s legs, rounded hips, and narrow waist, a tailored jacket in luxurious material, all signaled an end to utilitarian and frugal fashion of World War II and was greeted with enthusiasm by the fashion press and public.
Further on in the gallery, dresses and coats designed for the American market in the 1940s-50s are shown on dressmaker forms, showing several touchstones of the Dior silhouette: pleating at the waist and shoulder to resemble petals on a flower, an open neckline to hint at decolletage, a cap or three-quarter sleeve to balance the round form of the skirt. The opposite wall contains photographs of Dior on his first American trip, material on early fashion shows, and other ephemera detailing the early success of the fashion house in the United States and France.
The next area has a dizzying array of American fashion photography featuring Dior clothes; many of the images are considered classics of the genre, studied in schools and colleges around the world. The walls are covered with over thirty photographers’ work, but pride of place is given to arguably the image that defines Dior style, ‘Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris’ by Richard Avedon. In front of the photograph is the dress itself, placed in a free-standing vitrine, so visitors can see the full glory of the design, created by Yves Saint Laurent in his first year as head designer after Dior’s death.
From photography, visitors pass by a cavalcade of artistic directors who have led the firm over the last 60+ years: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and Maria Grazia Chiuri. Highlights of their stylistic flourishes are presented alongside sketches, fabric samples, inspiration books, video, and art. The variety of creativity is astonishing, while also staying true to the Dior legacy.
Another space contains 18th century inspired dresses – Christian Dior found this era to be a particular inspiration for his work, using the fashions and styles of that time to shape his creations and even his showroom displays. Perfumes such as Miss Dior, with its citrus/floral notes, had packaging design motifs influenced by the palace at Versailles, a quintessential symbol of both the 18th century and France itself.
Following this is a room dedicated to the atelier, the workshop that constructs haute couture garments based on design sketches. This narrow space has been designed with a mirrored ceiling and walls surrounding niches painted in white, each with a single toile garment. The toile is a three-dimensional blueprint of the sketch, allowing the designer to see how the garment will be shaped and embellished, and giving the seamstresses an opportunity to work out the construction of the shape and its decoration. Another way to describe it is that the designer is the architect, the seamstresses are the engineers, and the toile is the construction material that will create the building.
Another impressive display is a curved wall titled ‘Colorama’, a comprehensive selection of the accessories, clothes, cosmetics and perfume packaging, drawings and perfectly detailed miniature models of dresses made by the atelier from 1947 to 2021, arranged by color. The Dior palette is very precise, with colors assigned certain meanings and identities: blue and gray are neutrals as well as being linked to 18th century France’s sense of style, pink is for happiness and feminine qualities, and red means life. Other favorites include green, particularly vibrant shades that evoke gardens in the summer and black, due to its versatility in many clothing styles.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the atrium of the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court, transformed into a theatrical interpretation of an enchanted garden, with a custom designed rug in Dior’s ‘Trianon gray’, a central circular platform with a few dresses, and other platforms arranged closer to the curving walls of the court some with enormous white panels next to them, stretching up to the domed ceiling and supporting dozens of dresses arranged on small ledges, others shorter but no less impressive. A much-appreciated detail is that each outfit is identified through a label template shaped like the platform or wall, with a dot showing its place, helping visitors distinguish each artistic director’s interpretation of nature themes within the Dior aesthetic. In addition to the spectacular clothing, there is an impressive sound and light display designed for the space. With delicate and subtle effects, it’s well worth taking the time to watch the entire cycle of imagery after admiring the fashion.
After this space, anything would seem anti-climactic, but the show tries to keep the momentum going with a final room dedicated to the movie stars, celebrities, socialites, and royalty who have worn Dior to various public events. Although each dress is unique to the wearer and their time, what’s interesting is how many of these clothes seem similar in size and decoration, leading to the conclusion that the requirements of dressing for the media spotlight are very precise.
Walking through the exhibition space, it can be challenging to take in all the information on offer. No two areas are the same size, and some layouts are too small, given the quantity of material to read or look at. The photograph room with easily 30 or more images to a wall; the atelier space, with a narrow walkway, video wall, and stacked-boxes display style; and the Colorama area holding many smaller, heavily detail-laden objects are all tricky to navigate, given that visitors and staff must try to adhere to NYC covid protocols. Fortunately, the Beaux-Arts Court is easily accessed at various points in the show, which will help with the crowds.
Throughout the exhibition, much of the clothing displays are interspersed with artworks from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, enhancing a theme or acting as a cultural signifier of an era. This background detail is a indirect way to connect Christian Dior’s wide knowledge and interest in the arts with his designs and those of his successors, however many times it’s too subtle.
For example, the sculpture ‘First Personage’ by Louise Nevelson has a dark color, is not well lit, and placed next to black clothing; hardly the best way to appreciate the contrast between the art and the garment. In another instance, the Egyptian figurines of Hathor and Anubis are small works, placed in a case near the edge of a platform, intended to act as demonstrations of artistic references. Unfortunately for them, the next item is a mannequin wearing a golden yellow dress from John Galliano’s 2004 collection topped with a large Ra headdress created by Stephen Jones, one of the many showstoppers of this show and sweeping away any hope of attention for ancient Egyptian gods. Other works do better, such as the series of Judy Chicago plates and textile works located near the current artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s clothes; the artistic link between these two feminists is clear.
In general, when a museum exhibition presents a tribute show to a fashion house or designer, the overall effect is of advertising, not one of research or context within larger themes. What makes the Brooklyn Museum’s show different is the emphasis on the history of the firm and its innovative founder (or heritage, as the Dior company calls it), a context of historical references within the designs, and a specific focus on the American influence on a French business model. Presenting background information on the hard work, imaginative flair, and willingness to embrace new methods throughout the decades to sell products is a savvy approach in explaining the appeal and longevity of the House of Dior. In addition, the ingenuity, creativity, and bravado of the exhibition design is far better than anything previously seen in New York museums, more like a theater experience than the static formality of series of rooms painted in dark tones. The mannequins are beautifully posed, and great care is taken to make them show the various clothing styles to the best advantage. This isn’t to say that the usual format is completely gone: chronological or thematic histories are still the backbone of the show, although a visitor might forget this by the time they enter the atrium, with its dazzling sound and vision display. Perhaps that’s for the best: for some time, a new approach has been needed to show objects not associated with general museum exhibitions. Fixed displays behind glass are not enough for the modern visitor; they prefer a strong visual statement that can be used as a backdrop for their social media posts or at the very least, something that will impress a jaded mind. In that regard, the Brooklyn Museum and the team that created Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams have set a new standard for fashion exhibitions in New York, one that will be difficult to match in the future.
On view September 10, 2021 – February 20, 2022
Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Hours: Wed – Thur: 11-6, Fri – Sat: 11-8, Sun: 11-6, Admission (Prices reflect general admission plus Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams): Adults: $25, Seniors: $16, Persons with disabilities (caregivers free of charge): $16, Students (16 years and up, with valid ID): $16, Ages 4 to 14: $10, Ages 3 and under: Free, Members: Free. Click here for tickets
Current NYC COVID requirements for indoor entertainment apply, click here for more information.
PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THE FOLLOWING HEALTH PROTOCOLS WILL BE OBSERVED IN THE MUSEUM:
There will be NO coat or large bag check services available, face masks are required for all visitors aged 4 (four) years and older, visitors are asked to keep 6 (six) feet apart from other people at all times while in the museum (unless visitors are part of the same household), group size maximum 6 people (or 1 adult to 5 children ratio group size) and hand sanitizer stations are available for use throughout the galleries. Staff will be regularly sanitizing common areas and the museum has a newly upgraded air circulation system in place.
Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting – National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, New York City
For centuries, the American public has been used to thinking of Native arts as either part of the ethnographic record of the original peoples of the United States or as craft to be marketed as an expression of a tribe’s traditions. Anything different would not be considered truly Native by these arbitrary guidelines, and in fact, would not have been accepted as an authentic work. By the 20th century, US government programs for the arts were designed to keep indigenous aesthetics in a sterile environment for so-called authenticity’s sake, with a subtext of outsiders controlling the narrative of conquered peoples. The idea that anyone of Native descent would want to make fine art using the ideas and forms of modern theories while still referencing the touchstones of their background was very difficult for educators and others to accept. It wasn’t until after World War II and the educational opportunities provided by the G I Bill, that Native artists could afford to learn and work outside of the government-run arts schools. This newfound freedom led to dynamic works that could be anything from pure abstraction to biting social satire, where being an American Indian was simply one part of a person’s identity. Today’s artists, using their background and professional training, continue to expand and redefine Native art for the 21st century, adding to the creative spirit of the United States. The exhibit Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting, curated by David Penney, associate director of museum research and scholarship, and curators Kathleen Ash-Milby, Ann McMullen, Paul Chaat Smith and Rebecca Trautmann, trace this little known aspect of American art history using works from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collection.
Starting with the idea of ‘Grand Ambitions’, the show makes the overarching statement that modern Native paintings encompass a multitude of styles, themes, and subject matter, making them impossible to categorize. Using works from the 1950’s to the present, the only theme is freedom of expression, whether that is content or technique. Some fine examples include Blanket by James Lavadour, Walking to the Next Bar by Fritz Scholder, Trade Canoe: Adrift by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Deer Dancer for Hyacinth by Rick Bartow. Each of these works has a connection to ideas or concerns within Native communities, but expresses the artist’s feelings in a contemporary way, reaching out to a wider audience. Other paintings have no overt reference to Native themes, such as the beautifully balanced Spatial Whorl by Dick West, a triumph of Modernist Abstraction; and Reflexive Contemplation (wants-needs) by Duane Slick, with its delicate layers of paint over two faint silhouettes.
Following this introduction, the exhibition goes back in time, to explore the history of Native artists within the context of US government control of their education and restrictions on acceptable working techniques. A small passageway labelled ‘Training Ground: Oklahoma’ and ‘Training Ground: New Mexico’ showcases examples of drawings made with gouache, watercolor and tempera done by Native students attending art schools in Oklahoma and New Mexico. These idealized images are done in a relatively strict illustration style, with little modelling or perspective, and set the accepted standard of Native art practices for decades. By doing this, US government schools kept these students and educators from joining the national conversation regarding art theory and practice, all but ensuring the only market these artists could sell in was the limited one of ethnographic images.
Further on in the show, three sections show the rapid changes in Native art in the post-war era, thanks to benefits provided by the G I Bill as well as new ideas in federal policy and philanthropic activity. Given the freedom to attend colleges and universities with modern art courses and training, students embraced current methods to express age-old concerns and subjects, with many later becoming educators to the new generation. The ‘Reclaiming the Abstract’ segment shows American Indian artists beginning to move non-representational shapes from traditional areas of weaving and pottery onto the canvas, playing with positive/negative space, breaking down form, and using colors to influence mood and meaning. Three examples of this style, which is still very popular, are shown by Helen Hardin, Joe Hilario Herrera and Pablita Velarde.
After this area, the ‘Cosmopolitan’ section displays mid-20th and early 21st century work that advances further into modern abstraction, keeping pace with the current trends of American art. No 2 by George Morrison, with its strong gestural brushwork and assertive palette, is a classic example of abstract expressionism equal to any artist of that genre. In Homage to Chief Joseph (Chief Joseph #1) by Kay WalkingStick, the artist subtly links the old with the new, using the outline shape of an animal hide to contain and display her masterful painting technique. Contemporary abstraction is ably represented in Standing Water by Emmi Whitehorse, with its nuanced tones and floating shapes.
Finally, the ‘Indian Pop’ area gives viewers the heritage/modern mashup that is Native life, with tribal customs and rituals observed in a contemporary setting, as in Dance Break by Harry Fonseca with its four characters wearing ceremonial masks but dressed in jeans and high-tops. No longer viewed as primitive, sentimental, or naïve, these subjects are simply people engaging in their multi-faceted culture, the same as anyone else might do.
To put an exhibit of fine art in a museum known more for ethnographic content is a bold leap of imagination by the curators and the NMAI. Making the case for this little known aspect of US history and doing it in one of the art capitals of the world, sends a powerful message to Native and non-Native alike that this work has validity. However, the force of this argument is weakened by several inconsistencies in the presentation, something that would not have happened in an art institution setting.
The main problem with this exhibition is the uneven amount of information regarding the artists, historical context, and the paintings themselves. Some paintings have explanatory text linking the work to contemporary issues or artistic ideas, others have nothing. As an example, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa by Mateo Romero has no information attached to it. The title refers to either an ethnic group or a subgroup of Tanoan languages; either way, there should be something explaining which meaning the artist intended. The image itself is neutral enough that the viewer is left wondering how to interpret the scene. On the other hand, historical information for the early years of Native peoples’ artistic training is well expressed and encourages visitors to think about the methods and reasoning behind them.
The layout of the exhibit is also somewhat confusing. Oddly enough, the conclusion of the theme ‘stretching the canvas’ begins its narrative with late 20th century and early 21st century works, then switches to 20th century examples to illustrate US government approved art educational methods for Native people, influence of philanthropic organizations, and gaining opportunities to learn fine art techniques based on current art trends. Topics are linked to a timeline, as in abstraction and the 1950s, but the paintings in those areas are not consistently of the era referenced. Abstract ideas have changed radically in the last 60-plus years and the differences are very noticeable between period pieces and works from the last 10 years.
Using only paintings from NMAI’s own collection is a powerful way to draw attention to the lack of interest in modern and contemporary fine art from Native artists. Unfortunately for the organization, not all these pieces are the best available, making the show a little weaker than if they decided to include outside collections. (We’re assuming, correctly or not, that few mainstream institutions have much work from these artists. Indeed, the current rehanging of MoMA’s galleries don’t seem to have a single Native artist’s work on display, something that should be considered in future curatorial decisions. The Met has at least begun to address the issue with its new series The Great Hall Commission, currently showcasing mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) by Kent Monkman.) Admittedly by keeping the focus on their own holdings, the NMAI is making several points about the makers, the paintings, and the outside world’s view/acceptance of these works, not to mention the sensitive subject of funding purchases of art for the nation. However, the selection on view has a much better gender balance than the majority of group shows in NYC: out of the 37 paintings, 9 are by women, but by percentages, women are about 25% of the total participants. Although not parity, it’s clear that the curators have made a conscious effort to bring forward names that deserve to be better known. Given the national and international audience that visits the NMAI, it’s more than possible this collection may influence future exhibitions in unlikely places, although it may take years. It will be interesting to see if public interest, along with curators and scholars, can help break down the art world’s resistance to including artists of Native descent in permanent and special exhibit galleries.
On view November 16, 2019 – Fall 2021
National Museum of the American Indian New York, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, Hours: Fri – Wed: 10-5, Thur: 10-8, Admission: Free