'Reflecting on the Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Gift: Fashion’s Intervention Into the NGV Permanent Collection'/ Michelle Guo
There has been an influx of fashion exhibitions in the past decade, kickstarted by the tremendous success of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. The NGV is no stranger to blockbuster fashion exhibitions, celebrating the works of Dior, Viktor & Rolf and Jean Paul Gaultier. Their most recent exhibition -The Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Gift- suggests that they are starting to take fashion more seriously, paying attention to their permanent collection. Fashion has barged her way into the permanent collection and is here to stay. NGV has staged a fashion intervention, and it has brought a multitude of additional perspectives along with it; an opportunity to view the new and existing works in a fresh light, together. This exhibition used a wide range of display methods that I find immensely interesting. I have no doubt that these methods are going to re-emerge at the NGV’s next fashion exhibition, so we might as well take this chance to get to know them. As such, even though the exhibition is over, I am going to virtually revisit it, examining what worked and what didn’t. If you have seen it, perhaps take the chance to dig up those photos you took (even the ones that didn’t make it onto your Instagram feed) and find something new in them. If you haven’t, then I hope I paint you a good word picture, with accompanying pictures of course.
Normally, fashion exhibitions portray designers as genius artists, exploring their sources of inspiration chronologically or thematically. Art objects that are acquired through donations from private collections tend to celebrate the donor themselves. The Fashion Gift was something similar but different. The Dominique Sirop Collection makes up over half of Campbell-Pretty’s donation, which was inspected by Campbell-Pretty along with Katie Somerville, the NGV Senior Curator of Fashion and Textiles, and subsequently ‘purchased with funds donated by Mrs Krystyna Campbell-Pretty.’ Another 100 or so looks were collected by Campbell-Pretty here and there over the past few years, in between her bouts of jet-setting and philanthropising. Sirop, a Parisian collector and couturier who has apprenticed at Yves Saint Laurent and worked for Givenchy, is not mentioned in any of the wall text or labels in the exhibition. The NGV’s promotional material simply characterised the exhibition as a ‘microcosm of the world of haute couture and Parisian fashion.’ Sounds vague, and slightly historical. Maybe a feeble attempt at being encyclopedic. It celebrates how ‘a focused supporter can transform a museum collection.’ It’s money. They’re talking about money. (cue ABBA)
The exhibition spanned the Decorative Arts corridor and the International collection 19th-20th century room, (whatever the hell that means, given that the rooms pretty much just show British and European painting and sculpture, peppered with a couple of Americans). To this end, it seems fitting to display the dresses here; better here than anywhere else in the museum. The Gift represented the introduction of these garments into the permanent collection, so as to say, ‘this is where you’ll be seeing these garments we got, get used to it.’ To contextualise Parisian garments from the 19th and 20th century using paintings and furniture from the time… when you put it that way it seems like a no-brainer.
The fashion displays amongst the permanent collection worked best when there was a clear dialogue between the garments and the paintings. Notably, in the 19th Century European Paintings Gallery there is a specific sightline, in which Edwin Long’s A Question of Propriety (a personal fave, both the Longs are such lovely works) is preceded by some Boué Soeurs dresses. This juxtaposition of the similar silhouettes and patterns of floral lace and embroidery on tulle, perfectly enhanced the playfulness of the gypsy girl depicted in the painting.
Some of the strongest tableaux in the entire exhibition were what I dub the ‘Bold Colour corners,’ in which the bright colours of the garments were uncannily well-suited to the paintings that they were displayed alongside. In one corner, we had the exquisite textural mastery of John Lavery’s In Morocco and Alvaro Guevara’s Mrs Fairbairn (Nancy Cunard). Both paintings, while tonally very different, feature the vivid pops of orange and purple on a neutral coloured base. The selection of Vionnets echoed the colours, embellishment, silhouette and draping from the paintings in dynamic yet subtle ways, nodding to the details that may otherwise be overlooked.
In the other corner, Paul Poiret’s bold red day jacket echoed the military red coats in Elizabeth Thompson’s The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras. While the darker tones of the green Schiaparelli and black Lucien Lelong coats brought out the darker jewel tones of Waterhouse’s Ulysses and the Sirens. Even if they didn’t match perfectly, the garments near the paintings encouraged viewers to look more closely at the garments/textures in the paintings, admire the way a painter has used brushstrokes to emulate the delicateness of chiffon, the light hitting velvet, the lines of draped linens.
In instances where styles or silhouettes can’t be matched up, colour is a great avenue into the fashion-art dialogue. It was what made the salon room a divine curatorial feat. Black dresses were elevated on plinths to meld with the sculptural displays, emphasising the 3-dimensional quality of dress. The monochrome selection offered a chance to admire the way light dances off the metal of the sculpture and the fabrics and embellishments of the dresses, enhancing the human figure. Gowns in softer tones flowed with the tonality of the works they were displayed alongside, bringing lightness back into the gold-framed paintings that teeter on the side of dark and being overpowered by the starkness of the red wall behind them.
The line of dresses in tones of beige positioned around St Genviève provisioning Paris under siege is also an example of this, using the beige of the paper(? medium) as the reference point. Dark accents matched the monochromatic shading in the work. As such, juxtaposing Grecian draperies with Edwardian S-line bustles becomes less disjointed. The details brought them together: the draping, the cinching, the dark buttons, the way the sheer tulle overlays play with shade and light. This is also one of the few instances in the exhibit in which the scale of the subjects was relatively close to the size of the dresses and displayed in close enough proximity for this to be apparent. The eye is immediately drawn to compare the human figure in the painting to that of the mannequin, offering the chance for a more holistic comparison of dress in image and on dress form.
In the language of display, isolation is a singular spotlight, screaming ‘LOOK AT ME I AM SPECIAL.’ In an exhibition full of visual dialogue, isolated platforms are showy monologues and blocked off alcoves are private conversations off to the side. Likewise, mesh screens help us focus on one conversation at the party, temporarily turning the rest of the exhibit into atmospheric ambience. Every time I saw a work that was displayed on its own separate platform, in its own separate custom display unit, it made me go, ‘Why this one? What is it saying that the others aren’t?’
The answer is: not much.
...maybe it’s just for the ‘gram.
Alcoves had the added harm of completely cutting off the works they house from the rest of the room, stifling any potential dialogues or visual relationships that could present themselves. The grey walls did very little for the gowns on the display unit, even muting some of the brighter tones. At least for the paintings, the frames could assist in livening up the work through its isolation.
Because the NGV also seemed SUPER keen to display garments against walls, this required techniques to access views of different angles of the dress that solid walls otherwise blocked off. Enter mirrors.
The large staircase tableau with the gowns on different levels was clearly trying to go for a ‘moment.’ But it just made me think of an H&M display of exuberant evening dresses for spritely lasses. All the sweetheart necklines you could possibly desire!
This makes sense on a thematic level, since fashion collections tend to be coherent visual narratives that tie together quite nicely. A designer’s artistic development throughout their career also makes for a bomb-ass theme. However, given how often monograph shows are done, and now most stores –department or flagship— tend to group works by designer, the comparisons are inevitable. This was particularly the case with the Balenciaga room, which also had the very store-window-esque displays on the walls (because we all love a good bit of fashion as commodity in our exhibitions). Next to the art-deco tea-sets, the Paco Rabanne metal minidress and Pierre Cardin target dresses looked like novelty pieces made to sell the drinkwares… and some classic red KitchenAids.
In the decorative arts sections of the exhibition dressed mannequins became characters within the constructed scene, posed with vases or in front of cabinets.
Other spaces, like the McQueen selection in the Hoffmann Gallia apartment, juxtaposed Hoffman’s Viennese design with McQueen’s Scottish tartan, Byzantine prints, and Grecian motifs from his various collections. Perhaps playing a bit too much into the cabinet of curiosities idea, the display seemed… jarring, too much going on for what it was, resulting in a somewhat incoherent Esperanto with a lot of cultures but not much communication.
From a sample size of 4, I can definitively tell you that the inconsistent styling between the mannequins was unbelievably distracting. Some looks had the honour of being accompanied with matching shoes, others were relegated to generic white shoes of various styles that were mildly inoffensive, and some looks… clearly just got relegated a pair of shoes that kinda matched? Same went for the headpieces, to the extent that it felt almost a bit slap-dash. That’s the thing with styling details that are somewhat avant-garde; like it or not they will stand out, sometimes jarringly so (if they seem familiar, you may have seen some of them in the House of Dior exhibition from 2017, it’s the same display strategy, just more).
Look we all wear clothes; we know that a good accessory/shoe can do wonders for a look. It is uncommon for a gold frame –that is meant to be a fancy schmancy support, like a bit of gold leaf on a cake— to distractingly ruin a painting.
Exhibition here! Here to remind you about the research collection!
Another important aspect of the exhibition was to highlight the new Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Research Collection, thus also featuring archival ephemera that corresponds to the eras of the garments on display. NGV claimed that this exhibition shows the history of (Parisian) women’s fashion; the research collection demarcated a concerted effort by the museum to archiving and contributing to this history. As I have mentioned, I think that this kind of approach for a collection of this scope is quite restrictive and essentialising, unable to do justice to any account of history. Many of the issues I had with the way the exhibition was displayed stem from how this research collection was handled. To use a big obtrusive display unit that blocks off a lot of gallery space to create a small cove for showing the archival material would have only been effective in instances where the visitor count was small and people weren’t constantly distracted by all the shiny pretty things happening everywhere. To incorporate the archival material with the dresses to open-up the space and facilitate a dialogue, would have been much stronger. As it was, it felt easy to overlook; perhaps unjustifiably so, since some of the sketches are truly gorgeous (and should have been next to dresses rather than in glass cases).
An appeal to slow viewing
At the end(?)/beginning(?) of the exhibit in the first display in the decorative arts passage, was a Dior ensemble from a recent collection, sandwiched between a Rothko and a Soulages. The abstract expressionist paintings have lived in the decorative arts passage for a while now, and I often wonder whether that is because this is the place where one is most likely to have a one-on-one experience with the painting, away from the bustle that frequents what I call the ‘Modern Must-see ‘Masterpieces’’ –the Warhol (Self-portrait no. 9), the Picasso (Weeping Woman), the Bacon (Study from the human body). The decorative arts sections tend to be overlooked, perhaps ironically making it the perfect space to meditatively experience the brilliance of Rothko’s colour, in a low ceilinged, less cathedral-for-art-esque white cube.
Perhaps next to the Dior it looks simply like a fancy backdrop, but I hope that those who took time to contemplate the Rothko and Soulages, were able to see the Dior (or vice versa), and the rest of the exhibition in a fresh light.
There are still some pieces of the collection on display; a trace of the exhibition that was one there. Perhaps take a chance to visit and see what they evoke. Who are these women who have barged into the NGV and made themselves at home in the decorative arts passage?