leanor Foa Dienstag

Three Museums Focus on Women

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Does pouring a lot of money into a show make it better?

You can decide by traveling first to the Brooklyn Museum to view “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection,” (From May 7 to August 1) an exhibition of eighty-five fashion masterpieces drawn from its world-famous Costume Collection.  (See more photos in Snapping Around). In 2009, the collection was transferred to the Met because the Brooklyn Museum could not afford its upkeep and preservation. The pieces in this show have been borrowed back to celebrate the two museums unique partnership.

Across the river at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a complementary show of 80 haute couture pieces from the 1890s to the 1940s, “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity.” (From May 5 to August 15) It is also drawn from –- in fact commemorates — the transfer of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection to the Met. This exhibition is sponsored by The Gap and Conde Nast, offers an audio tour narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, and enjoyed a red-carpet opening as the centerpiece for the Museum’s annual Costume Institute Gala Benefit, Co-Chaired by Anna Wintour (Editor-in-Chief of Vogue), Oprah Winfrey and Patrick Robinson (Executive Vice President of The Gap).

These two exhibitions, though they seem to be about the same thing, are not identical twins. Far from it.

For those interested in fabulous examples of clothes by great designers of the past, especially Charles James and Elsa Schiaparelli, head to Brooklyn. The clothes are the stars. They are organized chronologically, placed against white walls like pieces of art, and augmented by simple, information-packed paragraphs about their provenance and designer. For example, there is the 1918 wedding of Edith Constable (of the Arnold Constable family) dressed in a Jeanne Paquin gown. Nearby is a priceless 1920 French dog coat and leash. One of my favorites is a simple black Schiaparelli suit with buttons in the shape of grand pianos. Her hats and necklaces – one encrusted with insects – are also show stoppers. (See more photos in Snapping Around).

But the Charles James gowns – and there are many of them — take pride of place in this exhibition. They are stunning, inventive, magical and utterly timeless works of art.

At the Met, the clothes almost get lost. Or as my friend put it, “The clothes seem only a backdrop to set a scene.” It is the lavish installations that are stage center — six thematically-organized, historically-specific circular galleries created by film-set designer Nathan Crowley, with hand-painted murals, lavish wigs, videos and in the final gallery, projected images of famous American women from 1890 to the present including the only black women in the show.

The focus of this exhibition is famous women in American history as well as American archetypes, glamorized by popular culture.

We are taken on an historical stroll, beginning with the Heiress and Gibson Girl (1890s), then the Bohemian (early 1900s), next the Patriot/Suffragist (1910s), the Flappers (1920s), and finally the Screen Sirens (1930s). Why there are no fashions from the 40s, 50s and 60s is a bit of a puzzle.

There are beautiful clothes in the show, by many of the same French and American designers highlighted in Brooklyn, but I can’t remember a single outfit. Yet, it’s fun to compare and contrast these two exhibitions, and many may prefer the historical sweep and show-biz glitz of the Met’s design and approach.

Over at MoMA, drawing from its vast collection of photography, there is a monumental, not-to-be-missed exhibition, Pictures by “Women: A History of Modern Photography” (from May 7 to August 30). More than 200 works by about 120 artists, chronologically arranged, fill the entire third-floor Edward Steichen Photography Galleries.

From its earliest inception, women have been involved with the art of photography, and often bring a different “eye” to the world around them. At a time when many male photographers trained their cameras on battlefields, historical monuments and sweeping vistas, Julia Margaret Cameron, an early 19th Century British photographer, exemplified a poetic, soft-focus vision, with her luminous portraits and self-portraits.

Many of the artists are “the usual suspects,” including such familiar names as Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Tina Modotti, Dorothea Lange, Nan Goldin, Barbara Kruger, Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman. But one of the great pleasures of this well-curated show is the inclusion of less well known but significant artists, drawn from MoMa’s rich collection. Among them is Frances Benjamin Johnston who in 1899 was commissioned to take photographs of the Hampton Institute for a show about contemporary African American life displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

During the 1920s and 30s, a number of women, including Lee Miller, moved from being muse and model to becoming daring, experimental photographers themselves. This period is well represented in the show by works of Ilse Bing and Tina Modotti. In the U.S., Dorothea Lange was taking photos of the Dust Bowl Depression years. Twenty of her photographs, including her iconic “Migrant Mother,” are on view.

There are in-depth presentations of works by Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Judith Joy Ross, and examples of different forms and artistic strategies in contemporary photography – from postmodern and conceptual to documentary narratives.

It’s a visual feast with a feminist twist.

Photos and Credits from Top:
Charles James Evening Gown at the Brooklyn Museum: photo by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Halston Evening Dress, Circa 1975: Brooklyn Museum: Photo by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Elsa Schiaparelli Necklace: Photo by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Front and Back of Charles James 1957 “Diamond” Evening Dress: Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Photo of Bohemian Gallery View
Photo of Lucille Brokaw by Martin Munkacsi, 1933
Photo of Jeanne Lanvin Evening Ensemble, 1923, by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Photo of Julia Margaret Cameron, Untitled
Ilse Bing, Self Portrait in Mirrors, 1931
Nan Goldin, Self-Portrait, One Month After Being Battered


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E-mail at efoa@usa.net