What an incredible year it has been for exhibitions. I have romped through the 18th-century courts of France and Spain and Beijing and Kyoto and Constantinople, looked through the peepholes of the 19th-century bordellos of Paris, experienced the jazz cafés of 1930s Bronzeville in Chicago and the state-of-the-art nightclubs of ’80s London and New York, admired the treasures of the Prince of Liechtenstein, Heinz Berggruen of Berlin, and of Eli Broad of the Bronx.
I’ve drawn back the curtain on the legendary closets of Jacqueline de Ribes and Susanne Bartsch, and delved even further into the brilliant, questioning minds of Jeanne Lanvin, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dries Van Noten, and Alexander McQueen, of Piero Fornasetti and Sonia Delaunay, of Goya and Ai Weiwei.
Let’s start with the frocks. There is little to be added to the litany of praise heaped on “China: Through The Looking Glass,” but at least 815,992 people were able to experience fashion’s engagement with the China of movie legend (including some loans from my own collection, so exciting to see them so magnificently dressed, and crowned with Stephen Jones’s fantastic headdresses), and the splendid robes of the imperial court, as magnificently orchestrated by curator Andrew Bolton, designer Nathan Crowley, and director Wong Kar Wai. (Luckily, London’s British Film Institute just screened his 2000 classic, In the Mood for Love, and I was able to take in its full-screen beauty once more.)
In Paris, meanwhile, the monographic show on the work of the unsung couturiere Jeanne Lanvin was showcased in the beautifully restored Palais Galliera when curator Olivier Saillard worked with Alber Elbaz to bring Madame Lanvin’s dramatic and superbly detailed clothes to life. Fragile embroidered and beaded pieces from the designer’s Jazz Age glory years were arranged in flat cabinets like dress boxes, with the “lids” raised up and lined in mirror so that in reflection the dresses appeared to be upright, as though being worn. It was Elbaz’s brilliant inspiration to muss them all up a little (doubtless to the befuddlement of the conservators), a touch that made the clothes dance.
Saillard was also responsible for one of the smaller fashion show gems of the year—“Yves Saint Laurent 1971” at the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent. The exhibition focused on Saint Laurent’s notorious 1940s revival collection of Spring 1971, which was the scandal of Paris for seeming to evoke the trollops and collaborators of the darkest days of the German Occupation, but in retrospect set the broad-shouldered silhouette that would pretty much dominate fashion for the next two decades. Extant ensembles from the collection were placed in front of Saint Laurent’s enchanting original sketches, blown up human scale for the purpose. The show was a pure delight. There was more Yves Saint Laurent at the Fashion Institute of Technology—his theatricality and global gleanings this time effectively juxtaposed with the sleek Americana of Halston.
Back in Paris at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Pamela Golbin showcased and Véronique Belloir curated buttons (“Déboutonner la Mode,” or “Unbuttoned Fashion”), and brought this potentially mundane subject to life with astonishing examples of decorative buttons (based on a donation of some 3,000 examples by collector Loïc Allio) from high 18th-century costumes to Schiaparelli’s 1930s fantasias. A jewel of a show.
Quiet and relatively unsung, New York City’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520–1620” brought together pictures, textiles, and pattern books in the museum’s collections (I further sated my Hilary Mantel–esque lusting for Tudor and Elizabethan atmosphere by visiting the storied British country houses Hardwick Hall, Hatfield, and Longleat. Each astonishing in different ways, although one front of Hatfield has latterly been despoiled by a pointless sculpture by Angela Conner, and don’t get me started on Longleat’s Edward Scissorhands–esque “tree surgeon” who has hacked the immemorial oaks to tortured-looking stumps).
Onward! At the Royal Villa of Monza, “Bellissima” explored postwar Italian fashion from 1945 to 1968, with its innovations in textiles and synchronicity with the country’s dynamic contemporary art of the era, and in Rome, Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli showcased their recent haute couture masterworks with a fascinating voyage around some of the city’s hidden architectural gems. The “Sonia Delaunay: Les Couleurs de l’Abstraction” exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo (revisited by me at Tate Modern later in the year) showcased her amazing Cubist fashion creations alongside her art, and had a powerful impact on the Spring collections. There was more creativity at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo in an exhibition dedicated to the work of the fashion model Sayoko, who ruled the fashion runways in the ’70s and early ’80s and then evolved into an artist muse and a creator of art herself.
The improbable fashion underpinnings that gave 18th- and 19th-century clothes their exaggerated silhouettes were exposed at the Bard Graduate Center, while 20th-century versions were on exhibit at The Kyoto Costume Institute (repository of a very serious collection of fashion masterworks, like Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum, which finally has a new dedicated area for the museum’s incredible 20th-century haute couture collection).
A trio of fashion exhibitions that transferred from other venues was amplified in transition. Jean Paul Gaultier’s lively career retrospective hit Paris at last, landing at the Grand Palais with much wit and fanfare. Dries Van Noten’s “Inspirations,” astonishing in its scope and breadth at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, was, if anything, even more impressive at the ModeMuseum in the designer’s native Antwerp, Belgium, with specially commissioned video art (and scent) installations bringing Dries’s fecund imagination vividly to life.
Meanwhile, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum hosted “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (in his hometown), and added still more exhibits to the cabinet of wonders and curiosities that formed a central design element of curator Andrew Bolton’s extraordinary show that broke all records at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011—until “China: Through the Looking Glass” exceeded them this year!
The end of the year sent me hurtling off to the 18th century, where I must say I feel very much at home. Especially moving was a Jean-Honoré Fragonard picture of Cythère at the Musée du Luxembourg (“Fragonard Amoureux. Galant et Libertin”). The artist’s delicate paintings are suggestive of the sexually charged artifice of the doomed French court, and must have been admired by many of the subjects in the Grand Palais’s stupendous exhibition of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s magnificent portraits of pre-Revolutionary French aristocrats and royals, including, of course, her star sitter, Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun depicted the queen in full regal panoply, and also dressed with the simplicity she affected in her shepherdess life at the Petit Hameau and won the support and affection of her subject in the process. The artist fought for recognition in a male-dominated profession and won it: She was ultimately accepted into the prestigious Academie Royale du Peinture et Sculpture. She managed to flee the Revolution in the nick of time and traveled around the courts of Europe and Russia on an impressive pilgrimage that saw her documenting the beauties and grandees of many of the most significant realms of the age—and then returned to France to paint Napoleon’s family and court.
No less bedazzling were the portraits of Jean-Etienne Liotard at London’s Royal Academy of Arts—new developments in conservation having finally allowed these fragile, often pastel, portraits to travel. For some years Liotard was established in Constantinople, and his portraits of the local expat community, play-acting in Turkish costume, are of a divinity not to be believed. In the Academy’s principal galleries downstairs, Ai Weiwei’s moving and challenging works document the artist’s enduring struggles. Another artist battling complex regimes was the star attraction at London’s National Gallery where “Goya: The Portraits” snatched the breath away with the artist’s power, humanity, and insights, just as the Velázquez spectacular at the Grand Palais had done earlier in the year: the enduring power of Spain expressed in paint and passion.
Further serendipities: Piero Fornasetti at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs; Daniel Buren’s stained-glass panels at the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art; the Selgascano pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery; the new Jorge Pardo installation of the Art of the Ancient Americas at LACMA; the restored landscape of Olana in upstate New York; John Singer Sargent’s portraits of fascinating friends at London’s National Portrait Gallery; the dazzling works of the African-American artist Archibald Motley (“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist”) at the new Whitney, a building more exciting inside than out.
I also swooned at the Huntington near Pasadena, California, in admiration at the hanging of the picture gallery (which I haven’t visited since the 2008 renovation) with some of the best 18th-century English swagger portraits in the world—Gainsboroughs, Lawrences, Romneys, and Reynoldses among them. Not forgetting the heart-stopping jolt of discovering a series of exceptional Monet water lily paintings in a subterranean gallery at Tadeo Ando’s Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima. In Tokyo I was also moved by Yoshio Taniguchi’s The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. There was more stimulating architecture at David Chipperfield’s subtle but sublime restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin, and at the newly unveiled The Broad in buzzy downtown Los Angeles, with its dynamic design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (remember the innovative installation they did for Charles James at the Costume Institute?), and a collection that simply beggars description. Particularly enjoying, in the current hang, John Currin’s sly masterworks, some deeply moving early Cy Twomblys, and Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors (I went to his studio in Reykjavik last year when John Galliano sat for him).
For razzle-dazzle and revelation, meanwhile, it was difficult to compete with “Splendeurs et Misères” at the Musée d’Orsay, brilliantly designed by the opera director Robert Carsen, and astonishing in its scope and insight into the underbelly of late-19th-century Paris.
There is no rest for the relentlessly curious. In Provence for Christmas, I’ve just caught the Hockney show currently at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles—opened in 2014, thanks to the visionary cultural philanthropist Maja Hoffmann (Vogue, March 2015). I had missed his exuberant studies of the changing landscape of his native west Yorkshire in London (at the Royal Academy, again), so was pleased to catch these evocative pictures, sketched on his iPad and blown up large. Then I dashed to Aix-en-Provence to the Caumont Centre d’Art, newly opened in a beautifully restored 18th-century town mansion, to gape in open-mouthed wonder at some of the treasures of the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein. While some of these astonishing pictures have been in the family collections for centuries, a number of incredible works—a Cranach the Elder Venus, superb portraits by Frans Hals and Moroni, a Panini of the Pantheon in Rome—have been added in recent years by the current Prince Hans-Adam II.
So much beauty in this world, so little time.
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