Women’s Work: Being Female Before Feminism
Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons: Two-piece ensemble in synthetic leather from the "18th-Century Punk" collection. A retrospective of Rei Kawakubo's work, "Art of the In-Between", is currently on show at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 4th September 2017 )Copyright and courtesy of Comme des Garçons
There are no Dior T-shirts announcing “We should all be feminists”.
No grainy movies showing women marching for the right to vote.
The breakthrough of trousers into the female closet is not recorded.
Yet “Women’s Work?” (“Travaux de Dames?”), the current exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris (until the 17th of September 2017), takes a look both sharp and sly at the evolving role of women in the applied arts. That encompasses everything from ceramics to clothes, fashion to photography, and drawing to design.
This discreet exhibition, tucked away on the museum’s upper floor, is also designed to show the powerful role that the museum itself has played in supporting women in these fields – although its purpose is to express the artistic freedom that ultimately developed from a modest beginning. For example, a picture from 1895 of two women, one sewing, the other pointing at the words “Arts by Women” later leads to Kristin McKirdy’s ceramic sculptures of 2016.
It is interesting to see a museum presentation that is focused on no particular artist or designer. An ever-increasing number of exhibitions today concentrate on a single figure, such as “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion”, opening this week at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (complementing another Balenciaga show in Paris); or Dior’s 70th birthday show (“Christian Dior: Couturier du rêve”) opening on the 5th of July in this very museum of decorative arts.
Yet the heroines stand out in this exhibition: Here are Sonia Delaunay and Elsa Schiaparelli, the former such a powerful contributor to the geometric patterns of the early 20th century, while “Schiap’s” trompe l’oeil sweaters from the 1920s, with their pretend collars and bows, are utterly wearable today. Yet they were significant in introducing the simplicity and freedom of the sweater to the world of women nearly a century ago.
Delaunay was a pluralist artist who wanted to bring down the barriers between major and miner art and also deplored the concept that “decorative” arts could not be taken seriously. The furniture on display from her personal dining room, especially the cabinets in sycamore, face off the Jazz Age geometry of her print blouses.
Then there are the patterns created in l’Atelier Martine, set up by Paul Poiret in 1911 after a visit to Berlin and Vienna to understand the work of Josef Hoffmann, where the object was to marry fine and applied art.
I was constantly surprised by this quirky little exhibition – not so much by the baby-pink fake leather outfit from Comme des Garçons, cut away with straps and openings to reveal flesh, but by the fact that in the 1980s Rei Kawakubo designed furniture for her boutiques to blend with her aesthetic vision of East meets West.
The exhibitions opens with “Travaux de Dames?” printed on a washcloth – something I saw as an ironic view of women artists being metaphorically chained to the kitchen. Add to that another unlikely reflection: a dining table with a series of silver cutlery shaped into animals and plants.
The next surprise is a carved wooden bust, spiky with pins, looking like some contribution to an African ritual, but in fact designed by artist Janine Janet in 1959 as one of three bustiers for the windows of the Balenciaga boutique on Avenue George V.
Within the interconnecting areas, I was drawn to the fashion elements, such as the patterned fabric from Paul Poiret’s Atelier Martine, or Schiap’s mad hats, which we have seen many times before, but which suggest in their elegant wit the spirit of the 1920s and 30s. In a spirit of collaboration, Schiap’s designs were photographed by Horst P. Horst – not least a sweater with circular patches with deliberate holes – suggesting an early outing for Comme des Garçons knits – known fondly as the “Gruyère cheese sweater”.
The collaborations between female and male artists announce from the start of the 20th century that applied art was no longer geared towards “women’s work”. Even Schiap’s whimsical suede gloves with lace finger nail decoration were more than a lighthearted joke and were linked to the Surrealists through the designer’s collaboration with Salvador Dali. It seems that creative women of the 1930s were already working in tandem with artistic men.
By the time Niki de Saint Phalle’s colourful creations appeared in the 1960s, when her “Nanas” were political and feminist, women were definitely artists in their own right.
I liked the wit that keeps this exhibition on the light side, such as the jewellery by Monika Brugger interpreting the theme of the sewing thimble, while the finale displays a troupe of powerful female artists under the banner, “Did you say women?”
The show is small, but thought-provoking. And hats off (especially Schiap’s shoe hat!) to curatorial assistants Raphael Bille and Karine Lacquement, who look at women’s work without making an aggressive feminist statement.
“Travaux de Dames?” is at Le Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, until 17th September 2017 (www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr)