The Met Gala – A Forgotten History

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching The First Monday in May after at last finding it online (this took an unhealthy amount of time searching the depths of the internet as its UK debut is not until September, I suppose patience is a virtue that I lack). Ever since watching the trailer earlier this year I have anxiously awaited its release. The film marks the first time the Met gala has been the subject of a full-length documentary, and closely scrutinized by a relative fashion and art industry outsider. Critically acclaimed director Andrew Rossi has previously focused the attentions of his documentaries on industries such as journalism and education including, Page One: Inside the New York Times and Ivory Tower, but never the opaque fashion or art worlds.

The trailer promises to follow the creative process–with unprecedented access–behind the curation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the museum’s 2015 spring exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton exploring Chinese-inspired Western fashions, and an exclusive look at what it takes to organize the logistical Everest that is Met Gala. Co-Chaired by Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, the Gala has recently become known as the “super bowl of social fashion events”. It not only marks the grand opening of the spring exhibition, in this case “China”, but also functions to fundraise the Costume Institute’s operating budget for the entire year. #NoPressure

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the film, and do highly recommend watching it now that its on iTunes. However, I found that although it lived up to what it promised to deliver, and beyond in many senses (interviews with Harold Koda, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gautier in particular provided unique perspectives on the “Is Fashion Art?” debate), it missed an important opportunity to examine the Met Gala’s cultural significance within the fashion industry beyond its connections to celebrity culture. The film only briefly paid homage to former Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, whose contributions as a “special consultant” to Met in the 1970s (she joined in ’73) are largely credited with reinvigorating public interest in the Institute. And furthermore, it entirely overlooked the Costume Institute and the Gala’s deep connections with the development of the American fashion industry; especially the key role both played in establishing American designer sportswear as a legitimate alternative to Parisian haute couture in the post WWII era.

Indeed, since its founding in 1940 the Costume Institute has been an advocate for American sportswear. Not only did it function as a historical resource for New York-based fashion and theatre designers, it also served to establish the intellectual community and rhetoric needed to exalt the virtues of American fashion to the world, including words now commonly used: democratic, functional, rational and/or versatile.  For example, when the Museum of Costume became The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1945, it presented an exhibition called “American Fashions and Fabrics” in collaboration with sportswear designers such as Clarepotter and Claire McCardall to showcase the skills of American sportswear designers, or as former Costume Institute curator Richard Martin said, “represent the unceasing creativity of American fashion”.

Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, the documentary overlooked the critical roles Eleanor Lambert, the renowned fashion publicist behind the creation of Fashion Week, the International Best Dressed List and “Battle of Versailles”; and Dorothy Shaver – the groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor – played in the gala’s creation. Both collaborated in establishing the COTY American Fashion Critics’ Awards (the precursor to today’s CFDA awards), whose first ceremonies interestingly took place on January 22, 1943, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps they knew they were on to something because in 1948, almost 70 years ago, Lambert and Shaver went on to establish the Party of the Year, an annual fundraiser now known as… the Met Gala.

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition's subtitle, "Through the Looking Glass," which translates into Chinese as "Moon in the Water," suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator's created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer - a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. "When 'Moon in the Water,' is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy." Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition’s subtitle, “Through the Looking Glass,” which translates into Chinese as “Moon in the Water,” suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator’s created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer – a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. “When ‘Moon in the Water,’ is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy.” Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

A porcelain- inspired couture gown included in "China Through the Looking Glass". Image: Carolina Reyes

A blue-and-white porcelain- inspired couture gown included in “China Through the Looking Glass”. The exhibition pointed out that the story of blue-and-white porcelain encapsulates centuries of cultural exchannge between the East and the West. It was originally developed in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and was exported to Europe as early as the sixteenth century. However, because of its popularity potters in the Netherlands, Germany and England began to produce their own imitations with a particular willow pattern, causing Chinese craftsmen to begin producing their own hand-painted versions of the willow pattern. Image: Carolina Reyes

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache.

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache. Image: Carolina Reyes

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the "Party of the Year" now known as the Met Gala.

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the “Party of the Year” now known as the Met Gala.

Dissertation Discussion: Aric

What is your title?

Madame Yevonde’s Goddess Protraits: Subverting the Surrealist Gaze

What prompted you to choose this subject?

When we visited the National Portrait Gallery in December and the archivist brought out a few of the original prints from the Goddess Series, I knew because of their stunning beauty they would be the topic of my dissertation.

Most inspiring research find so far?

I am really inspired by the depth of care Madame Yevonde took in her creative process. This ultimately resulted in her use of a cutting edge photographic techniques and color printing that created the powerful luminescence of the Goddess Series.

Favourite place to work?

I am not really a library or archive person at heart, so I spend a lot of time working coffee shops and on occasion in my flat.

Madame Yevonde, Self Portrait, 1925.

Madame Yevonde, Self Portrait, 1925.

Dissertation Discussion: Aude

What is your title?

Spectacular bodies: Paul Poiret and the display of Haute Couture (still working on it).

What prompted you to choose this subject?

I was struck by the ‘grand narratives’ that seemed to be applied to Paul Poiret’s work and life – his rise to stardom in the 1910s as the ‘king of fashion’, or as he was characterized at times Poiret ‘The Modernist,’ and his downfall in the postwar years as the couturier who would (ironically) ‘reject’ modernism. My work is an attempt at nuancing some of the assumptions that surround the couturier, notably in the years following the First World War, by looking at his involvement in the costuming of music-halls, his use of actresses in advertisements, and the relationships of power between these performers, their audience, the couture clientele and the (bourgeois) couturier.

Most inspiring research find so far?

Poiret’s acting role in Colette’s La Vagabonde (alongside Colette herself) shown at the Théâtre de l’Avenue in 1927. The fact that La Vagabonde has a sort of redemptive tone in its attempt to legitimize the hard-working actresses of the music-halls is particularly interesting in light of Poiret’s own difficulties in combining the sort of excess his persona and clothing were seen to produce and the bourgeois values of the Third Republic.

Favourite place to work?

I spent three days in Paris in the various buildings of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for research on Poiret. The Richelieu site was a highlight, and I have to admit that consulting microfilms there made me feel that bit more professional.

The 1923 February cover of Les Modes with Mistinguett as its cover star. The gown is misattributed to Paul Poiret (the magazine apologizes in the next issue)

The 1923 February cover of Les Modes with Mistinguett as its cover star. The gown is misattributed to Paul Poiret (the magazine apologizes in the next issue)

 

Dissertation Discussion: Eleanor

What is your title?

Dressing for the Empire: Australian women in London 1900-1930

What prompted you to choose this subject?

The initial stirrings of an idea started months ago when I was trawling the British Pathé archives for another assignment and came across a gorgeous little clip from 1967 that featured models parading through a sheep shed that was reporting on uses of Australian wool in fashion for the British public. It got me thinking about the depictions of Australian fashion in the UK and particularly the depiction of the Australian woman.

Beatrice Kerr, 1907, toured Britain from 1906-1911 as 'Australia's champion Lady diver' in her patriotic, though fairly risqué swimsuit. Image via National Library of Australia.

Beatrice Kerr, 1907, toured Britain from 1906-1911 as ‘Australia’s champion Lady diver’ in her patriotic, though fairly risqué swimsuit. Image via National Library of Australia.

Most inspiring research find so far?

The most inspiring research so far have been the wonderful characters I have come across (like Beatrice Kerr, above) and they have largely determined the timeframe I’ve decided to focus on (1900-1930). The number of single Australian and New Zealand born women living in Britain during these years was incredibly high. These women largely travelled to Britain alone, with no firm plans as to employment or accommodation when they arrived. It was an incredibly bold move to take for women in this era, and fostered a particular idea about antipodean women being independent, resourceful and bit wild. With this perception already in place, and being far from the social restrictions they might face at home these women were able to transgress social norms thanks to their status as ‘outsiders’. My research is now trying to establish how these social assumptions translated into the dress and bodies of these women; the way they transgressed physically, and ways in which dress characterised transgressive femininity.

Favourite place to work?

After the necessity of trawling through old newspapers in the British Library Newsroom for a few weeks I’ve become quite attached to it. The microfiche machines mean it isn’t dead silent and there are ALWAYS tables free which means I don’t have to arrive for doors open. And the baristas at the little coffee cart inside the entrance are the only people in London who remember my coffee order. Possibly I’m there too much.

Alumni Interview: Elisa De Wyngaert

Antwerp based alumna Elisa De Wyngaert, graduated from the Documenting Fashion MA in 2014. Counting Helmut Lang and Pierre Balmain among her research interests, Elisa has continued to write about fashion and contributed exhibition reviews to Belgian radio since leaving the Courtauld. After pursuing further study and undertaking work experience for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, she now works as a fashion curator at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp.

What made you want to study Dress History at the Courtauld?

I read Art History at the University of Leuven and wrote my MA dissertation on “The House of Balmain: Before and After Pierre Balmain”. This research process was new and fascinating to me, especially as it was very different from my previous art historical research. I found it challenging to analyse proper academic sources and it took longer to determine the correct methodology. That being said, it was exciting and I couldn’t wait to specialise in this kind of research, and to find the right academic guidance to do so. I believe I Google’d something along the lines of “Academic Fashion Studies”, and the course ‘Documenting Fashion’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art seemed to offer just what I was looking for. I knew Rebecca Arnold’s name because I proudly owned some of her books – it was a perfect match.

Pierre Balmain Atelier (1952). Copyright: Vogue Paris via Tumblr

Pierre Balmain Atelier (1952). Copyright: Vogue Paris via Tumblr

What were your personal highlights from the course?

Looking back, I think the strength of the course lies in its intensity: it was an unbelievably enriching year, both academically and personally. It was a high-paced course and it is astonishing how much you can learn in just one year. Being surrounded by fellow students who are as passionate as you are about their topic is inspirational, and, it goes without saying, having Rebecca as a tutor was priceless. Not only is she an outstanding scholar who challenges her students, she also has a great sense of humour. Again a good match. 

You wrote you dissertation on Helmut Lang, what was it that inspired you about his work?

I knew Helmut Lang’s work from images in books about fashion in the 1990s. He was, however, still an enigmatic designer to me: I was not prejudiced with knowledge, nor was I a longtime admirer of his work. I thought it was interesting that Helmut Lang decided to leave his fashion house in 2005 to “move on to art”. In this narrative, it appeared that being an artist is still in certain aspects regarded as higher than fashion in the hierarchy of the arts. After leaving his house, Lang decided to shred his archive and use the shredded pieces in an art installation. This, however, only happened after he had donated a large volume of his most interesting designs to fashion museums worldwide. The idea of a designer curating his own end, leaving the fashion world infected with infinite Helmut-Lang-nostalgia, was the starting point for my research. I got to appreciate the characteristics of Helmut Lang’s sensuous work, especially after studying it closely in the archives of the fashion museum in Bath and MoMu in Antwerp.

Google search screenshot of Helmut Lang Art Installations

Google search screenshot of Helmut Lang Art Installations

Since leaving the Courtauld you have worked for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, as a personal fan I would love to hear a little more about what your work experience was like with these?

I didn’t like the idea of becoming a “fashion writer high up in her ivory tower”, so I decided to do a course in Fashion Management and to get hands-on work experience with Antwerp designers. I undertook a short internship at Raf Simons. Raf Simons’ company in Antwerp is surprisingly small-scaled but has a high impact on fashion, which is an important characteristic for independent Antwerp designers. After that, I was hired by A.F.Vandevorst, where I worked for more than a year. I learned about the logistics behind the production of a collection. We often tend to focus on the shows and the magazine editorials, but we don’t always realise that after that there is quite a long and tumultuous road before those pieces end up safely in the stores and with the customer. A.F.Vandevorst has a small but strong creative team and the energy leading up to a fashion show is incredible. You can’t compare that to anything. In general, I was happy to learn that these brands are still authentic and true to their DNA and signature.

What else have you worked on since leaving the Courtauld?

During the week I worked at A.F.Vandevorst and on occasion I gave guided tours in the evening at MoMu. In the weekends, I created time and peace to focus on what I am most passionate about: the less commercial but more reflective side of fashion. I wrote a piece for Vestoj on Helmut Lang and I wrote some shorter articles for the new Bloomsbury Fashion Photography Archive. As a fashion critic, I reviewed fashion exhibitions for Klara, a Belgian radio station. By now, I think I have reviewed more than 20 fashion exhibitions, which proved to be not only insightful, but also my favorite adrenaline kick.

From what I understand you are currently working at MoMu as a curator. What does your work there entail and what current projects are you working on?

MoMu organises two major exhibitions a year, one of these focuses on a theme and the second one on the work of a living designer. We want to expand this offer with a (rotating) permanent exhibition on Belgian fashion and an online exhibition platform. At the moment, I am researching and writing about the designers and the pieces in the MoMu collection to prepare this project. MoMu actively acquires pieces by living designers, which ensures a rich and ever-growing contemporary collection. I discover new items every day and the challenge is to make a sensible selection of pieces per designer that haven’t been displayed too often, and that are telling for the signature of the designer.

Do you have any advice for budding dress historians? Particularly for those aspiring to work within fashion curation?

I think it is important to keep thinking about fashion the way we were taught to at the Courtauld. Often people look at fashion studies, and fashion in general, as something shallow and superficial. It can be of course, but we have to keep demonstrating how it is so much more than that: fashion remains an integral part of our society and daily lives. I know, from experience, it’s hard to find work within fashion curation. The only thing I can advise is to, even when you are working another job full-time, try to squeeze in some fashion history and research on the side and to stay both critical and passionate. And then maybe some serendipity?

Photograph of Elisa. Copyright: Elisa De Wyngaert

Photograph of Elisa. Copyright: Elisa De Wyngaert

Research in the MoMu archives in preparation of a permanent exhibition - dress by Dries Van Noten

Research in the MoMu archives in preparation of a permanent exhibition – dress by Dries Van Noten

Dissertation Discussion: Leah

Title

 My working title is La Mode revee and the New York World Fair, 1939

What prompted you to choose this subject? 

I can’t quite remember how, but somehow in the course of research I stumbled across Marcel L’Herbier’s short film La Mode revee (1939), which was produced to promote Parisian couture at the New York World Fair in 1939.

Not only does the film make for fun viewing (the plot involves figures from Antoine Watteau’s painting, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717), coming to life, escaping from the Louvre and going shopping in the top Paris couturiers), but its themes chimed directly with my own interests. I plan to explore the film in relation to the 1939 New York World Fair and questions concerning the temporality of fashion. Marcel L’Herbier is a fascinating director and one who deserves much more critical exploration and recognition.

Photo Caption: Still from La Mode revee (1939) by Marcel L’Herbier. Watteau’s painted beauties escape from their frame to go shopping in Paris’ finest couture establishments!

Photo Caption: Still from La Mode revee (1939) by Marcel L’Herbier. Watteau’s painted beauties escape from their frame to go shopping in Paris’ finest couture establishments!

Most inspiring research find so far? 

A few weeks ago I took a short study trip to Paris. In the archives at the Bibliotheque nationale de France I found some of the documents relating to the production of La Mode revee. I haven’t seen them referred to anywhere else and I didn’t unearth them until a couple of days in, so it felt like a very satisfying find! Plus, exploring new libraries is always inspiring.

Favourite place to work? 

I can be found most days in the British Library. They have (nearly!) all the books and you don’t even have to look for them on the shelves. Once you’ve ordered the book you want online the kindly librarians do all the legwork for you, so all you have to do is pick it up from the counter. That’s a win win in my opinion.

Reflections on History of Dress Essay Writing

I’m currently supervising five of my second-year students through the research, writing and editing stages of their 4,000 word dissertations. They are writing on a variety of interesting topics, which include:

The complexity of dress reflecting complicated relationships in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954);

The representation of Japanese street-style in noughties American print media;

Dress as a traveller through time, space and place in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996);

A Freudian examination of British Punk fashion from 1975-85;

And, An analysis of Cecil Beaton’s dual identity in the American Vogue (March, 1951) fashion shoot, ‘The New Soft Look’.

It’s great to be helping my students tackle many of the problems I remember struggling with – structure, focus, linking the thread of the argument, avoiding colloquialisms, analysing quotations rather than simply dropping them into the text, pushing the analysis further still – and hopefully, emerging triumphant at the other end. I remember my own third-year assessed essay that I wrote in 2011, which addressed the representation of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s designs by the American and British fashion press in the early 1980s. I struggled with lots of aspects but thankfully had the help, not just of my supervisor Dr Rebecca Arnold, but also of the author and editor Virginia Rounding, the then Royal Literary Fellow, which is part of an amazing service the Courtauld provides for its students to help them improve their writing. For nostalgia’s sake, and because it’s fun to look back as well as ahead, I’ve included a pdf of my essay here, entitled ‘The American and British Reception and Representation of Japanese Fashion Designers in the Early 1980s’.

The American and British reception and representation of Japanese fashion designers in the early 1980s

The books of Liz's dissertation

The books of Liz’s dissertation!

Undressed at The V&A

by Aric Reviere

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

Last weekend, on my semi-regular sojourn to the V&A, I decided to attend the Fashion Department’s new exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.” To my surprise the exhibition garnered quite a bit of attention the morning of my visit, with the exhibition space itself full of visitors and lines of spectators inching slowly past the glass displays of historic underwear and garments.

My initial expectation of the exhibition imagined the display to be a spattering of various undergarments from different eras, but with a noticeable emphasis on the corset and hoop skirt. To be fair, these elements were featured prominently in the display, and even though most of the visitors flocked to these body contorting contraptions, the rest of the exhibition presented a delightful overview of innovations in underwear from an impressive range of eras. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on the evolution of lingerie design toward the end of the exhibition, which traced developments in the industry from the 1920s to the 1930s. Compared to the hyperbolic manipulation of the body evident in the miniscule waists of the corsets on display, the body sculpting garments from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s seem tamed. Upon closer examination, however, the garments’ structures constrict the form and manipulate it into an ideal shape. From an academic perspective, the garments provide a perfect point from which to examine the power structures connected to standards of beauty. They enable the viewer to question what motivated a wearer (and still does) to physically transform their body via the adornment of garments that often use metal structures to manipulate the form? What gaze ultimately develops that definition of beauty and through networks disseminates and propagates an entire system of dress to elevate certain ideals? How do such beauty ideals limit the wearer’s agency within various social contexts, but also enhance his/her agency within others?

The second half of the exhibition attempted to blur the demarcation between under garments, lingerie, etc., and outerwear through the presentation a numerous outfits from the V&A’s permanent collection. Personally, I found this section disconnected from the first half of the exhibition with certain ensembles on display not particularly resonating with the exhibition’s theme. With that said, I must admit that the Ulyana Sergeenko couture pieces were to die for and on my list of most coveted items.

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

 

Ulaan Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Ulyana Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Dissertation Discussion: Giovanna

What is your title?

Skin and Mirrors: The surface and self in the copyright albums of Madeline Vionnet.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

The subject of the first History of Dress Research Forum, Addressing Images event, was one the images from the photographic albums. After discussing the image, I went and did some research and realised that there was little writing about this rich collection of images, which were considered purely as a means of documentation for her designs and as copyright tools. My dissertation will consider how these photographs function both within and beyond the genre of ‘documentary’ and focus on how the visual tropes of skin and mirrors link to Lacanian ideas of the ‘self’.

Most inspiring research find so far?

I have just returned from a very exciting research trip to Paris! There I was able to see some actual Vionnet gowns at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs. Unfortunately I was not able to see the actual photographic albums held in their archive collection, due to them being in conservation. However I was able to see digitised versions of all the 75 albums, which in hindsight was good thing as there were thousands of photos to get through. Seeing the unpublished album photographs was inspiring as there were shots that really surprised me, including some half body photographs that looks strangely like prison mugshots, showing shirts that look as if they were designed by Ann Demeulemeester or Yohji Yamamoto.

Favourite place to work?

I love to switch up my routine and make sure that I work at many different cafes and libraries to best use all the (caffeine and) resources available to me. Of all the London libraries my favourite one to work at is the beautiful V&A National Art Library (preferably in a window seat overlooking the John Madjeski garden), but I normally find myself working more often at the British Library because it is more local to me and open later.

Photograph from the Madeline Vionnet Copyright Album (1935)

Photograph from the Madeline Vionnet Copyright Album (1935)

Two Vionnet gowns and a Schiaparelli cape at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris.

Two Vionnet gowns and a Schiaparelli cape at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern: Dress & No Dress

Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.

Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.

Clad in his classic bourgeois suit, Yves Klein leaps into the void. Captured in a Christ-like posture, his silhouette hovers over a street, the deadly landing point of the Parisian bitume in view. It is perhaps the void that Amalia Ulman evokes too – a hollowed sense of identity left to exist solely through Instragram snapshots. Klein opens the Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera, Amalia Ulman acts as an allusive conclusion.

As an additional shot reveals, a group of Klein’s friends holding the tarpaulin into which the French artist was meant to safely fall was erased through photomontage. The photograph was then printed on the front page of a spoof newspaper, disseminating the aura of Klein’s eerie figure to the masses. Ulman’s lingerie selfie is a shot from her instagram feed, blown up to museum proportions. It is taken from a three-part tale, in which the artist assumes the identity of a provincial girl with dreams of making it in LA, and acts out her downfall into drugs, surgery, and suggestive selfies. Finally, redemption – in the form of juices, yoga, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Klein’s image condenses many of the themes the exhibition sets to unpick: the camera as record of an art performance, the photographic image as the site for which the performance is conceived, and finally the photographic document as proof – conscious or unconscious – of a performed identity, whether part of the work itself as an intentional act of self promotion for instance (Koons’ magazine advertisements) or as an attempt to create a seemingly authentic (artistic) persona (Klein’s suit). This last aspect is not overtly addressed by the exhibition but lingers over it, as artists dress or undress for the camera.

Artistic authenticity comes in the form of nudity, or so it seems considering the vast number of images of naked performance on display. The subversive quality of nakedness seemingly ensures the authenticity of the performing artist, literally stripped bare of ‘superficial’ signifiers. Costume, as a sort of manifest addition to the body, appears to stand as another strategy used to subvert identities, highlighting their contingency, yet one that also retains or marks the distinction between the performed role and the ‘true’ identity of the performer.

It is precisely the boundaries of costumes and theater that allow Sarah Bernhardt to flaunt a more liberated body, both through dress (clad in male attire) and her comical poses. Nadar’s studio is made into an extension of the theater stage, in which actresses such as Bernhardt embodied a wide array of identities, yet upheld her image as ‘the eternal feminine’ in the eyes of critics. From Nadar, the exhibition takes us to an endless archive of images from big names (Andy Warhol, Hannah Wilke, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman etc.) to a younger bunch, among them Romain Mader (featured on the show’s poster) and Amalia Ulman.

Jeff Koons advertisement in Art in America, 1988-9; Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,’ 1883

Jeff Koons advertisement in Art in America, 1988-9; Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,’ 1883

In Ulman’s shot, the distinction between artistic self and performance blend. In an interview, Ulman reveals that a gallery had concerns over her credibility before the artist revealed the spoof, namely that the shots of herself were part of a performance. ‘I was acting, it wasn’t me.’ The need to emphasize those boundaries exposes the necessity for an ‘authentic’ self to exist outside of what we are caught easily judging as inappropriate or superficial (as Simon Baker notes, the comments on her Instagram feed are as much part of the performance as the images). Perhaps more than confronting us with our daily selfie routines, Ulman’s performance draws attention to our own highbrow assumptions of what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ display of the self.

Performing for the Camera is on display at Tate Modern until June 12, 2016

 

Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts, The New Woman in Fin-de-siècle France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/is-this-the-first-instagram-masterpiece/