Cléo de Mérode and the Seduction of Beauty

Léopold-Émile Reutlinger and Giovanni Boldini, Cléo de Mérode (collage)

What makes someone beautiful? Or maybe the question is, what makes someone photogenic? Or the perfect subject for representation in any media? Symmetry? Expressive eyes? The ability to pose, to present yourself just so? In Cléo de Mérode’s case she seemed to possess all the necessary qualities – from an early age she inspired image-makers and sparked styles. She had a quality – what a very vague term – that spoke of modernity at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her dancer’s poise, long neck and tiny waist presented an apparently perfect silhouette – slim yet curved to express the contemporary line of beauty. For Boldini, she was coquettish, glancing over her shoulder, blouse slipping from milky shoulder … in Belle Époque photographs she is still usually in profile – she knew how best to display herself – Amazonian with puffed sleeved blouses, sculpted torso and perfect posture. Painted, sketched, photographed repeatedly, artists sought to capture her beauty and show how it expressed a transcendent modern ideal that still entices today.

Born in 1875 to an aristocratic, artistic family, she was dancing professionally from the age of 11. She soon existed both in reality – dancing at the Paris Opéra, for example, and brave enough to risk outrage by appearing with the risqué Folies Bergère – and in parallel – she lived as an image, a vision of a ideal that seduced and entrapped viewers. She was a cipher – a perfect neck, the smallest waist, the newest hairstyle – who seemed knowable through these depictions, and yet out of reach, a modern star to be consumed visually. She was famous internationally, desired by royalty – pursued by the Belgian king, and sculpted by Alexander Falguière, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec and photographed by Nadar.

Mérode’s ability to transcend time is evidenced in Cecil Beaton’s interview with her for Vogue in 1964 – 2 years before she died. By then she was elderly, but no less elegant, and still astute in her approach to photographer and camera. In his photograph of her, she remains uniquely herself – true to her image, posing to present her herself and reflect her beauty towards the light, and to potential viewers. For Beaton she represented a key period of style and living – a lost age, filled with enigmatic women in trailing gowns and elongated corsetry, their hair piled up for extra height. His book The Glass of Fashion is a paean to these indomitable proto-modern women, able to live with a greater degree of independence because of their class, talent or refusal to adhere to contemporary morality.

Cecil Beaton, Cléo de Mérode (collage)

His interview with her, upstairs in her elegant Parisian apartment connects with themes that thread through his work – beauty, ageing and feeling out of synch with time. As he gains her confidence they walk through each room, seeking the best light for her to pose and reclaim her decades of modelling with gestures that resonate in hundreds of pictures. She denies the racier aspects of her reputation – no nights at Maxim’s she says, but she still knows how to perform, her body responds to artistic attention, and recreates the beauty of her youth. On his way out, Mérode became anxious – worried about the results of her sitting – and said ‘Remember, I am trés coquette. Now you’ve promised you’ll destroy all those pictures which are bad?’ As Beaton notes, she ‘knows how to protect her legend,’ perhaps the other key ingredient necessary to remain an eternal beauty.

 

Further Reading:

Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion (1954)

Cecil Beaton, ‘Cléo de Mérode Today’, Vogue (Feb 15, 1964)

Dress and Movement in the work of Sonia Delaunay

Cover SD

Somewhat embarrassingly, I only managed to make it to the Tate’s Sonia Delaunay exhibition in its last week, but I was so glad that I did. I went not knowing much about Delaunay prior to stepping through the door, and because it was held in the Tate Modern, I was expecting it to focus mainly on paintings. However, it was her textiles, fashion designs and illustrations that underpinned the whole exhibition. It was immediately apparent that textiles and dress were hugely important to her during her career.

The earliest example of her work in textiles appears in the second room – a cradle cover made in 1911 for her newborn son. Interestingly, the Tate labels it as her ‘first abstract work,’ highlighting the fact that they conflate her work in textile and paint. This is, to an extent, completely understandable as there are numerous similarities between the aesthetic she employs in both. The way blocks of colour are juxtaposed is identical in both mediums. However, to consider the cradle cover, and her later fashion and textile designs, purely as decorative art is to ignore the practical, and indeed emotional, role that these objects played.

Cradle SD

Movement is by far the most persistent theme underlying all the work in the exhibition. Delaunay was fascinated by dance, particularly tango, and many of her works reflect the rapid movement and blurring of shapes that one expects to see in a packed dance hall. In this way, her work bears some resemblance to that of the Italian futurists, who in their obsession with the speed of modern life, painted the rapid movement of cars and people through the city as swirling blocks of colour. In her scenes of dance, ‘light and movement are confounded, [and] the planes blurred’ (Delaunay, c 1913). However, there is also a sense that these colours represent the sound of music in the dances. Bodies, dress and music are all reduced to contrasting colours on the canvas.

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

As in her paintings, movement is a central theme of her fashion designs. In 1918 she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, a shop selling accessories, furniture and fabrics that bore her signature swirling lines and blocks of colour. In 1925 she set up her own fashion house, as well as designing costumes for ballets and cover illustrations for Vogue. In these, as in her paintings, the body is abstracted, leaving the viewer with the representation of dress in motion. The straight, 1920s silhouette lent itself well to her geometric, graphic designs and bright colours. However, it was not just her clothing that bore this aesthetic, she also designed furniture, and the interior of her Parisian home became something of a manifesto of her style, and a hub for artists and writers.

Two fashion models in Delaunay's bathing suits

Two fashion models in Delaunay’s bathing suits

Movement was also at the heart of her textile designs, so much so that, when she displayed her textiles at the 1924 Salon d’Autumne, they were presented on a ‘Vitrine Simultane.’ This vitrine, created by her husband Robert Delaunay, presented eight swaths of fabric continuously moving upwards on large rollers. Movement was quite literally injected into these otherwise static objects.

It would be easy to look at Delaunay’s textile and fashion designs as a by-product of her painting; the same circular shapes and bold colours that feature in her canvases also appear in the textiles. However, I would argue that her paintings are just as influenced by work in dress – her paintings of dance, convey the movement of dresses swirling in different directions, abstracting the body and giving the canvases their characteristic dynamism.

Everyday Dress

Everyday dress on stage

Everyday dress on stage

This month the Tanz Wuppertal Pina Bausch company presented their annual season at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in London. The company continues to stage and tour the work of the late choreographer, this year presenting ‘Ahnen’ from 1987 and ‘Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei’ (On the Mountain A Cry Was Heard).

I was lucky enough to see these performances, and was struck by the use of dress in each production. The normality of the costumes in contrast to the set, which in the case of ‘Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei’ was pine trees and a pile of soil in which the performers regularly rolled, sat and fell into, was extremely interesting. The costumes, which included tea dresses, suits and swimming costumes, worked in parallel with the choreography, to create a world that blurred the lines between reality and dreams. The performers are presented as ordinary people, not fixed in a specific time or place, but rooted in the everyday, participating in strange and erratic behaviour observed from life. Unlike other contemporary dance or ballet performances, where one is acutely aware of costume and characterisation, the costumes here felt like ready-to-wear garments. This is testament to the skill of Marion Cito, the costume designer for the company, who designed the ‘everyday’ costumes, whilst still allowing for the freedom of movement and flexibility necessary for a dancer.  Cito says of the costumes: ‘…the Tanztheater costumes are interesting in that they present the dancers primarily as normal people – in dresses, suits, high heels and everyday shoes – as opposed to performers in traditional leotards and ballet shoes’

 Cito, herself a trained dancer, took over the role of costume designer after the untimely death of Rolf Borzik in 1980. The first costumes she designed were for the piece ‘1980 – Ein Stück von Pina Bausch’, a piece that dealt with some of the issues of grief for the loss of Borzik. Cito continued the aesthetic and ethos of Borzik’s work, taking inspiration from everyday life that contrasts the often absurd, surreal and dysfunctional elements of what takes place on stage. Cito worked closely with Pina – looking through old photographs for inspiration. Unlike other dance companies where the costumes and sets are created before production begins, Bausch worked in a different way.

Cito had to design costumes ‘speculatively’, guessing the direction of the choreography – designing alongside Bausch’s choreographic process, entrusting each other with the shared task of creating a harmonious performance that only came together in the final stages of production.

Last year I saw these costumes on the London stage. The performers wore elegant dresses and suits, their splendid garb jarring with the poetic choreography, and the grass floor of the set. The glamorous eveningwear that features prominently in this piece came to be a common feature – a demonstration of beauty and desire, but also ‘…of how men and women interact with each other and use their clothing to hide or reveal themselves accordingly.’

Sources:

http://www.pina-bausch.de/en/dancetheatre/costumes/cito.php?text=lang

http://www.pinabausch.org/en/pina/rolf-borzik

http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/2029/pina-bausch-costumes