MA Documenting Fashion visits the Courtauld’s Prints and Drawings Collection

Our Documenting Fashion MA class recently visited the Courtauld’s Prints and Drawings study room. Our class theme that day was ‘Modernity,’ and we were focusing on texts by Charles Baudelaire to explain the shift towards modernism, and how it impacted both art and the representation of dress. The Courtauld’s Prints and Drawings room houses approximately 7000 drawings and watercolours, and 26000 prints ranging from the Middle Ages up to the twentieth century. The prints, drawings and paintings we were studying on this visit were mostly from the late nineteenth century, around the same time that Baudelaire was writing about modernism.

It was interesting to view the shift in that period in respect to the representation of women, class and their dress, but most notably the techniques of depiction. Whereas earlier paintings which we viewed strived to be more realistic in both colour and shape, the later drawings seemed to be more relaxed, with free flowing lines and unaltered black ink. In ‘The Modern Public and Photography,’ Baudelaire discusses dreams and reality in relation to both photography and painting, and is against taking either at face value as real life: “The painter is becoming more and more inclined to paint, not what he dreams, but what he sees. And yet it is a happiness to dream, and it used to be an honour to express what one dreamed.” In the study room, a portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope by Alfred Edward Chalon was on display next to Paul Cézanne’s sketch of Hortense Fiquet. Completed circa 1880, Cézanne’s graphite drawing was done a few decades later than Chalon’s and it certainly shows a difference in their techniques. Lady Adelaide’s portrait is in colour and is extremely detailed – her hair and the textures of her dress are what some would call ‘realistic,’ whereas Madame Cézanne is compositionally incomplete, with many large blank spaces and ‘unfinished’ shading. In this example, it is the viewer who dreams and fills in the missing elements of the picture.

[Left] Lady Adelaide Stanhope by Alfred Edward Chalon
[Right} Madame Cézanne by Paul Cézanne, 1880.

Another example we viewed of these new techniques in depicting reality was Edouard Manet’s 1871 La queue devant La Boucherie. The etching effectively shows people queuing for food in Paris, whilst remaining open in shape and form. The umbrellas highlight the shapes in the image, whilst simultaneously forming the outline of the unified yet fleeting crowd. As Baudelaire notes about one of his subjects in ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ “he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.” For Baudelaire, modernity is ephemeral and contingent on the times. It is up to the painter, the drawer or the photographer to capture these moments, in order for us to observe them and their many differences, as we did in the Prints and Drawings study room.

By Grace Lee

To book a visit to the Courtauld Prints and Drawings study room, visit http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/collection/drawings-prints/prints-and-drawings-study-room

Bibliography

Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, (London: Phaidon, 1964)

Baudelaire, Charles, ‘The Modern Public and Photography’, in Alan Trachtenberg, ed., Classis Essays on Photography, (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), pp. 83-89

Prêt-à-porter, Subjectivity and Filmic Visualisation in the 1961 French Fashion Press

“She likes to stroll in the Paris of the past and ‘browse’ the antiques.” This text captured the mood of “Paris Promenade,” its accompanying fashion spread in the 21 April 1961 issue of Elle photographed by William Connors. In contrast to the model pictured in the upper right section of the page, who peered at the antique glasses within a shop, the image at the bottom left depicted a woman with an outward gaze stepping into the street. This model walked away from the relics of French design, symbolised by porcelain tableware in the shop window; she looked to the present and not the past, to the freedom offered by the street and not the encapsulation of the interior. But she did not leave Paris; rather, her bright pink shantung shirtdress, or “robe chemisier parisienne” marked her as unquestionably Parisian. From the late 1950s, the fashion press abounded in images of shirtdresses, unfitted dresses typically with button closure to resemble a tailored blouse. Here, the author described the garment as “classique,” but made sure to point out its novelty, made to look like a separate blouse and skirt with the addition of a gilt chain. Likewise, the dress, woman, automobile and the blurred presence of a hurried passer-by in the photograph became expressions of urban modernity when pictured against the architecture of medieval Paris. Modernity was a sensitive topic in 1950s and 1960s France, which was undergoing changes in terms of the modernisation of its clothing industry, cityscapes and the uncertain place of women. Fashion imagery thus negotiated between old and new in its visualisation of models, city and readymade fashion.

Romano image

The image distinguished itself both from traditional full-page photographs in fashion magazines and those that showcased women posed against the backdrop of the iconic and beautiful city. Here, Connors was more concerned with exploring the interactions between the average woman and city spaces. Elements of the city—street, car, stranger—were presented to the viewer as though cropped from a larger picture, hurried moments of a longer period, Connors’ attempt at capturing ‘real’ life with a camera lens. The article drew on visual techniques of contemporary cinema such as Nouvelle Vague, at its height in the early 1960s, in its depiction of fragmentary moments and everyday reality. Readymade dress was appropriate in this spread, which showed the fashion of glamorous women in their daily life. The models were on display but not self-consciously ‘posed’, and brought to mind the way contemporary film directors, such as Godard and Truffaut sought ‘naturalism’ over ‘arranged’ visual compositions. This was the basic premise of this cinema, signalled earlier in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay that predicted the age of the “camera-stylo.” That is, Astruc envisaged a cinematic form that resembled a language rather than a spectacle, forgoing “the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language.” Many French directors applied these notions, which included the use of non-professional actors and the scenario-dispositif over pre-established scripts. Fashion images that were cropped, fleeting snapshots of everyday life, also inadvertently applied Astruc’s concepts.

Like the cinema’s abstract plotlines, photographs such as those by Connors hinted at a narrative. The imagery, as Charlotte Cotton described cinematic photography, triggered readers’ collective unconscious and imaginary, so that “meaning is reliant on investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought.” Through the input of the reader in Connors’ photograph for instance, a narrative dared to unfold, one that questioned the psychological state of its female subject. This differed from 1950s narratives that offered whole pictures and totality, and often clearly depicted models’ activities. Albeit ambiguous, the narrative began by negotiating her access to the city, her step into the street made easier by the front inverted pleat of her readymade skirt, sold at Paris’ fashionable boutique Réal, “to walk easily.” Image construction, garment, city and reader thus worked together to depict an active, modern subject.

 

References

Anon. “Paris Promenade,” Elle, 21 April 1961, 92. 

Alexandre Astruc, “La Caméra-stylo,” L’Ecran français, 30 March 1948, cited in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, ed., Peter Graham (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1968), 20-22.

Peter Brunette, “But Nothing Happened: The Everyday in French Postwar Cinema,” in The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture (New York: New York University, 1997), 78-93.

Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014 [2004]), 49.