Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A

 

‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Madame de Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

Exhibition Review: Bruce Davidson Retrospective at Sala Rekalde, Bilbao

Unobtrusively nestled into the Sala Rekalde’s building in the city center of Bilbao, Spain, the largest career spanning retrospective of American photographer Bruce Davidson left its mark on this artistically rich gem of a city. Comprised of over 200 prints shot primarily in black and white, Davidson’s work was exhibited in various rooms with 16 themes, each accompanied by display cases in the center of each room with magazine and newspaper printings with photographs from Davidson’s career.

 

The experience of witnessing Davidson’s photographs in person was truly enchanting. The prints are poignant and evocative, and convey a stronger sense of Davidson’s vision that cannot simply be replicated on a screen. The way the light in the building reflected off each glossy surface of the photograph, and the details and movement captured in each shot left the viewer with a visceral and emotional reaction to Davidson’s work.

 

Spanning the duration of his career, the retrospective highlighted some of Davidson’s most famous series from the 1960s, including Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street, and photographs from the Civil Rights Movement.

Brooklyn Gang, New York City, 1959. Coney Island, Kathy fixing her hair in a cigarette machine mirror Magnum Photos

Montgomery, Alabama, 1961. National Guardsmen protect the Freedom Riders during their ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi Magnum Photos

The retrospective also included images from Davidson’s travels to the U.K. during the 1960s, with photographs from London, Scotland, Wales, and Yorkshire. Currently residing in London, these images were particularly exciting to see, as Davidson captured an experience of what it was like to live in these cities 60 years ago.

London, U.K. 1960 Magnum Photos

The reason behind my trip to Bilbao to see the retrospective was specifically for Davidson’s Subway photographs from 1980, the topic of my dissertation. The exhibition displayed early photographs of the series which were taken in black and white, as opposed to the majority color images I explored in my dissertation. Seeing the photographs first hand in conversation with and situated within Davidson’s career was an invaluable experience, and extremely beneficial towards my research.

Subway, 1980. New York City Magnum Photos

The exhibition concluded with photographs Davidson took in Southern California between 2008-2013, which were particularly evocative personally, having grown up in Los Angeles. He captured the essence of Los Angeles through his depiction of beaches, high-rise buildings, palm trees, and traffic, which evoked a sense of home and nostalgia that concluded the retrospective on a perfect note.

Los Angeles, 2008 Magnum Photos