Melburnin’ December 2013 / January 2014
by Inga Walton
Since 2008, Bendigo Art Gallery has presented a number of impressive fashion-related touring exhibitions in conjunction with major overseas institutions. Their latest offering, Modern Love: Fashion Visionaries From the FIDM Museum, LA (until 2 February, 2014), showcases over sixty ensembles, footwear and accessories covering forty years of contemporary fashion. The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) was founded in 1969, and now spans four campuses: Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and San Francisco. The non-profit FIDM Museum Foundation was formally established in 1978 to allow students studying clothing design a better understanding of techniques by providing them access to representative garments. In the past thirty-three years, the Museum has attracted more than 1000 donors who have contributed some 70% of the current collections, approximately 15,000 objects covering more than 200 years of history: 1800 to the present. This is the first time items from the Museum have toured overseas.
The Museum’s initial holdings were greatly enhanced by a generous gift of over 100 haute couture ensembles from founding donor Mrs. Alfred S. (Betsy) Bloomingdale, which she purchased from 1961 to 2000. Three of her dresses have travelled to Bendigo, including an Evening gown (1985) by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, accompanied by the original hand drawn croquis (coloured sketches with attached fabric swatches). Of red silk gazar, it exemplifies the exuberant proportions of the period with its asymmetrical cut and oversized bow towards the back. Evening ensemble (2000) from Italian couturier Valentino (Garavani) of cream shantung silk with dense floral appliqué, on both the bodice and accompanying net jacket, seems to echo the lavish detailing common to earlier eras. In contrast, Evening gown (2000), in his signature ‘Valentino red’ shows the influence of late-90s minimalism and the preference for a sleeker aesthetic. The relatively unstructured silk crêpe chiffon gown with a tank-style neckline is without embellishment save for five layers of soft asymmetrical ruffles.
The exhibition’s earliest outfit is the unisex ‘Bondage’ ensemble (1974-80), part of the punk look pioneered by Dame Vivienne Westwood with musician and visual artist Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010). From the Seditionaries Personal Collection (1976-80) comes one of the famous ‘God Save the Queen’ Sex Pistols t-shirts. McLaren, who was managing the group at the time, had them produced to mark the band’s single released during the week of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Linked to an emerging music scene, the punk movement incorporated the ‘visual violence’ of offensive and anti-establishment slogans with hard-edged fetish and bondage elements, to encapsulate a rebellious spirit and the rejection of conformity.
The aim of good tailoring is usually to conceal the means of closure within the garment, and minimise the visibility of zippers, hooks, and other ‘hardware’. Nonetheless, in a hangover from the punk era, many designers have chosen to emphasise these aspects for added ‘street cred’. This is evident in the way a simple ‘little black’ Dress (1985) by Chanel has been hijacked by chunky gold chains criss-crossing the hips. The gilt safety pin became one of the trade marks of Gianni Versace (1946-97), as did his use of decorative metal studs, over-size buckles, and fabric pierced with multiple holes. Two in-your-face outfits from the mid-90s emphasise Versace’s penchant for searing colours, body-conscious cut, and a hedonistic Biker-chic-meets-Baroque display. His recurring motif of the classical meander (or ‘Greek key’) pattern, and the ubiquitous Medusa-head logo, are all deployed towards defining an aesthetic that is not so much ‘look at me’, as ‘scream back at me’.
Gaby Aghion is credited with being the first couturier to introduce luxury Prêt-à-Porter (‘ready-to-wear’) clothing, a phrase she coined, in the 1950s with her label Chloé. Under the design directorship of Karl Lagerfeld, Evening ensemble (1983), epitomises this luxe ‘bohemian’ style of unabashedly feminine tailoring. Using cream silk crêpe and silk floss, the loosely belted three-quarter length sleeveless top is adorned with circus figures picked out in coloured glass beads like an enveloping visual narrative. Other examples from the flamboyant and status-conscious 1980s provide a big visual impact; an otherwise simple velvet Evening gown (1984) by Jacqueline, Comtesse de Ribes is accented by a billowing silk poplin collar and sleeves. Arnold Scassi’s outrageous yellow silk faille Evening gown (c.1988) resembles a deflating soufflé with an exaggerated, pillowy vertical bow delineating the bust and hips. Carolina Herrera’s short black and white Evening dress (1988) with polka-dots and sequins is tipped into Dynasty territory by the addition of a yellow silk taffeta over-skirt, draped and gathered at one side into a semi-pouf. The campy, vivid silk satin Evening dress (1992) by Franco Moschino (1950-94), adorned with multiple bows, takes this quintessential 1980s flourish to the limits of endurance.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Japanese avant-garde designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons, Yōji Yamamoto and Hiroaki Ohya have embraced technological innovations to push the boundaries of conceptual fashion in ways that have sometimes seemed to negate the figure altogether. Collected and exhibited by art institutions around the world, Issey Miyake’s visionary designs have had an indelible impact on how clothing and fashion is perceived and interpreted. Miyake is best known for his heat-set pleated creations; highly sculptural and almost autonomous, these garments seem to defy gravity, and exist apart from the body which would otherwise have defined them. Miyake’s designs have a rhythm of their own: he says they are ‘visual creations’ and ‘functional accessories’. ‘Pao’ coat (1995), of heat-set cellophane, radiates lively colours, and is paired with a ‘Pleats Please’ grey two-piece ensemble (c.1998) of heat-set polyester. Miyake’s clothes, “put themselves at the service of the body whilst at the same time offering us joyful visions of great luminosity and abandon…experienced from the inside [they] also demand contemplation from the outside”.
The first Australian designer to have a piece acquired by the FIDM Museum, Toni Matičevski is represented by his ‘futuristic’ minimalist white neoprene ‘Haute Drape’ dress (2013-14) from his current collection, one of the most recent works in the exhibition. More commonly used for wetsuits and in medical applications, the sculptural and improvisatory qualities of this pliable rubber-like material are deftly harnessed by Matičevski to achieve the intriguing draped and flared proportions, which are nonetheless harmonious.
Expanding on this theme, the site-specific Triptych in White (2013), is Matičevski’s contribution to the National Gallery of Victoria’s sprawling exhibition Melbourne Now (until 23 March, 2014). Three ensembles using neoprene, silk, tissue paper dipped in resin, and beaded tulle are suspended in the stairwell across three levels of the Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square: www.ngv.vic.gov.au
Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street, Bendigo, Victoria 3550: www.bendigoartgallery.com.au &
Russell Drysdale: Defining the Modern Australian Landscape at TarraWarra Museum of Art (until 9 February, 2014), is curated by Dr. Christopher Heathcote in conjunction with his monograph of the same name. Forty paintings and drawings, a number of which have not previously been seen or exhibited in public before, join pivotal works like The Rabbiters (1947), The Cricketers (1948), and four important paintings in the TWMA collection.
Born in England, Sir (George) Russell Drysdale, AC (1912-81) travelled to Australia twice as a child before his family emigrated permanently in 1923. His schooling was cut short when he hospitalised for a detached retina, a problem that would plague Drysdale throughout his life. While recuperating, he took art lessons, before working at the family’s Pioneer Sugar Mills in Queensland and learning farm management at his father’s sheep farm, Boxwood Park, near Albury, New South Wales. In 1932, Drysdale studied with painter George Bell (1878-1966) for two months before embarking on a tour of Europe, where he made a study of impressionist and modern art. His recurring eye problems rendered Drysdale unable to attend university, so with his family’s support, he enrolled at Bell’s art school in 1934. In 1938, Drysdale had his first solo exhibition in Melbourne before departing once more for Europe where he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, and at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, London under the modernist Iain Macnab (1890-1967).
The start of World War II was a time of great consternation for Drysdale, as he was declared medically unfit for military service due to his left eye, which also excluded him from working as a war artist. The despondent Drysdale attempted to manage the family farm, and continued to exhibit. His works were increasingly dominated by the effects of the war in Australia, and fulfilled his need to be somehow involved in that effort. Drysdale was inspired by the rather bleak and sinister works he saw via illustrated magazines arriving from Britain, and in an exhibition of official British war art that toured Australia in early 1943. The impact of the war on the civilian population was being documented the by the likes of Graham Sutherland (1903-80), Henry Moore (1898-1986) and John Piper (1903-92), all of whom were official war artists.
Towards the end of November, 1944 a commission from the Sydney Morning Herald to document the drought paralysing western New South Wales helped Drysdale find his central theme. The confronting ink drawings and watercolours that accompanied reporter Keith Newman’s frank text were a sensation, conveying a raw immediacy that brought Drysdale national acclaim. His subsequent exhibition at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney in 1945 cemented Drysdale’s position as one of the most significant artists working in Australia. It provided a unique vision of the Australian landscape that prompted critic and fellow artist James Gleeson (1915-2008) to describe the works as, “…amongst the most terrifying images of devastation ever painted,…their impact…as sharp and shocking as that of [Peter] Breughel’s Triumph of Death [c.1562]”. Nature’s destructive elements, coupled with an admiration for those on the land who grappled with such hardship and endured, were themes Drysdale would revisit throughout his career.
As newspapers focussed on combat reports from the great desert battles in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Drysdale used the Australian desert as a metaphor for the distress of the modern world: the ‘apocalyptic’ impact, destruction and privation of war. Walls of China (named after a prehistoric dry lake bed and dunes at Lake Mungo), Tree Form and Desolation (all 1945) present a bleak, scorched, and decimated environment devoid of shelter or succour from the pitiless elements. Under murderous skies, surrealist gnarled tree stumps resemble misshapen charred corpses, and ominous rock formations loom over desolate ochre plains. The Scottish Captain Neil McEacharn, from a Catholic family, commissioned Crucifixion (1946), which explains its religious content, unique in Drysdale’s œuvre. It likens the carnage and despair of warfare to the darkened earth without a sun at Golgotha after the death of Christ, as related by the canonical Gospels. The three figures hanging from crosses recede into the desert, just as the horror of battle is muted by distance and sanitised to maintain morale. Head bowed and hands clasped, an anguished spectator in a robe rent with holes walks away from the scene. Gaunt and ravaged like the distorted, anthropomorphic tree trunks nearby, the solitary witness cannot long endure the parched landscape which echoes the brutality of the scene.
A visit to Cape York Peninsula in 1951 generated Drysdale’s intense interest in Aboriginal people. His evocative works in which they feature were the first of their kind in Australia: he made Indigenous groups the focus of his work without ever reducing his subjects to figures of amusement, sentiment, historical interest, or pandering to the ‘noble savage’ cliché. Sensitive to their plight, and keen that it be acknowledged and addressed, Drysdale depicts the people and their traditions as at one with the land. He observed, “…in a way these people, they not only have to me a particular dignity and grace, not the sort of dignity or grace that one thinks of in the [classical marble sculpture] Apollo Belvedere [c.120-40 AD], but the way in which a man comports himself in an environment which is his and has been his and his alone, he’s at ease in it…they become part if you like, and yet they’re not part of a landscape, they do stand out”. Works like Youth With Painted Basket, Melville (c.1958), The Boresinker and his Daughter (1964), and Bob and Maudie (1972) dwell on people living in isolated communities at the margins of white society, but very much at one with their country. “Much is conveyed with palette, the artist using the same colour range to set figures and rocks, so that the Indigenous characters link with the surrounding scene”, Heathcote contends. “…People are set in perceptual rhythm with the earth. The very design connotes a sense of their belonging”.
Lady (Maisie) Drysdale, the artist’s widow, gifted hundreds of his black and white (1929-57) and colour (1955-67) photographs to the National Gallery of Victoria in November, 1982. They were the subject of the exhibition, Drysdale: Photographer (1987) curated by Jennie Boddington, who commented, “In photographs- where the process of creation must be carried out instantaneously in close contact with the subject- Drysdale has no difficulty in accepting characters as directly as they appear to accept him, and they are alive with vigour. Yet this is curiously altered when he comes to paint them. In recollection they are distanced, transmuted into a mysterious timelessness… The discipline and the leashed emotion which go into his painting throws some light on the richness of the fabric of his photography which glowed, as it were, in the background and informed the painting”. Since the NGV touring exhibition Russell Drysdale, 1912-81 (1997-98), which included over forty photographs, works from this archival collection have been little seen.
Heathcote has selected 106 frames (1930’s-1958) from the wider pool; the colour images are arranged together along one wall and the two selections of black and white photos are exhibited in two vitrines nearby, grouped by subject. As Heathcote explains, “The cameras were a boon to Drysdale’s production. It allowed him to take quick snaps, recording material he could later work into canvases. At times he used his lens to compose fully resolved photographs”. As Drysdale grew increasingly accomplished in the photographic medium, these images serve to illustrate not only the coherent back-story to many of the paintings on display, but are of ethnographic and historical interest. Long forays into Northern, Central and Western Australia revealed the stark reality of the outback, “Drysdale’s colour photographs came to show human progress overwhelmed by the environment. A building is encircled by encroaching wilderness, attempts at construction fall into disrepair, a fence or road is being worn away- everywhere human effort is erased by the implacable elements”, Heathcote remarks.
Those often implacable elements have been somewhat kinder to the Museum since it opened to the public 18 December, 2003. The preeminent cultural destination of the Yarra Valley is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. The weekend of 7-8 December, 2013 will be free to patrons with a number of special events and public programmes.
TarraWarra Museum of Art, 311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville, Victoria, 3777: www.twma.com.au
For the book: www.wakefieldpress.com.au or at the Gallery