Parisiennes are fashion

This Sunday, I headed out my front door, skating across ice capped puddles to see the Impressionism and Fashion exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. I haven’t seen a lot if expos this year, but I was determined to see this one before its Jan 20 closing.

When I go to a show, its for the art, however as I stroll through room after room, I am also very aware of the curation of the exhibit; what works were chosen? Why? How are they displayed and what story do they tell when presented like this? Have I learned something new about a well known work of art? An artist? A genre? And of course, I hope to learn all of this without taking time to read the explanations, which is incredibly unreasonable and some what lazy of me.

My laziness was richly rewarded by the international team of curators for this event. The show begins with a display of newpaper pages from the 1850’s, announcing the opening of the Galeries du Louvre department store and displaying fashion pages. You then enter a long, narrow hall featuring glass encased ready to wear dresses. There are photos of fashionable Parisians along one walls and paintings on the other, but mostly, you’re shopping. This strategy does a fantastic job of putting Impressionism into the context of its era.

Turn the corner and there is a remarkable quote on the wall,  “La Parisienne n’est pas á la mode, elle est la mode” by A Houssaye and you’re soon in a ball room, chairs lining the walls, each seat labeled with the name of a particular Madame: Monet, Manet, Whistler, all present while larger than life masterpieces of formal ball scenes take center stage.

The next room is a day salon, where the curators flaunt an unbreakable rule and covers the walls with patterned wall paper. In theory this should conflict with the paintings, causing a visual cacophony in reality it enriches the theme of the show, while casting a soft rosy light, perfect for viewing the art. The clothing on display has become haute couture, more finished in rich fabrics that tend to reflect the wardrobes in the artwork.

Many of the painting on display are already part of our visial vocabulary, but seeing it displayed like this forces one to stop and look again. Take notice of Cezanne’s brush stroke, admire Renoir’s use of pink to create a mood and appreciate the stylistic bridge between realism and impressionism in the work of Fantin-Latour.

As you digest all this and prepare for end of the show, there is suddenly grass below your feet and bird song in the air. Parisian park benches line the walls as sumptuously
dressed women with parasols stand tall in oil on canvas. You’re in a French garden. Like the masterpieces that surround you, the show has succeeded in transporting you to another place and time. A masterpiece.

*Parisans are not fashionable, they are fashion.

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