12:43 PM EDT, June 21, 2013
As you step upon grassy turf with bird songs ringing in your ear, you may have this thought:
Wait, I'm in the Art Institute of Chicago?
The giveaway is the two connected, oversize panels of Claude Monet's "Luncheon on the Grass" dominating one wall, but then there's also a park bench nearby for viewing not only the painting but also an actual white dress, very much like one in the painting, revolving slowly on a mannequin.
Gloria Groom, the Art Institute of Chicago's longtime curator of 19th-century European painting, said that about four summers ago she was attempting to determine what some figures were wearing in a certain painting when her mental light bulb went off.
"There are fashion histories, and there are art histories, but I was trying to figure out if anyone had actually really ever put together an exhibition which brings the two together, and I couldn't find one," Groom said. "And I was like, you know what? This would be so cool."
From such a "you got peanut butter in my chocolate" epiphany sprung a natural crowd-pleaser of an exhibition, "Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity," which begins member previews Sunday and opens to the public Wednesday at the Art Institute. (It runs through Sept. 22.) Versions of the exhibition already have drawn robust crowds at Paris' Musee d'Orsay and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the two institutions that collaborated with Groom and the Art Institute to put it together.
"I just sort of broached the idea to both the director of Orsay and the chief curator at the Metropolitan Museum, both of whom are 19th-century specialists, and without hesitation, they both jumped on it," Groom said. "Guy Cogeval, the director of Orsay, immediately said, 'We want it, and we want it for Fashion Week, and we want to be the first venue.' Because they're lending 23 paintings, there really wasn't much discussion."
She said that last part with a laugh, adding that the Met offered the Art Institute the choice of the second or third slot — that is, opening the exhibition in February or June — and the Art Institute opted for the latter given Chicago's summer boost of tourism and much of the show's outdoorsy feel.
"Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity" offers a new way to look at some very famous, and often very large, paintings by such French artists as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. These works are mostly from the mid-1860s through the 1880s, not only the height of the impressionist period — which upended conventions in how it emphasized brush strokes over well-defined lines and curves, played with natural light and attempted to present figures and landscapes in a more subjective manner — but also a time of dramatic transition in the Paris fashion world.
These years marked the advent of the department store, meaning that everyday Parisians at last could acquire the latest popular styles.
"The middle class has this power they haven't had before, and what are they doing? They're dressing themselves, and they an have access to things that that before would have been outside their reach," Groom said. "You have a ready-made garment. You don't have to have your dressmaker."
So the artists are painting women in these dresses or imagining them in dresses like these dresses, and the fashion designers may be taking cues from the radically changing art world as well. Once you view the paintings in proximity to actual dresses not unlike those on the canvas, you're unlikely to look at either the same way.
"I'm sure people have seen (many of these paintings) if they go to major museums, but seeing them through the lens of this fashion industry and all that was happening quickly in Paris and the changes in fashion and how (the artists) translated that into these very avant-garde and amazing paintings is pretty exciting," Groom said.
In her review of the Met exhibition for The New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote that the pairing of impressionism and fashion "portends blockbuster-bundling and seems so excessive to be unhealthy — possibly illegal — like 32-ounce sodas. Brace for 'Van Gogh and Motorcycles,' 'Rembrandt and Faberge' and 'Norman Rockwell and Tim Burton.'"
Yet Smith immediately adds, "But fear not," raves about the show's "visual fireworks, historical clarity and pitch-perfect contextualizing" and advises: "I recommend not missing a thing: not a pleat, ruche or lace parasol; not a painted background, glove or slipper toe; not a photograph or magazine; not a corset, fan or black choker, whether depicted or actual."
The dresses displayed in Paris, which could draw upon its own costume institute, were different from those appearing in New York or Chicago, which collaborated to assemble their collections from various costume archives with a few exceptions.
"We've had to switch out a couple (dresses) only because New York didn't lend or we found something that we liked better, but out of the 17 dresses, I think 15 are identical," Groom said.
Aside from the 23 paintings from the Musee d'Orsay, Groom said six came from the Metropolitan, others were borrowed from various collections, and 10 call the Art Institute home, though only six of those traveled to the other museums. The exhibition's most familiar painting is one that's appearing only in the Art Institute show: Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," revealed dramatically in the final room dedicated to "The Changing Silhouette."
Groom hopes the new contexts will enable visitors to view these grand works with fresh eyes, such as Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street; Rainy Day," another Art Institute staple, presented in a room called "Spaces of Modern Life" against a gray wall instead of the usual white.
"The tonalities look so different to me," Groom said. "I've looked at that painting for 27 years, and it's like, whoa, that looks great."
Groom said one of the advantages of the Art Institute presenting this exhibition third is that it could cherry-pick what it liked from the previous shows while adding new elements. Parisians and New Yorkers weren't stepping on faux grass and listening to birds chirping while they viewed "Luncheon on the Grass" and other outdoor scenes.
In contrast, most of the other rooms are carpeted, perhaps unprecedented for an Art Institute exhibition.
"I think it's the first time it's ever been done (here)," Groom said. "We wanted people to feel like they really are in homes in these spaces."
In what continues to be challenging times for cultural institutions, mass-appeal attractions are much desired, and the Art Institute hopes it has one here. But Groom said that wasn't her initial goal.
"I was so concerned about it being a contribution to scholarship," she said. "I thought it was going to be a beautiful exhibition, but now I'm seeing that it is a multileveled exhibition, which is exactly what I would have hoped, where scholars as well as the layperson can find something to engage with, that they take away, that they're incredibly interested in. That's not always an easy balance to strike."
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