Exhibition Review – Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and the Line of Beauty

Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and the Line of Beauty

November 10th 2010 – January 9, 2011

Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, London

This autumn, London is host to two exhibitions that focus on fashion illustration, its history, key figures and uncertain future. The first of the two, Dior Illustrated: René Gruau & the Line of Beauty, traces the career of the twentieth century master and close creative collaborator of Christian Dior. Gruau lived for nearly a century (1909-2004), and created some of the most memorable fashion illustrations of all time, and his style came to epitomise the essence of the glamour of Dior. Central to this focused exhibition, are the works Gruau created for Dior fragrance campaigns, beginning with the first Dior perfume, Miss Dior, launched in December of 1947, and continuing up until the mid-1980s.

Diorling, René Gruau, 1963, Private Collection, © SARL René Gruau_282

This exhibition is installed in the Embankment Galleries of Somerset House, which since opening in 2008, has played host to a number of fashion related exhibitions, notably SHOWstudio: Fashion Revolution and Maison Martin Margiela ‘20’ The Exhibition. Dior Illustrated, has been organised by Somerset House as a collaboration with Dior Parfums, and curated by Vincent Leret (Patrimony Manager of Dior Parfums) and Claire Catterall of Somerset House.

Upon entering the galleries, the first display is a three-dimensional frame construction collaged with reproductions of Gruau’s work in print over which is stretched a red mesh screen.  The mesh covering slightly obstructed the view of the images, and the collaged technique and format of the frame made me think a little bit of high school lockers papered with favoured magazine clippings.  While it initially struck me as innovative to present viewers with a myriad of visuals right away, this display left me a bit confused and apprehensive that the rest of the show might also favour effect over content.

The show’s title was also presented in a three dimensional construction comprised of the red box frames and mesh, and in this instance it made sense and created a dramatic introduction to the show.  However, it remains unclear to me why this bold and constructivist aesthetic was chosen to represent works by a master of fluid line, organic curves and the joie de vivre of couture.

Following the title installation, another red panelled frame displays a brief biographical panel on Gruau and photograph portraits of the two men at the apex of their collaboration, in the late 1940s. Dior and Gruau met while both were illustrating for the French newspaper Le Figaro in 1936, and quickly discovered themselves ‘kindred spirits,’ with a similar outlook on fashion glamour.

On the upper floor of the exhibition, the mood of the design and the work suddenly clicks into place.  The narrow arched gallery seems to glow with peach-pink light. The highly polished wood floors invite the viewer to enter into a realm of luxurious images. My faith in the exhibition was renewed.

Instead of presenting works chronologically, the curators divided the material thematically to look at particular aspects of Gruau’s style.  Beginning with “Flower Woman,” which is a tribute to the mutual love of flowers shared by Gruau and Dior, the exhibit presents original renderings alongside the printed advertisements or pamphlets they were used for.

In the subsequent sections, “Gesture and Attitude,” “Line and Silhouette,” and “A Shared Vision,” Gruau’s works are presented to exemplify the attitudes and essences of the Dior brand identity, and indeed prove that to a large degree, Gruau created that identity.

A section entitled “L’Homme Gruau,” exhibits his ground-breaking works for men’s fragrance from the 1960s onwards.  The exhibit text tells us that Gruau’s depiction of men engaging in the “banal situations of everyday life, such as emerging from the shower,” were seen as scandalous, but were “fresh and undeniably sexy.”

In addition to the original Gruau drawings, the exhibit presents a small selection of perfume bottles and packaging, a lacquered screen painted by Gruau, and a delightful collection of satin embossed Christmas cards designed by the artist for Dior Parfums in the 1960s.  Although most of the material in the exhibition is related to Gruau’s work for Dior, his cover illustrations for International Textiles are also presented.

A series of ensembles by Dior from the New Look to recent collections by Galliano are also incorporated into the exhibition.  They are displayed in niches apart from the two dimensional works, and provide material reference to the stylised images of Gruau.  In the case of Galliano, we can see the cycle of inspiration coming full circle as he is inspired by Gruau’s illustrations of Dior, as much as the archive garments.  Although the garments presented are not necessarily those Gruau illustrated, having them share the space with the illustrations does create a total environment, and inspires thought about how illustration has the power to heighten the effect of even some of fashion history’s most extravagant and desirable clothing.

The exhibition’s final section, “Inspired by Gruau,” takes a disappointing turn.  The organisers of the exhibit invited five contemporary UK-based illustrators to produce a work in response to Gruau. Already, this seems like risky territory.  Although I appreciate the desire to show how artists are informed and inspired by their predecessors, in the case of fashion illustration, it is a tough topic to address because of the considerable lack of fashion illustration being used in advertising and editorial fashion today.  Who are the eminent fashion illustrators of the new century and what exactly are they doing? This is an exhibition I would really like to see! However, the five works produced in response to Gruau, with the exception of Richard  Kilroy’s All Caught Up, do very little to honour the tradition of Gruau, or to instill confidence in the future of the genre.  Still, the idea to commission new works of illustration in tandem with the show could have been more effective, and perhaps kinder to the illustrators if their work was displayed outside the main gallery, and not as a grand finale to the career and legacy of one of the undisputed masters of fashion illustration.

Works by Richard Kilroy (left) and Jasper Goodall (right)

Because I wanted to know more about how Gruau is actually influencing both illustrators and curators today, I went along to a lecture at the gallery immediately following my visit to the exhibition.  The evening’s panel consisted of Sonnet Stanfill, Curator of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Fashion at the V&A, Cally Blackman, author of 100 Years of Fashion Illustration, and Jasper Gooddall, one of the five commissioned illustrators.  Each guest presented a 15 minute talk about Gruau, and then a rather fierce Q&A ensued!  Firstly, Cally presented musings on the creative partnership between Dior and Gruau and also on the parallels in approach between Gruau and fashion photographers of the mid-century such as Irving Penn.  Sonnet Stanfill, who is a wonderfully engaging speaker, presented examples of Dior garments from the collection of the V&A that figured into Gruau’s illustrations.

Dior 1947-48, Collection of the V&A T.109-1982

Dior 'Ecarlate' dress, 1955, V&A T.25.2007

Finally, Jasper candidly presented some more of his illustration work, and outlined some of the difficulties facing illustrators today, when photography has a stronghold on fashion imaging.  Unfortunately, he did not seem very hopeful or encouraging that this situation might change.  All the more unfortunate because he is a university teacher of illustration, who ended the Q&A by answering that he did not think illustration could do what a photograph could not.  Despite being prompted by students in the audience, and his co-panelist, Cally Blackman, he did not seem to have any faith in the future of fashion illustration, or ideas about how it might see a resurgence.

Utterly disheartened by the outcome of the talk, I tried to re-enter the exhibition to have another look at Gruau, and to meditate on the art of fashion illustration.  To my further disappointment, the galleries had closed for the evening, so I was left to shuffle through my exhibition guide in awe of the simplicity, finesse and effectiveness of Gruau’s work.  The state and fate of fashion illustration has been occupying a lot of my head space lately, and next week I will take a look at the Drawing Fashion exhibition at the Design Museum.  But until then send along your comments on this topic, especially if you are an illustrator or student of illustration! I want to know what you think about the heritage and future of the discipline.

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1 Comment

  • Richard Kilroy January 22, 2012 06.22 am

    Thankyou so much for the wonderful compliment! I’m very touched 🙂


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