In my last post about the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, I gave some background on the de Menils, mentioned a few highlights of a panel discussion between Harold Koda, Lady Amanda Harlech, William Middleton, and exhibition curator Susan Sutton, and discussed some of the organizing principles and behind-the-scenes work for the exhibition. During the panel discussion, one of Koda’s sit-up-and-take-notice statements was that “he [James] had no respect for the fabric”, and was determined to make the fabric literally bend to his will. This mode of working is indebted to his background as a milliner. Several years ago, Heather Vaughan posted on Worn Through some wonderful photographs and descriptions of James’s unorthodox dressmaking methods and their relationship to the female body, which I’d encourage you to revisit.
This post will focus on the finished installation of A Thin Wall of Air. What is expressed in the three intimate rooms of the exhibition is the material evidence of creative partnership and mutual respect between James and Dominique de Menil. Front and center in this exhibition is not so much the genius of James, but the way in which his sometimes startling, sometimes subtle creations mesh perfectly with the de Menil’s artistic sensibilities. This came through the presentation in creative display choices and juxtapositions.
One of James’s gowns, most stunning in its asymmetry and interplay of textures, is the first object seen in the entryway. Although the gown is shown in a central location, unchallenged by any other object against an ice blue wall, its pedestal (and the bases of all the other dress form stands in the show) remains firmly grounded not only in James’s design choices but those of the de Menils.
The grayish-black, rough textured-looking bases were created to echo James’s choice of metal for the base of a chaise longue he designed for the de Menil home (partially seen in the same gallery view above), and yet they also mimic the black wood floors of the Menil museum, with their visible grain and natural hue peeking through.
As Harold Koda commented during the panel discussion, in the context of the Menil museum, surrounded by the furniture that James designed and the paintings the de Menils collected and displayed in their home, one can “still see the person” of Dominique de Menil in the dressed “floating” forms. James’s dress form for Dominique is also displayed in the front gallery, with a wonderful contradictory (and slightly Surrealist) inscription that encapsulates James’s design ethos quite nicely. Printed near the base of the dress form are the words, “IDEAL” and “AVERAGE” (seen in full on the homepage of the website for textile conservator Tae Smith, who created the dress forms for the exhibition).
Koda also noted (while showing a startling photographic illustration of a model, ca. 1940s-1950s, attempting to straighten her body like a board and shimmy her way down into a James gown from above) that many a woman walked into a fitting with “her own body and walked out with James’s.” Through his highly complex and structured garments, James created his “ideal” body on an “average” body (if we can call the lithe and trim society women he dressed “average”), and yet a woman’s individual body is still an independent–and necessary–presence needed to complete his vision. He must work with one particular form to achieve another.
James’s work in the de Menil home is strongly evoked through the gallery wall colors, recalling or directly quoting the strong or slightly “off” colors he chose for unconventional locations such as closets and hallways. Dominique de Menil wanted the building for the Menil Collection to feel both functional and modest, and the Menil Collection building is often compared to the architecture and feel of their private house. Curator Susan Sutton has attempted to create a home within a home, evoking the colors and opposing textures chosen by James for the de Menil’s personal home in the objects on display and on the surrounding gallery walls.
Selected colors were chosen as dramatic backdrops for the objects in the galleries, deliberately clashing with the garments placed in front of them. One interesting juxtaposition is the dark green wall behind a textured yellow silk jacket in the second gallery, the latter of which still contains creases in the sleeves, previous marks of use that once more confirm the presence of its former wearer.
James’s unusual textural pairings or contrasts of smooth and rough surfaces on the walls or interiors/exteriors of doors could also be seen in his design for a suit–a smooth, woolen exterior brushes against a colorful fur interior, peeking out subversively from the neckline and cuffs (and recalling Dominique de Menil’s preference for wearing fur coats inside-out). And again, the effective choice to line the interiors of the custom forms with the colors and textures matching the linings of the original garments highlight the unusual and “voluptuous” pairings favored by James and the de Menils.
The persistent emphasis on embodiment during the panel discussion (mentioned in the previous post) unexpectedly revisited me in the galleries. Placed in the center of the right-side gallery is an heptagon-shaped ottoman designed by Dominique de Menil, based on a previous design by James. As my husband calmly took a seat on the ottoman, the museum person in me came out in full force–“Get up! You can’t sit on that!!” But apparently–and happily–we could.
Not only was it a nice vantage point to contemplate the garments and paintings around me, but it also directly involved our bodies and tactile sensory perception with the gallery objects. Looking at velvet skirts and bodices while being able to touch and rest on velveteen created and used by Dominique de Menil was an interesting experience. While looking down and running my hand along the tufted velvet, I noticed a single off-center, asymmetrical seam running across one side the ottoman–perhaps another design dialogue between de Menil and James?
This gallery seemed to me to best encapsulate this exchange of ideas and affinities between Dominique and James. A painting by Victor Brauner, Charmeuse de metaux [Charmer of Metal] (1947), appears to be a male and female working together to create something–and the title also could allude to the “magic” that James creates with the complex and layered hidden apparatuses within his garments. James even took a layering approach to his sketches, with some built up with other materials, taking on a three-dimensional quality (this is also echoed in another painting by Brauner which consists of layers of wax atop watercolor and ink).
A third gallery, off to the left of the initial gallery, demonstrates James’s relationship to the wider de Menil family and their artistic life inside and outside the home. A cluster of photographs includes a gown he created for Christophe de Menil, Dominique and John’s eldest daughter. And yet his connection to Dominique remains at the heart of the relationship, as evidenced in an inscribed photograph of James, taken by Cecil Beaton: “So many years later with much love always to both of you but specially to you Dominique. Charles”.
Six evening and day wear pieces share the space with the photographs and two James hats (including a black satin “four-leaf-clover” in headgear form).
Against a rich pink back wall is an early portrait (1932) of Dominique by Max Ernst and an undulating two-part sofa designed by James. Curator Sutton was delighted with this portrait in the context of the exhibition–the shells circulating around Dominique’s disembodied head recalled James’s conception of clothing as carapace.
Another painting in the adjacent gallery by Max Ernst, Day and Night (1941-42) was chosen by Sutton to allude to the inclusion of both day and evening wear, but it also is an apt allusion to James’s intervention in the Philip Johnson-designed de Menil home. Ernst depicts organic and anthropomorphic shapes within rectalinear and trapezoidal frames, recalling James’s choice of sensual, curved shapes within the straight-edge lines of Johnson’s architecture. The combination of the straight-back and curved shapes of James’s banquette and sofa are like the piano he insisted be installed in the de Menil home (none of the de Menils played piano), expressing a bridge between James’s nostalgia for the Belle Epoque and modern forms.
At the Menil in general, explanatory or didactic wall text is absent and object labels are pared down to the essentials: artist, title, date, medium. Juxtapositions between pieces, generally speaking, may not be directly causational or historically, culturally, or chronologically related. This approach is in keeping with the de Menils aim of avoiding “museum fatigue” and allowing objects to speak to each other in multiple ways that demonstrate how different ideas, approaches, and concepts shared by different artists can create new resonant associations. Visitors interested in learning more about specific historic and cultural contexts can pick up a particular exhibition brochure at the entrance/exit to the galleries, but generally can be left to make their own conclusions or connections between objects.
I find this museological approach interesting and refreshing, and I really appreciated how much could be so thoughtfully communicated through three small galleries. There is even more to discuss about this exhibition, but I hope those of you who are unable to make the trip to Houston have enjoyed seeing the gallery views and reading a bit about the exhibition. I would strongly encourage anyone coming to Texas to visit the Menil before the exhibition closing date, September 7.
Many thanks to Susan Sutton and Gretchen Sammons for providing images.