120 years ago, cinema was invented and 120 years ago, the Gaumont company was created. With the help of a free exhibition, at the contemporary art space, le 104, Gaumont not only celebrates its birthday but also cinema. I must say I am a huge fan of cinema and belong to this category of people that are highly emotionally involved when they watch a film. From the actors to the music as well as the décors and costumes, everything fascinates me. Pedagogic and playful, the exhibition 120 ans de cinéma highly fulfilled my taste for film with numerous artefacts belonging to the company’s archives or the Musée des Arts Forains alongside the obvious film abstracts and, finally, interesting evocations of contemporary art.
When Léon Gaumont discovered the Lumière brothers’ revolutionary invention in 1864, he decided to design his very own film objects such as cameras and spotlights. Under the pressure of his customers, he promptly understood he needed to imagine films and thus launched his production activity. At that moment, the story of the French company coincided with that of an avant-garde woman, Alice Guy who became the world’s first film director and a specialist of comic fictions and imagined the first ‘peplum’ when she directed a ‘blockbuster’ dedicated to the Bible. In the meantime, Léon Gaumont pursued his inventions and proposed the first example of image and sound synchronization while he invented the Thrichromie – Technicolor’s ancestor. From the 1930s, the firm focused on production and thus established its global success.
Built around a tent – cinema, in its early days, did not belong to dark rooms but to fairgrounds – that shows numerous early films, various spaces invite visitors to comprehend but also interact with film. The main space, entitled the Trésor, indeed delivers the precious and rarely seen treasures of the company, from posters designed by Andy Warhol to Luc Besson’s Fifth Element special effects moldings as well as intriguing instruments and marketing objects. It also presents stunning costumes and drawings.
Costume-wise, the room that completely caught my breath was the Gaumontrama space in which dozens of suspended screens feature films abstracts along arrays of costumes installed on Stockman mannequins. Interestingly I didn’t find any labels for the costumes: I don’t know whether there were any and if I had simply missed them or if it was a voluntary choice. Although, it did upset me at first, I soon appreciated the challenge, realizing how many of these costumes were imprinted in my mind and needn’t any description. It is very difficult to express here the overwhelming feeling I had within this room. Imagine the various screens with their films, each attracting the eye alongside the tumultuous noise – each abstract delivering its own speech – and the fantastic costumes…It was all like a magical spiral, the head turning from so much to observe and hear…An incredible sensation leaving all reality aside and convincingly inviting you in the chimerical world of cinema. A spectacular way of recreating all the emotions one can experience when watching a film.
I was enthralled by another space called Les Etoiles and imagined by the artist Alain Fleischer who invited visitors to create their very own glamorous casting. With a mirror and playing with spotlights, spectators could make the photographs of legendary actors and actresses appear on the space’s black walls, in a playful and collective manner that clearly mentioned the composite identity of film that mingles the makers and the spectators. Finally, I appreciated the confrontation of Annette Messager’s art works with the Gaumont’s primitive films. Her Histoire de Robes, created in 1990, to express the different events of a woman’s life – a feminist memorabilia – is used here to echo film costumes and their impact on the imagination and how, once taken off from the bodies of the actors or actresses that have worn them, they nonetheless continue to bear the full identity of the character and film they were linked to. They reflect on presence but also absence while they stand as interpretations of memory and personality.
120 ans de cinéma is not solely an exhibition about film costumes and, thus it does lack in educating visitors on the making of these costumes and their place within a broader fashion context, it does deliver a dynamic and interactive concept. By juxtaposing film abstracts and still mannequins, the display does invite us to analyse the difference between the costume when it becomes ‘flesh’ thanks to the actor that gives it movement and humanity and the costume as a relic.
Finally, preparing this post, I had a look at Jill Morena’s post from February 2014, in which she questioned our perception of ready-to-wear like costumes. Well I was glad to discover that the Gaumont exhibition did combine dramatic costumes and ordinary outfits that, obviously, nonetheless carry a character’s identity.