When I heard that the Getty was putting on a show about fabric and clothing and the active roles they played in drawings and works on paper, “excited” really didn’t begin to cover my reaction. Art of the Fold is very definitely an art history exhibition, not a dress history exhibition. But it is one that demonstrates how intricately — even intimately — the two fields can be connected.
Drawing from the Getty’s permanent collection of drawings, the exhibition sets out to “explore how artists have used studies of drapery and costume to do much more than represent fabric,” according to the Getty’s promotional materials. Ranging from finished drawings in color to black and white (or whatever color time has turned the ink into) sketches for larger paintings or sculptures, the exhibition succeeds in demonstrating how artists have for centuries used clothing and drapery for myriad reasons. From showing the unusual or the unique in a particular group’s or a foreign dignitary’s clothing, to sending subtle messages about the people being depicted that would have been instantly recognizable by the original audience, this exhibition shows that artists have used clothing and even draped cloth to tell stories since the middle ages and probably before.
The exhibition begins with religious imagery from the middle ages, in particular the sketches of draped saints (one male, one female, one Italian, one German) above, and the studies of Christ’s loincloth below. While Art of the Fold does not follow a strictly chronological order — focusing instead on particular messages communicated by artists using garments and fabric — it is an excellent move by the Getty to start with (I assume) the earliest pieces in the collection. Starting with these pieces establishes the exhibition’s focus through examples immediately so that the groundwork is laid without even a word for the more esoteric examples to come.
The sketches above were probably designs for statues of saints to go on the outsides of cathedrals. These statues spoke a language of their own with everything from hand gestures, tilt of the head, and how the figures were draped having individual and combined meanings for populations that probably had a large rate of illiteracy. Through such symbols, all congregants could “read” the church or cathedral’s story. The universality of these clues was vital in an age when pilgrimage was so important. Without going into explicit detail, the wall text and tombstones did an excellent job of explaining the importance of both pilgrimage and the symbolism and the preparation that must have gone into each figure — including these drawings. Because of this, I came away within the first few drawings with an entirely new perspective on an entire period of art history. No mean feat!
There were many sketches similar to the studies of Jesus’s loincloth the other figures above, of angels kneeling or soaring for altar pieces or the Holy Family in various poses. These were some of my favorite pieces in the entire exhibition. I have always loved artists’ sketches, seeing them as the blueprints for the masterpieces, if you will. I love seeing the whole process, the skill and detail and planning that went into the piece, rather than just the final masterpiece on its own. Through wall text and excellent curation of the pieces, these sketches gave particular insight into the importance of clothing and drapery in the finished picture, they showed how the artists experimented to ensure they communicated what they had intended. It was fascinating seeing the many ways — often by anonymous church artists — this was done.
Art of the Fold is set up so that you can either follow the works around the two rooms in which they are set up or criss cross to your heart’s content. Following the exhibition around the corner into the second room, the next set of drawings I encountered dealt with the theatre (below). Costuming communicating messages, especially in these early opera performances, is obvious, but the Getty emphasized how the artists used particular scenes and their costumes (sometimes comparing different artist depictions of the same opera scene by different companies) to communicate messages, possibly those they might not be able to send in a more obvious way. Or how those messages changed over time while the opera remained the same.
Some of the sketches, like the one below, are in fact artist designs for theatre costuming — an interesting juxtaposition that showed that artists could make use of costuming in ways off the drawing pad as well.
One of the ongoing themes of the exhibition is how the exotic in dress was perceived and depicted. This does of course include the depiction of foreigners, but also the rendition of Solomon and his court in the appropriate attire for a Saxon court in Germany during the sixteenth century, or Judith depicted wearing a rather fantastic gown and bodice that are clearly born of the artist’s imagination.
There are even depictions of exotic Europeans, such as peasants and the yeomanry who would have been very exotic to the classes who could employ artists, and mercenaries who wore their wealth and thus had very unusual and bizarre costumes by any standards by their own. Indeed, the sketches seem to emphasize the otherness of these Europeans, whether its a focus on their vulgarity, or their strange taste in clothes. And yet, the exhibition does a wonderful job of not agreeing with these depictions, but instead showing just how much what is communicated through dress — be it in a painting or sketch, or in real life — is completely in the eye of the beholder.
This conclusion is particularly well displayed through the curation choices regarding depictions of truly foreign garments and people. Juxtaposed with Reubens’ very accurate and detailed portrayal of a Korean diplomat, and another artist’s attempt to capture Turkish attire, or Jean Leon Gerome’s depiction of an Egyptian peasant are a number of the sketches that are designed to emphasize the xenophobic strangeness of foreign dress. There are naturally as many attitudes toward the foreign and unknown as their are artists, and the Getty does an excellent job of highlighting these differences through focusing on how hey each depict dress with which they were unfamiliar: did the observe closely, or make assumptions and fill in the gaps? Were they catering to a patron’s attitudes or free to draw what they wanted?
The last, but not least, theme touched on was perception: both how we wish to be perceived and how we are actually perceived by others. This was magnificently done by contrasting a large Gainsborough sketch of a woman on promenade with a child with the satirical cartoon, “Box-Lobby Loungers”. During the late eighteenth century in Britain, one of the main points of a promenade through the parks of London was to see and be seen, possibly seen by Thomas Gainsborough and sketched! The same for equally public places like a lobby or assembly room. The juxtaposition of the ideal with the satirical “reality” was an excellent choice to show how different the two can be. The lady on promenade seems elegant and nonchalant, whereas no one in “Box-Lobby Loungers” is nonchalant — particularly not the ‘gentleman’ so intent on scrutinizing a woman with his binoculars he is oblivious to the fact that he is stepping on the train/hem of her gown!
This contradiction was a wonderful reminder of the different types of delight you can get from different genres of art. The Gainsborough is a pleasure to behold: the magnificent way he captures the sheen of the fabric used in the woman’s gown with the use of chalk as well as pencil and crayon, the use of color to fade even the child into the background so that you notice only the woman — but more her gown. It is obvious why the Getty made the subject of this piece the poster girl for the exhibition.
Then there is the delight in discovering new details in the cartoon. The conscious way in which several characters are preening, the way we all do, when they know they are being looked at, the contrasting ways in which people observe each other — subtle (but not really) or blatantly obvious — are all depicted, so that you laugh because clearly the fashions change while humanity remains largely the same.
The juxtaposition of the depictions of the same fashions is also intriguing: the Gainsborough stunning and the cartoon ridiculous.
Art of the Fold seemed small to me when I first entered the galleries, but there is an intensity to each piece that belies the “shortness” of a two-room exhibition. I sat in one of the Getty’s cafes for quite some time afterwards furiously scribbling notes because there was so much I wanted to remember and communicate. Even focusing on just a few pieces here I do not feel I am doing justice to the exhibition
Despite my training in both art and dress history, I came away with a mind full of new perspectives and insights into both fields — so much so that I began looking for new meanings in “old friends” I visited on my way out, and seeing them with new eyes. There is no denying that the exhibition is worth a visit. Art of the Fold will be on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles until January 10, 2016.
Have you seen Art of the Fold? What did you think? Are there any dress- or fashion-related events coming to your area that you think Worn Through readers should know about? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below, or email me about upcoming events and exhibitions.