I used to spend hours playing with my Barbie dolls as a child and young teenager, dressing them up, undressing them, making them celebrate parties, go to the beach, fall in love and even suffer from terrible accidents (why do children always have this thing with making their toys endure the most tragic events?)…When I heard about the Arts Décoratifs’s exhibition dedicated to the famous doll, I knew I could not miss it, not only because I was curious to observe how the museum would examine the subject, but also because I was eager to revive childhood memories.
Barbie has suffered from bad press and reputation these last years, accused of being too blonde, too thin, too superficial, delivering a misogynistic discourse and imprinting girls in a biased unreal vision of what a woman’s body should look like. In a way, dedicating an exhibition to such a controversial figure was a risk, especially a display mostly assigned to adults. Yet it was quite a big success and I can imagine how many visitors (mostly women one must admit) were motivated by the same curiosity and nostalgia as I was.
The Arts Décoratifs succeeded in presenting a complete exhibition, describing with numerous archives the story of the doll but also by identifying the pivotal role it played in pop culture and society. During the whole visit, one balances between naive and somewhat frivolous remarks like ‘oh this tiny its dress is lovely’ or ‘I love her haircut’ and more serious (and professional, always, of course!) comments about the evolution of the doll and her impact. What mostly impressed me is how most of us seemed to prefer the original dolls with their seducing doe eyes, elegant blow-dries and their graphic striped bathing suits accessorized by sexy mules.
I don’t know whether that has to do with a common taste for a retro aesthetic or because the 1960s’ Barbie seems less stereotyped than the blonde surreal bombshell of the 1980s. The first part of the exhibition (on the first floor – the Arts Décoratifs’ fashion related displays always take place on their two floored space which, to be honest, I clearly dislike!), was mostly historical, giving us a deep insight into Barbie’s history, making us dream before beautiful old dolls, their multiple garments, haircuts, close observations of how Barbies are fabricated and how they were advertised. The second floor was more thematic, emphasizing Barbie’s cultural impact and the creativity she requires and inspires. From the extraordinary models imagined by Lars Auvinen for Barbie expositions around the world – I simply cannot describe how incredible, delicate and masterly these models are: the display presented three examples such as a fashion show, a dramatic street scene featuring a very Dolce & Gabbanaesque feel and a couture atelier.
Further on, we could discover art pieces from contemporary designers inspired by Barbie: an Andy Warhol portrait or Valérie Belin’s photographs that play on the confusions that may exist between a real model and a mannequin, for example. Finally, we were invited to comprehend the close relationships between fashion and Barbie (an important component of the exhibition that surely explains why it took place in the fashion department of the museum and not its Toy space) should it be through the garments created by celebrity designers for the doll or on the contrary how the girly, very pink and pop aesthetic of Barbie has inspired such brands as Moschino.
Despite its subject, Barbie was not a children-oriented exhibition. Of course, in its essence, it was and many children were present the day I discovered it but, clearly, the scenography and discourse addressed themselves to adults. That’s maybe what disappointed me a little, by wanting so hardly to make sure that the exhibition would not be perceived as frivolous or childish, it reinforced its rhetoric, making it all very proper and serious and forgetting what is mostly associated to Barbie at the basis and that is amusement – is this another reason why the museum preferred to display it within the fashion department instead of the toy one? Yes, Barbie is a toy, a doll with which a child experiences imagination and fantasy and the display lacked playfulness and humour. I truly appreciated the efforts the museum made in convincing us on how Barbie is much more than mere entertainment but I would have loved a little more “magic”! Lars Auvinen’s models and some portions of the scenography did intrigue the child within but the whole atmosphere should have been orientated towards this.
Beyond this, Barbie succeeded in communicating about the doll without falling into clichés and by inviting visitors within to comprehend its role as a major pop culture icon. And also clearly made me want to play with my old dolls again…