Tuesday, 3 May 2011

New Look, Old Look?

Trends in fashion and art

THIS APRIL saw both the opening of 'The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900' show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the 'Rochdale Artists Exhibition' at Number Ten Gallery on Baillie Street, Rochdale. The London show, open until the 17th July, demonstrates the romantic reaction to the what they - the aesthetes in the 19th Century - saw as the ugliness of the industrial revolution: Suzy Menkes, in the Global Edition of the New York Times, describes them as a movement committed to 'Art for Art's Sake': the romantic painters, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were often Bohemian. The 'Rochdale Artists' are very different, an eclectic mix of artists painting in different styles and from possibly lower middle-class or working-class backgrounds; one I met at the Castleton Community Centre (where they study and practice their art on Tuesday evenings), Brian Thomas, a former bus driver, was working in acrylics and his day job now is ground maintenance for nearby Bury Council.

The artists of the 19th Century 'Art for Art's Sake' school were into shaking up women and changing them from the tight corset-ridden creatures of the Victorian era into something more lush, wild and even dishevelled. The show at the V&A includes examples of how the new 19th Century style became commercialised, with a display of items from what was then the Liberty store and objects of interior decor that would have filled the pages of the house-&-home journal 'House Beautiful'. This kind of influence on magazines and interior decor seems to have continued well into the 20th Century. In 1946, George Orwell wrote of 'an American fashion magazine' whose '325 large quarto size pages, of which no fewer than 15 are given up to articles on world politics, literature, etc', of the rest Orwell writes: 'I do not know just how many drawings or photographs of women occur throughout the whole volume, but as there are 45 of them, all beautiful, in the first 50 pages, one can work it out roughly.'

Summing up the V&A exhibition, Suzy Menkes writes: 'Still, by the end of the show there is a feeling of fatigue and ennui, exemplified by the languid women who never look the painter in the eye and by interiors that become claustrophobic.' Similarly when he comes to comment on the kind of women in his nameless post-Second World War American mag. Orwell writes in 1946 : 'One striking thing when one looks at these pictures is the overbred, exhausted, even decadent style of beauty that now seems to be striven after' and 'a thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are everywhere.' Thus, when Suzy Menkes writes now that the 'the gust of fresh air that came with the new 20th century must have felt heaven sent' it was clearly not to last long before we were back to a sort of sleek swan-like creature in art and fashion, at least in American publications after the Second World War.

These things seem to go in phases, Kate Middleton has a freshness with cheeky-chops type looks, compared to the unrelievedly beautiful glamour of Diana, the former Princess of Wales. That's why it is nice to go to a small local exhibition like that of the Rochdale Artists with its freshness and innocence, and view Veronica Swinden's 'Cheryl' portrait with the subject looking directly at the painter (see below).

Rochdale Artists meet at Castleton Community Centre, Manchester Road, Castleton, Rochdale each Tuesday nights at 7.30.

On May 10th, there will be a watercolour demo and talk by Paul Talot Greaves.

On June 21st, there will be demonstration of how to do Lino Printing.

On August 2nd, Jeremy Taylor will give a talk and demonstration of watercolour.

No comments: