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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay - painter, pioneer, perenially modern

There is nothing quite like a gallery visit for a visual jolt to the senses, and this post
Electric Prisms (1914)
celebrates the work of an artist whose work continues not only to  resonate among devotees of vintage Art Deco and fans of the current 1970s fashion revival, but also  those of us curious about creative inspiration. 

Like so many pioneers, the life of painter and designer Sonia Delaunay
is as fascinating as her work. But unlike her creative contemporaries, the young Russian art student who arrived in Paris in the early 1900s has not always been fully recognised as the key figure in Modernism she truly is. This is now boldly put right in a strikingly diverse exhibition at Tate Modern showcasing a career spanning most of the 20th Century. 

That diversity lies in her freedom of expression across art and design, inspired by what she regarded as the  relationship between abstraction and how we see the world. Although a painter first and last, there were no borders in Sonia's artistic output, and she moved easily from canvas to textiles in her aim to integrate art into every element of life. She worked across the applied arts, in fashion, costume, theatre and book design; in tapestry, stained glass and mosaics. And if her work remains startlingly modern today in it's dynamic geometric patterns and vivid colours; to the Paris of the early 1900s it was a shock to the system alongside that of Picasso and Braque. 

Born Sara Stern in 1885 to Jewish parents in Odessa, her humble beginnings were exchanged for a priviliged upbringing when she was adopted by a wealthy uncle who moved among the artistic and intellectual circles of St Petersburg . Fluent in four languages, and brought on trips throughout Europe, she translated all that she saw into her art. The early portrait paintings, with their bold lines and  vivid planes of colour,  show the influence of German Expressionsim (as a teenager she attended the Art Academy in Karlsruhe) and the Fauves.
Simultaneous designs (1925)
By 1906, she had moved to study in Paris and to a world where she further broke free from academic convention to fully embrace abstraction. She married her gay friend, art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who staged her first exhibition in his gallery in 1908. After they ended their marriage of convenience, she married painter Robert Delaunay, who, like her, was influenced by Cubism and abstraction. 

Dress designs (early 1920s)

Both were fascinated by how perception of colour changes when placed beside varying tones, and they developed a theory of simultaneous colour contrasts which they called Simultanism. Her inspiration ranged from the Russian folk art of her childhood to the advance of technology. After the birth of her son in 1911, she made a patchwork cover for his cradle combining traditional Russian peasant design with abstract patterns. One of the large works in the Tate is Electric Prisms, a dynamic, pulsating swirl of colours depicting the new electric street-lighting rapidly changing 1914 Paris. She was equally fascinated by the colour and movement of the tango dance craze sweeping through the city in those pre-war years. 
Danseuse (1914)

During the war, the couple moved to live in Spain and Portugal. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought the funding from her family in Russia to an end. It was the catalyst in the setting up of Casa Sonia in Madrid the following year as a means to supplement sales of painting with fabric and fashion design. Several projects for Vogue followed, as well as a commission from her friend Sergei Diaghilev to design costumes for his Ballets Russes.
Multi-panelled coat for Gloria Swanson
On the couple's return to Paris in 1921, their apartment became a hub for writers and artists as well as Delaunay's studio and boutique. Her artistic reputation and her career blossomed as commissions for work flowed in, such as the multi-patterned coat she designed for film actress Gloria Swanson and shown as part of the Tate exhibition.

Then came the Second World War, followed by the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940. With her Jewish ancestry, the city was no longer safe for Sonia. Robert was also terminally ill. They travelled south to Grasse, staying with close and trusted friends, including her longtime pal, Wilhelm Uhde. 

Robert died in 1941. Sonia survived the war, and continued to bring her passion for abstraction to the applied arts. In her later years, she explored her lyrical geometric forms and dramatic colours in large scale paintings such as Syncopated Rhythm (the Black Snake).
Thoroughly modern Sonia
Sonia Delaunay died in her beloved Paris in 1979.

Artistically acclaimed and commercially successful - her fabric designs were greatly sought after by Liberty - this retrospective not only celebrates a central figure in early 20th century art but an inspirational woman whose work remains defiantly modern.

Catch the EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, 15 April - 9 August 2015
Jigsaw are currently paying homage with their Delaunay competition for free tickets

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

She's got The Look

'Look at me when I'm talking to you...' (Photograph: Jeff Vespa/Contour by Getty Images)
Now in her 69 th year, actor Charlotte Rampling is a contradiction in a youth-centric film industry. Sensuality, whatever age, is what makes people attractive, she has said.  In her case, that sensuality is all in the eyes.  Luchino Visconti, who directed her in The Damned (1969), encompassed the razor sharp cheekbones, the deep sultry voice, but especially that chilly, leonine gaze, all in one simple phrase:  ‘The Look’. Viewers of the second season of TV drama Broadchurch will know what he means; that challenging gaze has not diluted and remains Rampling’s strongest weapon in her role as the formidable QC Jocelyn Knight.

It’s not just fictional characters she keeps at arm’s length. In real life, Rampling has refused the temptation of the plastic surgeon’s knife. You’ve got to wait, not panic, you need your face to grow with you, she has said.  Instead, she embodies a certain European, age-less froideur (born British, but raised and lives in France) that flies in the face of the gossip magazines fixated on  Bright Young Things. You get the impression that today’s obligatory red carpet demands would be a real chore for an actor synonymous with Seventies art-house controversy. On the odd occasion you see her appear there at all, she’s most likely clad in a tuxedo. Likewise, you feel the chit-chat of so much of the celebrity interview would be a bore to the woman awarded the title of Dame under France's Legion d'Honneur in 2002.

But when asked about ageing, as she inevitably is these days, she brings to the subject an intelligence that looks beyond the undeniable, but fleeting, beauty of youth. In The Look: Charlotte Rampling, the 2011 documentary by Angelina Maccarone, ‘Age’ is one of the topics the actor discusses with writer Paul Auster.

“You wake up and you are one day older. You get on with it, you cannot avoid reality,” she says in the film. “Nothing stays as it is, but when you talk about beauty fading, it becomes something else. If you have that sparkle behind the eyes, that stays.” Her sister Sarah, who died of suicide at 23, was beautiful, says Rampling, adding that she felt her own face was ‘strange’ and with eyes ‘heavy-lidded’.  But the camera continues to love her, and it’s that photogenic quality that led to her involvement in the Nars cosmetic campaign for the Audacious Lipstick range in 2014, age 68.
"Audacious? Moi?" Nars 2014 campaign

Francois Nars, for whom Rampling has long been a ‘muse’, shot the images featured in Vogue last spring.  Similarly, designer Marc Jacobs, who has an interest in what he calls ‘the imperfection of what’s real’, featured a near-naked Rampling in an edgy ad campaign for his 2004 and 2009 collections. Photographer Juergen Teller has also been a long-time collaborator with Rampling. He has said he eschews photo-correction or re-touching in his images, preferring reality to artifice.  When he wanted to photograph a female, post-menopausal nude, Rampling was his perfect model because, as she has also said, beauty is only skin deep, while attraction and desire are things impossible to get to the bottom of.

“Desire is within you. It’s a formidable tool. Some people keep it alive, on and on. It can be a feeling a person gives you. It may not always be sexual, it may be that you just want to be with them,” she says. In The Damned, she played at character 10 years older than her then 23. Age has fluidity, she suggests, again quoting director Visconti, who told her at that time, “You are any age. It’s all behind the eyes, it’s the soul.” 

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The gift you can guarantee won't be re-gifted? A really stylish book

Jeans, classic shirt and lots of bangles for C'mas style- and why not?
Chanel muse Ines de la Fressange shows how it's done

It was the late Phyllis Diller who said the thing she didn’t like about the office Christmas party was having to look for a job the next day. Looking Our Best has learned over the years to stay a safe distance from the communal party bucket of mulled wine; possibly the most hair-raising experience was once witnessing a former colleague tipsily grabbing scissors and cutting the telephone flex on the reception switchboard,  post party on the night of 23rd December. For some reason, it didn’t seem all that funny come the subsequent 2nd January inquest. 

Although austerity has curtailed the works' parties,  there will always be an Aldi mince pie and glass of Lidl plonk to welcome  festive merry-makers at LOB Towers. As for sharing those other age-old traditions such as putting so much thought into a gift for that special someone that you’ve left it too late to buy it, there are always books. Real books to read on paper, that is,  not on-screen.  And while buying online is all very practical, one of the pleasures of this  pre-Christmas madness is taking time out to browse your favourite bookstore where you are sure to find something to please the woman who has everything – or indeed, the woman who has nothing. 

First off is a new publication one of LOB’s ultra-stylish pals has drawn her attention to: The Killer Detail (published by Flammarion in both French and English). The authors,  real life couple François Armanet and Élisabeth Quin, are well known journalists in their native France, and, as can be seen from their photo here, can talk about style with some authority and confidence.
Don't forget the French Dressing: François Armanet and Élisabeth Quin
Fifty-year old Quin does not dye her grey hair; for an interview to publicise the new book, the New York Times quotes her as wearing
“a short black Vanessa Bruno dress, a black Balenciaga coat and black Prada motorcycle boots."  Mutton monitor, be damned.

Still with La Belle France, LOB was the lucky recipient a couple of Christmases past of Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange (Flammarion).  Ines was a former Chanel model and muse – which probably tells us all we need to know. She wears those little boucle jackets, Breton striped tee shirts, skinny cigarette pants and flat pumps with nary a hint of French cliché.  She can even wear a string of pearls without looking like a Sloane. The book includes her top Paris addresses for shopping – both designer and vintage.
Vive la accessories a la Ines

Although no longer a catwalk fixture, Ines (56) is currently brand ambassador for Roger Vivier (check out her video shopping diaries). She has also teamed up with Japanese label Uniqlo for a new collection coming out in Spring 2014, no doubt injecting their bright fun clothes with a dash of her own easy elegance.

When it comes to DVD’s as a gift, anyone, whether interested in style or not, will be intrigued by Bill Cunningham: New York. This documentary is a must see because of its endearing central character.  LOB must confess that she was unaware of this eccentric 80-something-year-old photographer until this film (directed by Richard Press) was screened in cinemas in 2012. Clad in his blue utility jacket (as worn by Paris bin men), cycling through the streets of Manhattan on what is his 29th bicycle (the previous 28 all stolen),  the sprightly Bill shoots using film (not digital) for his regular New York Times features on the city’s most individually stylish citizens.
He's just our Bill

Way before the younger fry thought they invented street fashion, he was taking candid shots showing how people dress the way they do, and what it tells us about human nature.  The mighty of the fashion world contribute to the comments in this charming film, including Anna Wintour:  “We all get dressed up for Bill”.  But while lauded in high society, this modest man does not surround himself with celebrity, and the trappings of glamour, living instead a frugal, simple life in his modest flat and eschewing restaurant dining and lavish receptions.  Near the end of the film there is a surprisingly moving insight into what makes Bill Cunningham tick. In a world of tinsel and sequins, the seemingly trivial world of fashion can have its poignant moments too.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Jingle Beads Rock

I'd like to make a statement ....

Mr LOB is a lost cause when it comes to the whole ‘down with the kids’ thing. This morning, he asked the boy ‘What’s all this stuff about Miley Cyrus and fracking?’. The conversation went downhill after that. But, having been hitched to moi for over three decades, Mr LOB does have a handle on the commoner phrases and clichés in fashion lingo, such as the LBD. 
All together now: Gold plated chains, charms and purple crystals
LOB has been giving thought to her own (not so) Little Black Dress of late, given that  the Yankee Candles are now reduced to a fiver in the shops – a sure sign that Christmas is way too close – and the invites, allegedly,  to dressy-up dos will be winging their way as we speak to LOB Towers.

As in most households, the budget for the purchase of any new Christmas party wear is once again headed towards a big fat zero.  Time, then, to dig out the good old reliable black frock and indulge in that pursuit of the sartorially skint – accessorising. 

The benefit of any LBD is that it’s very timelessness allows for an on-trend update. As all you stylish readers will know, one of this season’s strongest looks for bright young things and mature wimmin alike is the statement necklace, or collar necklace.  Designed to dress up daywear when worn under shirt collars, or over sweaters, these detailed pieces of jewellery also refresh and bring sparkle to the plainest party or evening dress. Swarovski crystals, pearls, glass beads, semi-precious stones,  on their own or all together, are fastened with chains, or a length of velvet ribbon for a vintage look.
She has some neck:   Danish model Helena Christensen

A favourite of LOB’s is costume jewellery label Pilgrim, who feature some of the most appealing statement necklaces in their current collection.  Founded in 1983 by Danish duo Annemette Markvad and Thomas Adamsen, they first started off by selling their designs at festivals.  That hint of the bohemian endures in their designs, having appeal for both Lana del Ray generation, and those of us who still remember the free spirit style of Stevie Nicks. 
'Is there a nick in that glass?' Stevie rocking the big necklace look back in the 70s
Necklaces are priced around the €50 mark, with stockists in the larger department stores, such as Debenhams. 

So, while a pal of LOB’s insists that we grown-ups should now avoid wearing black, even as partywear, the addition of an abundantly detailed statement necklace or jewelled collar counteracts any hint of sombre old lady.  It also draws attention to the face,  away from the waistline.  And that’s always a good thing at Christmas….  

 All jewellery by Pilgrim

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Beautiful Era of Fashion as Art

Paris 1913, and the fashion magazine of choice for the city’s bright young things was the Journal des Dames et des Modes. A century on, us lucky Dublin dwellers have the opportunity to see what was so inspiring about this short lived publication. Costumes Parisiens: Fashion Plates from 1912-1914, currently running at The Chester Beatty Library, showcases the exquisite prints that illustrated the magazine during those last years of what was known as the Belle Époque.

Edith Dunn – already a renowned collector of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings before she became the second wife of Chester Beatty – persuaded her future husband to acquire the Journal, among other fashion periodicals.  Many of the almost 150 prints bought by him are now on show in the Library that bears his name and are testament to how these illustrations were the interface between fashion and art. The work of artists including Erte, Georges Lepape, Louis Barbier and Paul Iribe featured prominently in the pages of the Journal, indicating that fashion was an important element of the whole decorative arts movement.

What do these charming prints tell us about how the fashionable women of a century ago dressed?  Back then, the most important accessory for a woman enamoured of haute couture was a wealthy husband, or papa, linked on her arm. According to the Library’s research, the ladies-who-lunched during that pre-war period could spend thousands of pounds per month on the latest fashions. Chester Beatty’s first wife, Ninette, is reckoned to have spent an average of $850 a month in 1910 on the family’s wardrobe, with even the servants decked out in specially designed livery. 
Bakst's costumes for Ballet Russes
As for the garments, the most fashionable silhouette of the Belle Époque was a flowing, draped line which was radically different from the  corseted, restricted style of the late Edwardian era.
Paul Poiret, the first couturier to use draping in his designs, remarked that the exaggerated 'S' shape of the late 19th century made a woman “look like she was hauling a trailer.”  He took credit that his empire line dresses “freed the bust” and negated the torture of the whalebone corset. 
There are four actual garments on display in the Library's exhibition which show not only that draping (often with small pieces of lead in the hemline to make dresses hang beautifully) but also the intricate beading and embroidery worked into luxury fabrics such as silk and cashmere.   During these years just before the tragedy of the Great War, wealthy women would have changed their clothing three or four times a day. A short black and white film which forms part of the exhibition shows a young woman in her boudoir getting dressed. The grandest occasion was most likely a trip to the opera or ballet,
and the exotic evening fashions paid more than a passing nod to Diagilev’s Ballet Russes which had arrived in Paris to great sensation in 1909. 
Along with Leon Bakst’s costume designs for the ballet, there was also the influence of even farther East, in particular, les Japonais. 
Japanese posters, which had wrapped many of the object d’art shipped in boxes from the East,  had already inspired many of the post-Impressionist artists with a seemingly more simple approach to drawing and painting. The most recognisable inspiration in  fashion terms was the kimono.  Basically constructed from rectangular pieces of embroidered silk or satin, the kimono was not only worn  as an indoor garment in it's original design, but also became the desired shape for what is this writer’s favourite garment of the Belle
Époque – the opera coat.  Because columnar evening dresses were of flimsy silk or muslin, it was necessary to wrap up for an evening out in one of these coats – also known as cocoon coats – which were often fur lined.  That kimono shape of inverted triangle – broader at the shoulder and tapering down to a narrower hem – is also apparent in the fashionable coat shape of winter 2013 (referred to recently in The Guardian’s fashion pages as ovoid), but in a much shorter version.

What hasn’t changed either is that the biggest buyers of haute couture these days remain the extremely wealthy with a loaded husband or father in tow– currently, Saudi wives and princesses. But for anyone with an interest in fashion’s ephemeral history, or just needing to escape the noise and bustle of Christmas shoppers on the city streets, a visit to the Chester Beatty’s Costumes Parisiens is a calm, informative haven.  And totally free.

Costumes Parisiens continues at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2 until 30th March 2014