Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Las Meninas: mirrors, fashion and cultural imaginary

Balenciaga's Infanta Dress 1939

I had a couple of hours to kill in between meetings yesterday afternoon so I popped into the National Gallery. It was super crowded but I am good at handling a multitude of selfie-taking tourists, I got my training in Florence. I had a second quick tour of the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition, which I had seen in April, then on my way out I passed through the 17th century gallery and stopped at Caravaggio's Salome with the Head of  St John the Baptist - such a wonderful light, realism and gore too. Caravaggio is definitely one of my favourite painters, his mastery of light and shadow remains unsurpassed.
He inspired (and probably taught) the great Artemisia Gentileschi, whose name should be a household one, like that of her teachers, but being a woman painter from the 17th century, there's no chance of that, the canon is male dominated (still!).  I was bemused that even some friends of mine who are usually rather knowledgeable about art could not really recall her. Her self portrait as the Allegory of Painting, such a bold choice for a 17th century female painter, is in the Royal Collection and definitely worth a visit. She was included among the artists featured in the recent Beyond Caravaggio exhibition also at the National Gallery with her magnificent Susannah and the Elders, a canvas permanently housed at Burghley House.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Allegory of Painting

As I walked further down the gallery, on the opposite wall, my attention was drawn to the splendid Rockeby Venus by Diego Velàzquez.  The proper title is Venus with the mirror but it is known as 'Rockeby' because it was the property of John Morritt who bought it for £500 in 1813 and subsequently displayed it at his house in Rockeby. Now it hangs at the National Gallery and it is definitely worth a lot more that £500, which in today's money would be £29,000, still a pittance for a Velàzquez.
It is a beautiful nude, classically inspired. The mirror is a well known motif in Velàzquez paintings also found in his masterpiece, Las Meninas. The latter is at El Prado in Madrid and never leaves it, the Velàzquez exhibition at the Grand Palais  in Paris in 2015 had to make do with what is probably a copy but attributed to Velàzquez as a trial drawing.
What is so special about Las Meninas?
Volumes have been written about it and many artists, including the great Picasso, were inspired by it and made their own version. Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose work is currently being exhibited at the V&A, created the Infanta Dress in 1939,  modelled on that of the Infanta pictured by Velàzquez.
Las Meninas gives us a glimpse of court life, and using a system of mirrors and two different perspectives working simultaneously within the painting, a very large canvas , it is also a self portrait of Velàzquez who showed himself as the painter within the painting.
Who is being painted?

Las Meninas
Not the infanta, whom we see in the foreground surrounded by two ladies-in-waiting (las meninas) and other courtiers, but possibly the King and Queen whom we see reflected in the mirror at the back, but even that is not certain, as the angle of the mirror is such as not really showing the sitter. We, the viewers, are put in the position of royalty, as we look in, for it seems that Velàzquez is painting us. There is a lot going on here, in this juxtaposition of worlds and perspectives.
José Maria Canas Maeso recreated Las Meninas a few years ago for El Corte Inglès, the famous Spanish department store, with Velàzquez turned into a photographer holding a Mamiya (or an Hasselblad?) and models of different ages arranged like the court characters (minus the dwarf)  showing off the range of clothing one can buy at the stores. The background is unchanged, obviously photoshopped in, and one can even see the King and Queen reflected in the mirror at the back, just like in the original painting, except that in the photographic recreation there would be no King and Queen.  Are shoppers being cast as royalty? It's an interesting thought. The photo  is for an ad claiming that  El Corte Inglés is where 'fashion is art' and indeed this take on Las Meninas is very effective, visually.  It used to be a billboard seen at Spanish airports. I mentioned it in an older post in this blog.
El Corte  Inglés ad
The  pairing attempted by Canas Maeso is  very fitting. Las Meninas is a conceptual mirror of a multilayered reality, showing us  the artifice of court life and more.  Fashion too is a social and cultural mirror, oscillating between reality and fantasy.  Fashion imagery artfully reflects back a rearranged reality.

'Fitting room', Adland, Photo: David Stewart
This mirroring in the style of  Las Meninas, also brings to mind the beautiful series of photographs taken by David Stewart in 2016 and entitled Adland  for which I modelled. Here the photographer, like Velàzquez, inserts himself, through a model that represents him (Annie Leibowitz type, modelled by Nicola Griffin),  in the picture, surrounded by models, stylists, make up artists, creative directors, clients (the patrons of today) and assistants. The whole paraphernalia, in other words,  necessary for  creating a photo for an ad is depicted,  a reality within reality, a picture within a picture, in which the actual mirrors of the dressing room also play a role.
Las Meninas, with its co-existence of reality and illusion  endures in the cultural imaginary.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Suicide: Chris Cornell's demise

Chris Cornell,  a Grunge icon, died on 18th May and a police report established the cause of his death to be suicide by hanging . He was 52 years old. It seems that Cornell used an exercise band to do the deed. Almost immediately after the report was made public, Cornell's wife Vicky,  understandably distraught, issued a statement to the effect that she did not believe that  he had really intended to take his own life.  He had taken too many Ativan pills, an anti-anxiety drug, therefore his judgement was impaired and his suicide 'involuntary'.
RIP Chris Cornell.
Like all fans, I am devastated by the news of Chris Cornell's death. He was a hero of mine.
I did not grow up with Grunge, I was already very much a grown up in 1994, when the Black Hole Sun music video was constantly broadcast by MTV. My (then) young son loved it and could not be torn away from  the TV set whenever it was played. I liked it too, it is so weird and hauntingly beautiful, very different from the usual staple of that era .

Later, in his teenage years, my son became a grungie and  played a lot of Soundgarden, very loud, in his room . I got to know the sound of Seatlle,  grew to love this music and began to listen to it myself. It was music that really resonated with me.
I went to see Soundgarden in Hyde Park in 2012.  It was a great gig. One of my favourite Soundgarden's tracks is Slaves and Bulldozers, which was the last song played by Soundgarden in concert, a few hours before Cornell killed himself.  But there are many others I love, not to mention Cornell's singing with Temple of the Dog and Audioslave and his solo numbers.
A tragic end seems quite befitting to a Grunge star - I am saying this without wanting in any way to sound cynical. After all Grunge music is very dark and the song lyrics are quite grim. But of course one should not conflate performance with  real life.

Cornell is not the only Grunge star to commit suicide. Kurt Cobain of the legendary Nirvana ended it at age 27, leaving a suicide note that read: "I don't have the passion anymore and so remember, it's better to burn out than fade away. Peace, love and empathy. Kurt Cobain". Both Cobain and Cornell had a history of drugs and depression, still, Cornell managed to hang on to his life for another quarter of a century. That is remarkable.
What really strikes me, in all this despondency,  is the desire to deny that Chris Cornell actually wanted to die. The suicide of a loved one is devastating, there is no doubt about that. But it is also true that suicide is a taboo in our society and our attitudes to it are very muddled, just as every case of suicide is complex and different. It is extremely difficult for us to accept the suicidal intention. Our Judeo-Christian heritage does not allow us to view suicide as a choice and there have been times when suicide was regarded as a criminal act, with consequences. Obviously you cannot punish someone who has committed suicide. But there were clear rules - and in some places they are still enforced - about the burial of suicides and economic sanctions to heirs. Some insurance companies do not pay up if the cause of death is voluntary suicide.

I have been reading the provocative book by Simon Critchley on suicide, which he discusses from a philosophical viewpoint. I would recommend it. It is not an apology of suicide, but Critchley makes the very valid point that "To be human is to have the capacity, at each and every moment, of killing oneself. Incarceration, humiliation, disappointment, disease - the world can do all of this to us, but it cannot remove the possibility of suicide".
It seems fair to say that the act of suicide is never rational but it is nevertheless a choice.
In the end, I find the  comments by Critchley on  another famous suicide, that of Virginia Woolf, very uplifting: "it is not Woolf's suicide that grants her life coherence. The coherence is provided by the subject of her work and what she wrote about life. This matters much more".
It is something we should remember about Chris Cornell and his music.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Fashion revolution and older women

I came across this article by Haley Morgan in Highsnobiety which really echoes my sentiments. Do look it up!

April is over (and with it my birthday), so I am looking forward to late spring and summer, though right now the  'darling buds of Maie' are definitely being shaken by 'rough windes' - literally and metaphorically.
 Two recent events have prompted me to write this post. The first one is the Fashion Revolution week-long commemoration of the Rana Plaza disastrous fire on 24th April 2013 which caused the death of many garment workers, mostly women.  It ran from 28th to 30th April, so not quite a week, more of a weekend really, during which  people were encouraged to think about the clothes they wear and who makes them and how everyone can do their bit to keep exploitation down. Instagram posts were definitely encouraged, with the tag #whomademyclothes and I added my offering to the list.
The second event is not exactly an event, but yet another article proclaiming that fashion is waking up to older women. I have been seeing such articles appearing fairly regularly for the past ten years or so, surely by now fashion should have awakened. Don't get me wrong, I do not deplore the article(s) in question, I just deplore that fashion is still playing sleeping beauty. I cannot help feeling somewhat dismayed that every time an older woman is shown in an ad or campaign or a runway show there should be this 'look here' cry as to say, we are doing our bit, things are changing etc etc.
The moment this stops being a novelty, it will also stop being tokenistic, which is what I think it ultimately is, at the moment.

 The article in question appeared in The Guardian on April 23rd. It lists the latest bloggers and 'influencers' over the age of sixty, with a picture of Lyn Slater, a New Yorker who is a professor during the day, but has now become a fashion icon and the face of Mango.
I notice a tendency, in this celebration of older women,  to typify them  as zany and usually  wearing oversized glasses. I must say, it does make me feel slightly uncomfortable. It is as if , as you grow older, you just have to embrace eccentricity. Some of us do not wish to.
 The Fashion Revolution initiative on the other hand is really important. There is also a tendency to bandy around  'sustainability'  and 'ecofashion', as if they were just  fashionable labels, but I believe Fashion Revolution is very genuine in its mission and scope and invite you to check out their website and their impassioned plea on why we need a fashion revolution.
Designer Anna Skodbo, who has launched the label Phannatiq, which I have modelled for and which has been featured among others in Vogue,   sent some comments on eco-fashion and I copy them below with her permission.
"Nothing can be 100% eco, to say it is is misleading" says Anna. "Just by having a business you’re not being eco friendly, not to mention the carbon footprint of everything, so I don’t like to shout about it. Especially as it’s become so misused. It is a word used to blanket such a vast spectrum within which nothing can be perfect and that is why I have a problem with the term, BUT ...
98% of our fabrics are either GOTS certified organic or ökotex certified. The fabrics are mostly sourced from India, China and Turkey".
I recently got one of her dresses, which I absolutely love - the Zoe dress. Anna Skodbo describes it as follows:
"The fabric of the dress  you have is GOTS certified organic denim and is made by Ganesh in India and you can read more about him here .The trimming inside the dress is ökotex certified 100% bamboo which has been printed by Uros in Slovenia using the silk screen technique 
The dress was made by Yuksel and Ali in Seven Sisters, London".

It's a dress I am happy to wear and will definitely wear more than thirty times, the ground rule for when you buy clothes - how many times will I wear it is the question you should ask yourself when you are about to purchase something new for your wardrobe.
A fashion revolution begins by taking such a small step as this and by finding ways of styling and re-styling the items in our wardrobes so that they will always appear fresh.

All photos for Phannatiq collection AW17