Friday, 29 December 2017

All about image: Lily Cole and the Bronte Society

The Parsonage Museum. Photo: TripAdvisor

Just before Christmas it was announced that Lily Cole has been given a prominent role as creative partner of the Bronte Society in the bicentenary celebrations for Emily Bronte planned by the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. She will be working on a curatorial project focussed on Wuthering Heights.  As a fan of the Brontes, especially of Emily, I was delighted to read about the arrangements for such celebrations.
However, Lily Cole's appointment seems to have angered quite a few people. It has been described, in the press, as "putting celebrity over the Bronte sisters themselves".  Lily Cole, who has just turned 30, was a fashion model, a supermodel in fact, during her teens and early twenties and has unquestionable celebrity status. This in itself is not reprehensible, why so? We  live after all in a celebrity culture and celebrities are always involved in this or that project, sometimes doing no more than lending their name. But not in this case. Lily Cole will not just be invited to the inauguration or do some fundraising, she will take an active role in the research and preparations, and it is this active participation which seems to have prompted all the criticism. Some people are convinced she is simply not up to the job.
Never mind that Cole, also a fine actress, director and writer, has a first class degree in the history of art from Cambridge.  Never mind that she is an able entrepreneur, a committed environmental campaigner and a very gifted, most articulate, speaker. All this does not seem to matter at all.  According to her bitter critics the appointment should have gone to a Bronte scholar or a writer.  Some have gone  as far as speculating that if Emily Bronte were alive, she would be horrified. Would she really?

Lily Cole in 2013. Photo by @Kmeron for LeWeb13 Conference @ Central Hall Westminster - London
There is something quite perverse in the logic displayed by all these critics. It is worth reiterating  that in order to be a creative partner and work on a curatorial project one does not have to be a widely published professional writer, and, in any case, there will be a writer-in-residence at the museum, the poet Patience Agbabi.
Clearly, some Bronte expert must have coveted the appointment of creative partner and, disappointed by the decision made by the selection committee, decided to vent their anger in public, rather than moving on. Academic scholarship does not automatically bestow the entrepreneurial skills underpinning the creative partnership envisaged by the Parsonage. Moreover, Cole's training as an art historian will definitely come in handy, whereas the fact she is young will attract a different audience, and inject new vigour in the programme, something the museum desperately needs if it wants to boost its ratings. The Parsonage cannot be locked in the past.

Emily Bronte in a disputed portrait painted by Branwell Bronte - it could be Anne

What bothers me in all this is that people are flippantly focussing on Cole's modelling and celebrity status disregarding her obvious talent and intelligence.  The subtext is that of a 'brainless pretty girl', the way models are often, and sadly, stereotyped. And a hackneyed stereotype it is.  In reality, models are often some of the most accomplished people one  ever comes across, many taking up modelling to fund their studies - I know a model who is doing a degree in physics and another who is pursuing training as a classical musician - and many more others coming to it after skilfully holding down jobs of great responsibility - think here of someone such as Maye Musk, with multiple degrees. Rosalind Jana, writer and poet still in her twenties, is another example of a highly accomplished and talented young woman who counts modelling as one of her pursuits but is not solely defined by it. And, not to blow my own trumpet, I too before taking up modelling was, for a while, in charge of a university art history department, albeit a small one. Being a model has not stripped me of any of my skills.
Crucial, in this controversy over Cole's appointment, is the belief, mostly affecting women, that having been involved in a role that equates with being an embodiment of beauty, as modelling is  constructed to be  - however variedly that beauty is defined in our contemporary society -  cancels out any other talent or achievement one may possess and permanently disqualifies one from being a purveyor of culture, which is what a curatorial role entails.
I find it dismaying, it's yet another take on the 'dumb blonde' myth perpetuated by Hollywood.
Personally, I am happy to side with those enlightened enough to make this appointment, regarding it as a way to usher in a time of exciting developments.  I wish Ms Cole all the very best in her new role as creative partner of the Parsonage Museum and truly look forward to the outcome of this partnership.

***Read here the piece written by Lily Cole for Medium about Emily Brontë, aptly entitle 'What would Emily Brontë think" ***

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Monochrome and Velázquez

An instagram post by Greyfox with a photo of the Royal Court of Justice which, he says, used to be his haunt before he became a blogger, having worked as a lawyer for many years, kind of resonated with me.
I used to be an art historian before I  became a model, my doctoral thesis, back in the days, was in art history and archaeology and for many years I taught about visual culture and performance. I am an art lover and living in London is a blessing because there is always some exhibition going on and, most importantly, permanent collections in major museums are totally free to access, which means one can go and see masterpieces again and again. This is such an amazing opportunity, totally inexistent in other countries, where museums always charge an entry fee. I am always puzzled that people do not really take full advantage of it.
The National Gallery is one of my favourites among the London museums. Armed with an National Art Fund pass I gained discounted entry to the Monochrome exhibition yesterday afternoon (permanent collections are free but exhibitions are not) and really enjoyed it though I wondered why the curators had been so haphazard in putting art works together. The thematic arrangement was weak and chronology was not a major concern. But I loved many of the chosen items and enjoyed the last exhibit, a room flooded with orange by Olafur Eliasson. Visitors were invited to take selfies - of course I took advantage!

Then I decided to go to the main gallery to view yet again some of my favourite paintings.
I love walking around the Gallery playing a little game with myself, trying to guess at once who painted this or that work and then checking by reading the labels. Most of the time I get it right, when I do not, I really try to learn about the brushstrokes and get a feel for the painting. Great artists  have a powerfully expressive  brushstroke no matter what the period or style. It is what really makes you respond, emotionally,  to the work.
My favourite painter is Diego Velázquez.  Las Meninas is his masterpiece and is housed at the Prado in Madrid but the National Gallery has two works by the great Velázquez, the Rokeby Venus and a royal boar hunt scene (La Tela Real), which is so multilayered, just like Las Meninas, going beyond a mere depiction of a hunt - that is the genius of Velázquez, the way he can take you from the mundane to the sublime. Incidentally, the Monochrome exhibition has a black and white Picasso's rendition of Las Meninas , a painting that has intrigued  for centuries and has stimulated responses by a number of great artists, such as Picasso.

What I also love doing at the National Gallery  (or any other museum of renown) is sit and watch the world go by and hear the different responses by other visitors. As I was contemplating the Rokeby Venus, a Spanish family came along and the mother began to jump up and down saying to the kids 'Look, look, this is a famous painting, this is aVelázquez'.' 'Why is it famous, mummy?' asked one of the little girls. 'It's famous because it's art' the mother said.
I thought the answer was daft. Then it struck me that well, it is art, so it was not so off the mark. How else would you describe the Rokeby Venus? Otherwise known as the 'Toilet of Venus', it is a nude, painted some time between 1647-1651,  showing a beautiful woman, the goddess Venus,  looking at her reflection, with her son Cupid holding up the mirror.  It is known as Rokeby because it used to be in the Morritt collection at Rokeby Park, in county Durham.

The very trajectory of provenance of art works is intriguing to say the least. It warrants a completely different post.
For now it will suffice to say that the Monochrome exhibition is definitely worth checking out. And  also do check out the permanent collection at the National Gallery, you will not be disappointed. A good way to while away a cold wintery afternoon.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Forgery and fashion knockoffs

A replica  of the Venus of Milo at Central St Martin's, UAL,  reception

I recently read a very interesting book, an account of the life of Van Meegeren, the Dutch artist known for his forgery of Vermeer and for conning the Nazis into buying his own work passing it off as original Vermeer.  He did not copy any existing work, he created new pieces in perfect Vermeer style, as if they were genuine 17th century pieces, responding to the hopes of art critics that more Vermeer work should be discovered, especially the canvases depicting religious subjects, something Vermeer did only for a relatively brief spell at the start of his career. Until Van Meegeren put Vermeer's signature on the works he would have not been guilty of any forgery as such. Anyone can paint anything 'in the style of' and not break any law, but signing off with another artist's name, for lucrative gains, is against the law, no more than signing off a contract using someone else's identity.
Forgery is the bane of the art world because it involves obscene quantities of money. There is a fine line to be drawn between forgery and restoration, as the methods of the restorers are often used by the skilled forger, to perfection. Forgery takes restoration to a completely different level.
The crime of the forger is  linked to the quest for authenticity,  the driving force of the art market, the reason why old masters can fetch such high fees. It also follows that an art historian's reputation as validator of authenticity can be rendered quite fragile by the well made forgery. Despite all the scientific advances which can reveal the age of a canvas and the way it has been treated, the final authentication still rests on the knowledge of the art historian.
A recent case involving Leonardo's Salvator Mundi, which resurfaced in 2005 and was sold to the Abu Dhabi Louvre in October 2017 for a staggering $450 million has seen world experts on Leonardo vouching for its authenticity.  But not quite unanimously. Walter Isaacson, for example, is not convinced the work is by Leonardo, nor are a few other dissenting voices. Only time will unravel the mystery surrounding this painting, which could after all be an excellent forgery, like the Emmaus Supper painted by Van Meegeren, which for years took pride of place at the Boijmans  in Rotterdam.

Salvator Mundi. Source: Wikipedia

Author Thierry Lenain wrote in his 2011 book Art Forgery that "the fake is a mirror image of an expectation or, more exactly, a device made to trigger a recognition process by appealing to this expectation" (Art Forgery, page 314). It is a very apt definition and one that resonates in areas other than art.
I am particularly intrigued by the meaning of 'forgery' in the context of fashion. Within the fashion industry a forgery is better known as a knockoff or a replica. It would seem that the law is somewhat ambiguous over this matter. A counterfeit replica is technically illegal - but counterfeit fashion is a  very lucrative industry in itself -  whereas a knockoff is fine. Only recently, various papers reported that PrimarkUK sells copycat Valentino's shoes  at £14 - whereas the original Valentino is £650.  Clearly the quality of the material is quite different but the shoes look like Valentino's, minus a couple of details, thus getting away with a  'Valentino inspired' label. The  'Valentino inspired' is in itself a way to entice consumers, though the Primark site does not mention Valentino at all.
It has long been the business of fashion magazines to show original designer items side by side their mass produced, more affordable (but of lower standard) versions, which in order to be perfectly legal must present some minor variants on the original design and obviously not bear a fake signature.
Primark Valentino's copycat
Julie Zerbo, editor in chief of The Fashion Law has discussed various cases of fashion designers and copyright law and the lack of protection afforded to them. The point of contention is the selling of counterfeit copies, which, as mentioned, is extremely profitable as a business.
Gone are the days when fashion houses would sell licensed patterns to enable women to make their clothes at home, drawing on their sewing skills. This is hardly an option these days unless you search for such patterns and recreate 1950s fashion yourself. I am not sure this would count as copyright infringement as such, unless done on an industrial scale.
When you have online sites advertising their wares as 'buy without the $$$tag' , one realises the legal ambiguity of the knockoff. If I am sold a Louis Vuitton bag bearing a Louis Vuitton label on eBay or elsewhere and I know it is not the genuine item, then we are clearly talking about  a 'fashion forgery'. If I go to Primark and buy the Valentino replicas no one is ostensibly committing any crime. But...
The problem is to do with greed and fashion consumerism and that 'expectation' discussed by  Lenain.

An example of sustainable, ethically sourced, made to measure high fashion designed by the talented Central St Martin's students for the Swarovski/20th Century Fox/ GraziaUK competition. Model: me

If we really were to embrace a fashion that we make ourselves, for ourselves, devising every time a unique, individual  look through a combination of vintage, recycling, ethically sourced material  and using our own creativity we would stop keeping this mammoth copycat industry alive.
We do not need to push consumerism to the limit in order to be happy.