Oak Park resident is behind Art Institute's special summer show

150 years in the fashioning

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Gloria Groom, the Mary and David Winton Green Curator of 19th Century Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute, whose new exhibit, "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity," which was a hit in both Paris and New York, and seems bound to make a big, well, impression in Chicago this summer, is a longtime Oak Park resident. She will be speaking about the exhibition at the Oak Park Public Library in the Veterans Room on July 11 at 7 p.m.

At a press breakfast and walk-through on Friday, June 21, Groom presented remarks, which are excerpted here. See next week's LifeLines section for an in-depth profile:

"I think this is the most rewarding exhibition I've ever worked on because of the subject itself. Unlike other exhibitions that trace a single artist or an artistic movement, this is really a concept exhibition, a broad overview and confluence of history, of social mores, of industry, of literature and fashion. The idea of linking fashion and painting is certainly not new, but what is new is the pairing of the painted surfaces with the textiles, the physical reality of the costumes they depict, and the relationship that the artist had with fashion at this particular time in French culture.

"This is an exhibition about modern painting and the modern fashion that inspired it. Long before Claude Monet became known as the Father of Impressionism, he, along with his fellow young artists, discovered the possibility of using contemporary fashion as a means to explore new forms of painting and to announce themselves on the official art stage of the Paris Salon. By the 1860s, when this exhibition begins, Monet and his friends traveled outside of Paris, to Normandy, to the forests of Fontainebleau, to paint the atmospheric effects of nature. But they were equally attracted to depicting the urban phenomenon of fashion. Once only acceptable to the aristocracy and upper class, by the 1860s, fashion, with its rapidly changing silhouettes, fabrics, colors, and accessories, was widely available and synonymous with modern life. It made Paris the capital of the 19th century. For the artist, fashion was integral to being modern.

"We take for granted its importance as a means of individual expression, but in the 1860s, fashion as an indicator of social class, a reflection of society in flux, and a symptom of an emerging consumer culture, fueled by increasing mechanization and a rapidly expanding middle class, offered a fresh and irrefutably modern playground in which artists and writers could innovate. The Impressionists exploited the potential of fashion, seeking to translate and paint the shadows and light effects, ranging from the soft glow of a summer's day in the park to the artificial glare of theater lights on the bare shoulders of an ingénue.

"The exhibition allowed us the privilege of working with our colleagues in Paris and New York to bring together works of such high caliber and appeal that they are rarely, if ever, seen together — to recreate the excitement and the relevance of fashion to the vanguard of the artistic community of the time. This means that we needed very specific paintings and oftentimes the "Mona Lisa" of the institutions from whom we were borrowing. From the original wish list, which relied heavily on Paris and New York, we've been able to secure almost every major loan. With the costumes, too, we were incredibly fortunate to have joined forces with the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which not only lent extensively to the exhibition but whose staff has been amazingly generous with their time and expertise. And I think our partners would agree that the fashions themselves, bringing them here, was the trickiest part of this exhibition. And yet it was those fashions with their fragile elements from another age which absolutely help bring the paintings to life and vice versa.

"The 14 rooms of this exhibition are organized thematically and chronologically. They're anchored by the most celebrated works of the Impressionist era, many of which have never been seen in Chicago. And in counterpoint to these painters of modern life, we've also included a number of works by their contemporaries. Every room in the exhibition is punctuated by one or more garments and because this is an exhibition about appearances, there are plenty of mirrors, a French specialty, visible everywhere from Versailles to the cafes and restaurants, so that visitors to this exhibition are constantly aware of the painted surfaces as well as their own self-fashioning 150 years later. The exhibition invites you into the arenas of fashion of this era — the home, the street, the theater, the boudoir, the park, the picnic and the shop.

"The exhibition here in Chicago ends with the changing silhouettes embodied by Seurat's great celebration, as well as parody, of fashion, A Sunday on La Grand Jatte. With its anti-Impressionist technique and strictly silhouetted figures, Seurat's painting was exhibited at what was to be the last of the Impressionist exhibitions in 1886, sounding the end of one era and the beginning of another, Post-Impressionism, whose vanguard found its inspiration outside of Paris, outside of contemporary fashion.

"Oscar Wilde once remarked, 'One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.' And I would add, "Why not both?" What we hope every visitor experiences is first to be transported to another time and place and second to be acutely aware of the importance of fashion for the Impressionist vanguard as a means of conveying the experience of modern life and how these artists saw and re-imagined fashion in some of their most iconic and beautiful paintings."

This article has been updated to correct the date Gloria Groom will speak at the Oak Park Public Library.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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