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By Ken Trainor
Gloria Groom had this idea.
"I was working on some paintings and writing about Monet's The Artist's House at Argenteuil where you see his son, John, wearing a dress with a big blue sash in the back. I thought, 'What's this about?' so I wrote a friend in London and she said, 'Oh, that's a sailor's outfit and that was the trend that year. It shows he's a very upper-class little boy. That was the summer Monet actually had some money.'
"All of a sudden it was so fascinating. Then I read this dissertation on literature and fashion from Balzac to Mallarme, and I started thinking about what Impressionism is about. It's about capturing change, the momentary and the fleeting, and that was right at the moment when, because of machine looms, sewing machines, improving transportation, you could print faster, so a lot fashion magazines [with etched engravings known as "fashion plates"] were coming out and fashion seemed to be [exploding]. What better way to express the quickness of life than fashion?
"At that moment, it was starting to change very rapidly. Before that, you'd have a style for two years, five years, but this is the beginning of our consumer culture. This is the beginning of our life."
Groom is accustomed to making these kinds of connections as the David and Mary Winton Green Curator of 19th Century Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute, which, of course, includes Impressionism, which happens to be the Art Institute's best known collection (acquired before French culture wised up to what it had).
And that is the subject of Groom's new exhibit, "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity," which promises to be the cultural hit of the summer — as it was last fall in Paris and last winter in New York City.
Groom, who lives in Oak Park with her husband Joe Berton and sons Alexander and Philip, took her brainchild along on a trip to Paris four and a half years ago to view an exhibition on historic costume, which included crinoline dresses and a poster of Monet's Women in the Garden (featuring crinoline dresses) from the Musee d'Orsay.
"I thought, 'This would be so cool to actually find the dresses they wore or find the equivalents and put them in proximity to the paintings inspired by them, to bring that physical reality to life."
She had dinner that night with the director of the Orsay and told him her idea.
"I barely got the words out of my mouth and he said, 'I want this,'" she recalled. Then she saw Gary Tinterow from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, who also happened to be in Paris for the exhibit.
"Five words out of my mouth," Groom said, "and it was done. We had the partners, and we needed those partners. The Orsay has the paintings and the Met has a costume institute, so it was a really good thing that they were both salivating."
The Art Institute, led by Groom, did much of the rest. She edited the exhibit catalog, found the authors for it (and wrote some of the pieces herself), traveled to see works of art as she compiled her "wish list" of paintings, and negotiated the loans. No easy task, especially the loans.
"I was trying to find paintings that were not only about fashion," she said, "and not only by Impressionists but artists in their circle — paintings that were talked about, so that meant they had to be the most important works of their careers. What did the critics say? Did they talk about fashion? I ended up with this amazing list. I thought, 'This is crazy,' but I got almost everything."
But not without a lot of horse trading.
"There are 75 paintings in the exhibit," Groom said. "Twenty-two are from Orsay, six are from the Met and we lent six, so that was the critical mass. But then there were paintings without which I would not have done this exhibition because the story has to have a beginning, and the story begins with Monet and a painting that was in Bremen, Germany. It's this tiny museum, and it's their masterpiece, and they didn't want to lend it, and I was just freaking out because how do we start?
"It was supposed to be Luncheon on the Grass, which was going to be his masterwork, his 17-by-20-foot painting outdoors. He's 22 years old. He's trying to do the one that will make his name. But it was damaged and cut up [two of the pieces are included in the exhibit] and he never finished it. He becomes dissatisfied, so he whips off a painting [Camille] of his mistress. It's like 11 feet tall and she's wearing a green-and-black-striped dress. It really made his name. So I had to have that painting. It shows how he was advertising himself as a painter of fashion. A lot of negotiation, a lot of horse trading. It took four years."
The other important piece in the story, painted two years later in response to Monet's, is Renoir's Lise (his mistress, aka "Woman with Umbrella"), also large and also showing her wearing a dress in vogue at the time. That painting came from a tiny museum in the town of Essen, Germany.
"It's been there since 1908," she said. "It's only been loaned once outside Essen, and that was to Paris in the 1950s. It's an incredible painting, and it's never been seen."
Both paintings made a statement.
"It was a way to show they were of their times," said Groom. "It was highly ambitious and you could tell they were trying to position themselves as painters of modern life, but also as painters of big, heroic modern life.
"It's not just fashion. It's a lot about modernity in terms of the 'new woman.' La Parisienne symbolizes all that is modern. There's a saying that La Parisienne is either by birth or by dress. You have to have that elegant way of being when you're about town. You don't have to be born in Paris."
Groom devoted an entire room of the 14-room exhibit to La Parisienne, but the exhibit is not just about women. There's also a men's room.
"Men's Club," she corrects. "I try not to say, 'Oh, go put it in the Men's Room.' Someone said, 'That sounds really bad.'" One of the fashion accessories in the Men's … Club, in fact, comes by way of her husband Joe, whose avocation is military history.
Each of the three city's installations has been different. Same "cards," as Groom puts it, just shuffled differently. The Musee d'Orsay had first crack, from Sept. 17 through Jan. 9. A smaller museum, they set records with 3,000 visitors a day, displaying 60 paintings and 30 costumes (Chicago has 75 paintings and 17 costumes). The exhibit at the Met, a much larger museum, ran from Feb. 22 until just before Memorial Day and averaged 5,000 visitors a day.
Groom wasn't involved in those installations, but the French did pay her way over so she could be interviewed by reporters.
"No one has ever done that for me before," she said. "I was paraded around a little bit, and I think they liked my accent [she grew up in Oklahoma]. I was interviewed in Paris quite a bit. I think it was because an American had thought of a French topic that had never been done before. They all wanted to meet the American who had that kind of amazing thought."
The French were so impressed, in fact, they made her an "Officier," i.e. an officer in the French cultural pantheon (Order of Arts and Letters). She was named a "Chevalier" (knight) in 2007, but this is a step higher.
Guy Cogeval, president of Musee d'Orsay flew in for the Chicago opening to bestow the honor on June 21.
From Okie to Officier. Not bad.
She earned it. They only had from June 2 to 21 to complete the installation, a week less than normal for an exhibit of this size (it opened early because of Taste of Chicago). The Met sent two costume conservators to "stage" each dress. Professional mount makers worked on the parasols and sundry accessories. Groom oversaw the electricians and carpenters and painters and the room labels, many of which she wrote. And, of course, there were the plexi-case makers to preserve those fragile period costumes.
"At any given time, they may all need my eyeball," she said. 'Gloria, come over here. Is this straight?' 'Gloria, is this where you want it?' There are 14 rooms, so you're running, running, running. That is just craziness."
But the results appear to be worth it. "It's the most beautiful exhibition I've ever worked on," she said. It features plenty of mirrors, for instance, so visitors can see themselves (and their own fashion) while viewing the fashions of another era.
"It's a great interactive experience," Groom said. "I've never been in an exhibition where people are just chatting away because you're thrown into a period that has just come alive. It's the paintings that make the mannequins come alive, not the other way around. The mannequins are dead. It's the paintings that move, and it's the paint that makes them move."
Smart phone apps are available in addition to audio tours, and the galleries have WiFi now.
"This is a new world for me, this interactive stuff," she said. "Now I feel like I've got another 10 exhibitions ready to go."
She has three new exhibits currently in the planning stage, including a Gaughin sculpture exhibition. But this one is all about painting.
"It's about great painting," Groom said. "I did not do this as a fashion show. I did it because I was so fascinated by the origins of these paintings and what these artists did with them. I became interested in surfaces.
"It's made me look at paintings differently. I have different tools, a different set of eyes. It's added one more way of thinking about figure paintings in the Impressionist era."
The exhibition, which will likely run through Sept. 29, seems to appeal to a broad spectrum.
"I think this hits the sweet spot," Groom observed. "If someone says, 'Another Impressionist show, I've been to so many,' well, you haven't seen this one."
Gloria Groom will be speaking about the new Art Institute exhibit, "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity," at the Oak Park Public Library's Veterans Room on Thursday, July 11 at 7 p.m.