Category Archives: Exhibitions

Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs

 

 

 

Since you are reading this, I assume you’re interested in movies; and if you’re interested in movies, you’ll be interested in the wonderful ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which runs until the 20th of January 2019.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Night and Day’ is taken from Cole Porter’s superb song which Fred Astaire introduced onstage in 1932’s The Gay Divorce and on film in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. It is also the title of the famously terrible biopic of Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers (1946), in which Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. But it is Fred Astaire who the song is associated with.

‘Night and Day’ was written for Astaire. His recording was an enormous success which topped the charts for ten weeks in the early thirties; and indeed the spirit of Fred Astaire haunts this exhibit. Firstly because of the evening dress he so casually wore, the glamorous and glistening Art Deco which was the background to his dancing the final number in so many of his films with Ginger Rogers at RKO, and the beginnings of a sporty elegance he is associated with. Well-cut clothes that enhance and adorn the figure but also allow one to move in them well enough to burst into dance. Fred who from the twenties was a superstar of both Broadway and the West-End, embodied the mid-atlantic best of both worlds: He was always associated with ‘ Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’ but wasn’t limited to that look. His clothes and how he wore them is analogous to the sentiment behind Coco Chanel’s great contribution to fashion. She made the combination of casual and elegant possible for women in the way that it was for men like Astaire: American men who were as free in their movements as in their outlook but were dressed by Saville Row.

 

 

The Spirit of Fred Astaire

The movies in general and Fred Astaire in particular are everywhere evident in this exhibition. The sections are named after popular songs of the Thirties, which are either the names of movies or taken from movies of the period and which in turn evoke the period of The Great Depression (1929-1939): ‘Brother….can You Spare a Dime?’ (also written for the stage and made into a hit by Bing Crosby; ‘Whistle While You Work’ (taken from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937); ‘I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams’ (Bing Crosby again from Sing You Sinners, 1938); ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (Astaire again, this time from Follow the Fleet, 1936: you can see the marvellous excerpt below); ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, eternally associated with Judy Garland and from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz;’Life is just a Bowl of Cherries’ ; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’; ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat,’ which is a lyric from ‘They Can’t Take That Way From Me’ Astaire again, this time from Shall We Dance (1936). 

 

 

More Movies:

Along with the glorious clothes, the exhibit also features movies stars, and shows them to us in the very collectible cigarette cards so evocative of a way of life and a structure of feeling in the Thirties. We also see how Madeline Carroll and Ronald Colman are featured in the Miss Modern magazine below, demonstrating how interlinked movies were with other mass media and how fashion was a thread which knit them together. Movie stars wore the clothes ordinary people dreamed of wearing and and manufacturers made sure they could, as for example with Joan Crawford’s famous Letty Lynton dress. The movie popularised the dress, the magazines popularised the dress and movie, the availability of the dress sanctified the star and increased the fandom for both magazines and movies.

 

 

Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy

The exhibit also features a mini-exhibition within it with Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the famous: royalty, writers, society people but more than anything film stars (see below)

 

 

This being a British exhibition, royalty of course features:

 

 

But Hollywood’s influence dominates:

 

 

Sonja Henie, to left; Ruby Keller, top right; Tallulah Bankead bottom: From Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbooks

The exhibition is very good at contextualising the developments in fashion. The guide, for example, tell us: ‘Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waits returned to a normal, rather than dropped, position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927-1928, fully descended to the knees and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for the afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920’s dressing: ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.

As a decade the 1930’s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy and international set’.

The exhibition’s great care with contextualisation really does pay off, though it also gives rise to moments of amusement, such as in the timeline below where Hitler’s rise is juxtaposed on the timeline right in between the drop of a hemline and the rise of the neckline.

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The the main reason to see this exhibition is the clothes. No photos do them justice. You really need to see them in three-dimensions to see how they hang, to get a real sense of what the fabric is like, to walk around them and get the whole picture. I really recommend the exhibition. But for those of you who can’t go, here are some examples of what you are missing:

 

 

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Jean Genet, The Studio of Giacometti, London: Grey Tiger Books, 2013.

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Browsing through the bookshop of the National Portrait Gallery, trying to make sense of its superb and revelatory exhibition on Giacometti’s work, ‘Pure Essence’, I stumbled on a lovely object: Grey Tiger Books’ edition of Jean Genet’s essay on the artist, The Studio of Giacometti, in a new translation from the French by Phil King. It’s got a photograph of an abstract image — bits of white seeping through different shades of brown with a lashed layer of purple at the bottom — glued onto stone grey paper, with the title overlapping both the grey frame and the image itself. Inside, the pages are, appropriately,  a lavender pink. More striking abstract images, all credited to Marc Camille Chaimowicz, break up, interrupt, and accompany Genet’s essay, itself a kind of kaleidoscope composed of brief bursts of inspiration on art in general and Giacometti’s in particular. It caught my attention almost immediately:

 

‘There isn’t any other origin for beauty than that of a wound’ Genet writes, ‘singular, different for each, hidden or visible, that all mankind keeps within itself…To me Giacomettis’ art seems to wish to discover the secret wound of any being and even that of any thing, in order to illuminate them’.

 

The book is a beautiful object, a mise-en-scène for allusive and eloquent writings that themselves become part of but exceed the object, on that which starts as a wound, sets out to illuminate and ends up being beautiful.

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Giacometti with Genet

José Arroyo

The NaFilM exhibit at the Montanelli Museum in Prague.

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As a teacher, I sometimes wonder if one spends too much time thinking of doing things for students rather than with them; or even better, with them and for others. This point was brought home to me when Nicky Smith and I visited the NaFilM exhibit at the Montanelli Museum in Prague. NaFilM is a project that was begun three years ago amongst students and friends of the Department of Film Studies at Charles University in Prague with the aim of setting up a Museum of Czech Cinema. Whilst researching the best way of exhibiting film and its history, the project grew to encompass staff and students from other universities in the Czech Republic as well as critics and other interested individuals. The current exhibition is designed as a ‘trailer’ for what a possible National Film Museum could be like. I found it thrilling and inspirational.

Interactive Sound Effects
Interactive Sound Effects

The first part of the exhibit deals with sound in cinema in all its aspects and right up to the 50s but begins by countering the widely held notion that early films were silent. Thus, we are shown an exciting clip of a chase sequence and then guided through the various ways in which sound effects were created as well as given the appropriate ‘noise props’ through which to supply them: the sounds of horses’ hooves created with sticks, a machine that gives the sound of wind, etc. These instruments, as well as a ‘noise walkway’ made of various materials, thus help the visitor create a diversity of sounds such as wind, storm, the rustling of leaves, a galloping horse, a moving train etc. It was clear that kids and the curious of all ages delighted in the interactive dimension of this and the museum gave ample opportunity to participate and to witness the results.

The film is full of exciting gadgetry: you can see how the sound of your voice gets visualised and added to celluloid; there’s a room where you can try out different types of lighting effects on a moving train; another one has a gadget where you encase your head in darkness as you’re told aurally of a script which you’re asked to imagine visaully; and so on. The idea is to get the visitor to think about all the different aspects that have historically gone into and comprised filmmaking and learn from the various exercises whilst having fun. It is an unqualified success.

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The other areas of the exhibit focus more tightly on Czech cinema. The second part of the exhibition highlighted the role of the avant-garde in the national culture and is shown by a selection of key short films, including documentaries —  often shot in Prague —  that were delightful and thought-provoking. The exhibit also explains the role of the Dev˘etsil literary club in propagating ideas from French Surrealism into the Czech avant-garde movement known as poetism. The poetists used the principles of collages and free association to create unexpected meanings. Thus the poetists made a very marked contribution to the Czech national film culture and to European avant-garde cultures even though they themselves did not make a single film. It’s a fascinating aspect of the exhibit.

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Also on display were a set of gorgeous posters from home and abroad, of which the one that meant the most to me was the beautiful poster for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (USA, 1929) advertising that it was showing in what surely must be one of the most beautiful cinemas in all of the world, the Lucerna.

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The third and last section of the exhibit dealt with the events of 1968 and beyond; how they affected cinema and in turn how cinema dealt, narrated, imaged and reflected the effects of the Soviet Invasion on the national culture. On exhibit are a series of very beautiful short films as well as a series of ‘imagined’ postcards from some of the most celebrated Czech filmmakers in exile.

Focus on Czech cinema.
Focus on Czech cinema.

The exhibit is selective, a teaser or trailer for the potential National Film Museum. It’s not only interactive in terms of the visitor and the curators, but will be interactive at each stage, including consultation on site and design of the potential museum. It makes the strongest case possible for the construction of such a museum. It’s a model of a pedagogic exercise; generating, exchanging, accruing and distributing knowledge; which,through preservation and exhibition, in turn instigates a dialogue with the visitor to the museum that potentially generates and begins the whole cycle again; and it does this with a focus on the local and the national. This is what this great exhibit does and why it so forcefully makes a case for a future National Museum of Film in the Czech Republic.

José Arroyo

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My voice as imaged through an optical sound device