Sunday, 21 November 2010

Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and the Line of Beauty

Kimberley Chen reviews the thrills and frills of the Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and the Line of Beauty exhibition, showing at Somerset House, Embankment Galleries, until 9 January 2011.

After many university students lugging hefty, hardback sketchbooks, busily scribbling and sketching saucy, seductive and wonderfully dressed figures at the
Design Museum’s Drawing Fashion exhibition, Somerset House have also decided to open its doors to yet more fashion illustration fans. This time it sets out to explore the amazing relationship between Christian Dior and René Gruau.

There were many screeching girls who ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at the sight of beautiful Dior Haute Couture clothed mannequins. Bright, unmissable pink paint splattered over a pristine white dress would usually be an utter tragedy to behold, but the Olga Sherer outfit inspired by Gruau for the Autumn/Winter 2007/08 collection makes this so-called “clumsiness” into a thing of great beauty. Attach a pink scrunched rose detail to the hip of the dress, pull up sleek, long, black gloves, embellish the neck with a chunky pearl necklace, tilt a paint palette hat on the head (Complete with generous dollops of thick crimson, navy and black paint, and a giant paintbrush) and voilá here is an outfit that screams glamour and stylishness. Vintage perfume bottles also got their fair share of admiration, and no wonder, since these golden beauties possess such a commanding elegance just begging for attention. All the bottles were shaped as gorgeous amphoras, and the Diorling 1963 bottle and the Diorissimo 1956 bottle used Dior’s favourite motif: flowers. The former perfume bottle has a delicate rosebud stopper, whilst the latter has a spray of golden roses and jasmine as an ornamental lid. These miniature cuties gain a great amount of respect as well-sculpted works of art.

Despite all the gaping jaws at the mannequins, the obvious star attraction of the show was Gruau’s exquisite fashion illustrations. One thing which I wasn’t expecting was a rather kinky and naughty looking cookbook. La Cuisine Cousu-Main is a Dior cookery book filled with recipes Dior himself liked to prepare, plus 10 original drawings by Gruau. One picture showed a naked woman having a bath in a frothy gigantic glass of alcohol. There is a huge nest of alcoholic bubbles resting on the woman’s head, whilst the woman gives a wide, mischievous and suggestive smile.

René Gruau’s fashion illustrations for Christian Dior show intelligence, humour and attitude. The five contemporary UK-based illustrators who contributed images inspired by Gruau, indicates how he continues to impress and influence artists today, and beyond.

Kimberley Chen is a London-based writer. She has previously written for a number of publications including Blueprint magazine and The Architect’s Journal.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Solovino - He came alone by Alona Ferber

It’s past midnight. Outside the street is dead quiet. No car drives past the colourful houses. Even the cars speeding down the avenue at the end of the street cannot be heard. The local dogs that live on these doorsteps are all sleeping too, guarding the people they wish were their owners. Solovino, one of the most famous dogs on the block, the one who knows all the faces and is known by them all is curled up outside number 16, dreaming of rabbits. As he chases them through his field of dreams, his raggedy ears twitch nervously and his dirty paws scratch at the pavement. In his dreams Solovino is a champion. No rabbit can evade his sharp sense of smell. He is a graceful huntsman, shiny of coat and wet of nose, who can track down any of those fluffy, big-eared little creatures with hardly an exertion. Yes, Solovino is feared and respected in this field of dreams. No bitch can resist his canine charm. They wait eagerly with their bums raised exaggeratedly in the air, just waiting for him to sniff. While he is sleeping, the speeding taxi that caught him unawares that fateful morning disappears from the limited view of his memory and his right hind leg becomes not an impediment but a definite advantage. What dog would be more attractive than one who not only is the best hunter for miles around, but who does it on the strength of only three good legs?

And so it goes. Every night he waits outside the girls’ house. He cries and whines and scratches on the door, just waiting for them to say yes. He knows he has convinced one of them. Every time she sees him there is the warm pat on the head, the “oh Solovino, how are you?”. He has taken to following her whenever she leaves the house, just to prove how faithful he can really be. The other two, however, are a different matter. They never stop to say hello, always walk away as quickly as they can and try not to look him in the eye. So Solovino makes a decision. He is going to try harder than he has ever tried, he is going to make them love him, make them need him and make them feel guilty as hell for not having given him a home sooner.

Luckily for him, or not so luckily, depending on your point of view, the rainy season is just beginning. Every afternoon round about four o’clock, the sky opens, and as everybody knows, in a few weeks or so every afternoon will see inundations as heavy as anything. So Solo, as those close to him sometimes like to call him, parks himself outside the house at rain time and whines away like a poor lovesick little puppy. He knows that maybe you can ignore a dog crying at night, when it is still warm and dry outside, but when the street is like a river? When all the other dogs, or at least those who are lucky enough to have owners are safely tucked up inside? What he wasn’t counting on however, was how little the other two girls feel when they see him there outside as they run home in the rain, or quickly make their way to the metro station under their umbrellas. Of course girl number three still looks at him with those wish-I-could-adopt-you eyes, but the other two don’t seem to budge.

Solovino has to think long and hard about this. In his experience, there are two types of people. People who love canine company and those who can think of nothing worse than waking up to a dog slobbering all over them first thing in the morning. And even worse, a vast majority of these are actually self-professed cat people. He suspects that the other two girls are of the latter kind. The first one, he has noticed, is the glamorous type, the kind of girl who never leaves the house without at least two coats of mascara and exciting shoes on, whatever the weather. Girl number two is the smart, down to earth, type. His tactic of following them down the street, nibbling at their shoes and placing his filthy paws affectionately on their breasts has done him little or no favours so far. He could almost kick himself now he thinks about it. He has even noticed that girl number three has started to recoil at his affections.

One Saturday afternoon, when the girls have still not stepped out of the house, Solovino is curled up outside their door in the sun, dreaming once again of rabbits. Solovino rarely dreams of anything else. In fact, it is a secret little known to humans, or cats or even birds for that matter, that dogs, even those who will probably never ever meet a rabbit, are hard pushed to dream of anything but the eternal rabbit chase. The colour or species of rabbit might change, the dream might take place in a field, or a car park or even a road filled with cars racing past, but the subject will not change. The rabbit, the universal rabbit signifies a host of things to dogs worldwide. It is the vehicle through which the humble dog understands the world. And so when Solovino awoke from a dream where there were no rabbits in sight, where he felt the absence of rabbit so deep within his soul that he started to howl and whine in his sleep, he realised that the only recourse left to him in these desperate times was the one thing that he had never tried before. After all it is not only humans who know the old saying. Absence certainly does make the heart grow fonder.

Solovino makes all the necessary arrangements. He makes sure he explains what’s what to the other dogs on the street. The new guy, who came to the street a few weeks ago, who looks like he hasn’t washed in years and who no one on the street has deigned to give a name, is sad to see him go, but understands. The ginger cat, who Solovino has never been particularly close to, gives him a brotherly nod, wishing him luck on the road. The other dogs of the street, of which there are about five, promise not to let on that they know he will come back, and more importantly, promise not to try to win their way into the affections of Solovino’s girls. “Don’t worry, they’re yours Solo”, says the one with half of one ear chewed off, “Yeah m’ijo, don’t worry, just make sure you come back”, says captain, the graceful dog who has not let the hard life of the street life rob him of the good humour of the Labrador. Bertha, the big mama dog who has been pregnant a million times and always lets the others in on it when she finds food and makes all the newbies feel like part of the family, gives him a reassuring lick on the neck.

With one last bark, Solovino makes his quiet escape. He runs all the way to the big avenue at the end of the street, makes a left and runs up the avenue, passing little streets identical to his own, stopping every once in a while to sniff the scent of other dogs, eat food left on the pavement and relieve himself. A long life on the road has made Solovino see life with eyes wide open, and one of his favourite past-times is to make his mark in just those places that humans would really rather he didn’t. It is not only that he finds it funny to watch them scream and shout as they step into the shit he has just left on their doorstep. There has been many a late night where he and the other dogs have discussed at length the political implications of controlling where a mutt can go to the toilet. Defecating and pissing where he shouldn’t is his way of protesting the human arrogance that assumes that they own the pavement.

The life of a street dog is not easy. Solovino has been doing it since he was a pup. His is the old story of the unwanted Christmas present. It only took them a few weeks to realise that she was allergic and then that was it, it was either little Juanita or him. Of course, they chose Juanita. Solovino had never really been able to get over that rejection. He had never been able to fully accept ownership again. But now, after so many years living la vie en rue, he was ready to settle down. And the girls were not like any other family that he had ever seen.

Not that he hadn’t enjoyed life. As he walked along now, nibbling at a broken ice-cream cone over here, picking up the scent of a bitch on heat over there, his mind was flooded with the memories of a lifetime under the stars. The first time he had ever come to the street, all the faces were different. The families who live in the same pile of bricks generation after generation had changed a little of course. The little girl in number 18 had started wearing make-up, and he had noticed that relations between her mother and her grandmother had started to strain under the weight of their daily convivencia. The old lady across the road had started curtain-twitching less and less as the pain of arthritis kicked in. But really it was the animals, his extended family, which came to mind.

Bertha, the stereotype of the dog mama that every dog knew, had made him feel welcome in the way that she had made many a dog feel welcome over the years. She was the strongest, most generous dog he had ever met. A mongrel who had never met her real parents, she had been raised by an assortment of dogs and humans over her many moons. When Solovino first rounded the corner into the street, she had been lying in the sun across the road from number 16, nursing a brood of seven newborns who were the result of a one night stand with a sexy Alsatian. This was before Solovino’s accident, when his four legs were all working fine, and he could run as elegantly as any dog. Bertha had explained to him which houses tended to leave food out, which humans were receptive to doggy affection, which were the good places to shelter from the rain. Him and Bertha had become fast-friends, and a tear welled up in his big brown eyes as he remembered the day that the last of that particular brood, now grown-up and independent, had turned arses to Bertha and trotted off round the corner to find their fortune. Bertha had been through this many a time, and it never failed to make her melancholic. Which of course was only natural. It was never long before she would forget and get pregnant again, only to live through the same agony.

One time, one of Bertha’s children had actually made his way back to the street by accident. The reunion was very touching, and Bertha’s pup, who had been away for years, regaled the dogs and cats on the street with the adventures she had lived in the city. Most of the dogs in the suburbs rarely made it very far into the big smoke, where the dogs where mean, and the humans worse. Not that life in suburbia was not full of its own tragedies. Solovino could remember the countless dogs who had made their lucky escape from cruel owners only to be found again and kidnapped, or the many a dog caught unawares by the irresponsibility of a speeding and thoughtless driver. And then there were the men who came quietly in the dead of night, who would put a dog to sleep and carry him away to an uncertain future. The dogs on the street had organised a watch to protect each other, but very often it would be the very dog on watch, the only one awake who would have disappeared by the time everybody had woken in the morning.

Yes, Solo had lived many an adventure on that street, it was a part of him now, and he was determined to make it his permanent human home, with all the benefits that that entailed. His friends understood that it wasn’t that he was abandoning them, but that at his age, he craved a little stability. And so he would make himself disappear for a while, until the girls would begin to wonder where he had gone, would begin to miss his crying and whimpering outside their door, the affection in his eyes to welcome them home when they had had a bad day. He had known dogs who had won their way into the most icy of hearts, and he was determined to follow in their footsteps.

Time passed. For a dog there is no more accurate measure of time than the ebb and flow of smell and sound and light. A dog knows that when the complicated mix of what humans know as daytime smells has faded in intensity, when the distant whrrr of cars, which to a dog is as loud as thunder, really has reduced itself to something more like a whhrrr, then another of life’s mini cycles has come and gone. Soon the light will slowly seep its way into the world’s four corners, and life will begin again. But as far as measuring long periods of time goes, for a dog it is slightly tricky. Having no calendars to rely on, the humble dog can only try to remember how many times life’s mini cycle has renewed itself, and more often than not, loses count somewhere around 20. Solovino was not sure exactly how long he had been away from the street, but what he did know was that he had seen the yellowy-white circle in the sky, known to humans as the moon, change shape significantly, that he definitely had got past the count of twenty and that the rainy season was now in full throttle.

The day that Solovino decided to go home was a Thursday, unbeknownst to him. He sniffed his way along the street, picking up the distant scent of his friends and neighbours until his nose led him round a corner and into his old familiar territory. The closer he got the more excited he became. He started to run awkwardly towards Bertha and the dog who when he left had been the new guy, who were sitting on the pavement in the sunshine, his tongue hanging out of his mouth with happiness as he ran. As soon as they caught smell of him they stood on all fours and began to bark in surprise. He sped up and jumped towards them in a scene that would seem to the untrained eye like a fight in the making. Bertha began to lick his face and paw him with glee. The new guy began to chew one of his paws to welcome his return. The little girl at number 18, who happened to be staring out of her window at the house across the road where a certain handsome young 15-year-old gentleman lived began to shout “Mama, mama, Solovino’s back!” Yes Solovino had certainly been missed by some.

When the excitement had died down, Bertha started to fill him in on the goings on while he was away. Two new dogs, one young bitch and an old (unlikely) mongrel mix of chihuahua and dalmation had started coming to the street and stealing the food left out by the good resident folks for the good resident street dogs. One of the other street regulars had been killed by some poisoned food. Bertha and the New Guy weren’t sure enough to name names, but had their theories about one family who had shown nothing but contempt for the streets animals ever since they had moved to the street. Captain had finally been adopted by the old curtain twitcher, who had always shown a special fondness for him. A series of break-ins in the neighbourhood had made her realise the extent of her love for the old dog, and she had opened up her doors for him, living room and all.

“What about the girls?” he asked, “How are my girls?” The ensuing silence and averted eyes told Solovino everything that he needed to know. Bertha gave him a reassuring lick on the face, and the new guy pawed him and said “I’m sorry Solo, but you were gone for so long…” Solovino couldn’t say that he wasn’t disappointed. Away on his own, walking unfamiliar city streets, one of the only things that had kept him going was the idea that awaiting him, finally, was a home. That the three girls would have grown to miss his whining and his company on their way to the metro station so much, that they would even have bought special dog food bowls just for him to welcome him on his return.

“So come on then, who was it?” The answer to his question was a long and awkward silence. “Come on, I can take it. Did they adopt the new guy?” Bertha started to whine a little, “It was wasn’t it, or was it Captain? Yeah that whole curtain twitcher story was a good cover, last time I trust any of you…” Solovino was so far into his monologue that he was yet to notice a small, elegant ginger cat, wearing a brand new sky blue collar complete with tinkling bell, glide his elegant cat way along by the gate of number 16 and up and over it into the overgrown, messy garden on the other side. If he had stopped for just one minute and looked in that direction, he would have noticed the brand new metal bowls, one full of milk, the other full of cat food, which had been placed outside the front door of number 16. If he had seen the direction in which Bertha’s eyes, filled with compassion for her dear and disappointed friend, were looking, he would have seen girl number one actually holding that smug ginger cat and letting it claw her brand new jumper and get cat hair all over it. But Solovino would not find out about this treachery until later that day. And when he did, he would want to kick himself forever having let old ginger know his plans. After all, you never can trust a cat, especially not when there are cat-people involved.