A wall text at the Met’s Charles James exhibit, Beyond Fashion, uses the word “Jamesian” to describe his work. It startled me because the word typically refers to author Henry James, whose legendary, novella-long sentences are crafted with an arch, meticulous prose, in which each comma, clause and conjunction inflects meaning importantly. But even when taking this literary meaning, “Jamesian” rings true. In another wall text, just a few feet away, Charles James makes the connection himself: “Cut in dressmaking is like grammar in language. A good design should be like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea.” This formal clarity — where each small element of a design contributes essentially to its overall effect — is true of his garments.
There is no fat, no unnecessary seam or line, in any of the clothes on display. They have no obvious embellishments or extravagances: no visible fasteners, no floral patterns, no checks or stripes. And only one piece here (a ballgown) uses embroidery. Instead, the garments really on piecing — on the placement of seams — for effect. This, and this alone, gives the garments structure and character. If tailoring is a language, then James is working with a distilled vocabulary. In any one of his ball gowns the placement of a shoulder seam, the slope of a lower bodice, the curve of a princess seam, are subtly and powerfully expressive.
The awesome clarity in the tailoring — its language-like order — is clearest in those garments that are asymmetrical. Most of James’ ballgowns are rigidly symmetrical, following the line of the human body. But some of his day dresses have symmetrical skirts and asymmetrical bodices, as if they’ve been twisted at the waist. Their tops, like a sari or shawl, are made with a stretch of fabric that’s been thrown over the shoulder and pinned down on the other side. In relation to their severe silhouettes, these measured, cautious asymmetries are disruptive. They give a special life to these garments, acknowledging the character — a streak of eccentricity, a disruptive inner force — of the designer, and also the woman who might wear them. Here a hem that dips lower on one side, a collar that stands in front of the other, or a lapel cut wider than its partner, becomes high drama. Now that’s Jamesian.
A Greek terracotta figure of Hermaphroditus
Circa 3rd Century B.C.
Possibly from Myrina, the winged youth with long curling hair, wearing a wreath with drapery around the shoulder, leaning on a column, the upper section now missing,
10in (25.5cm) high
via > bonhams.com
The Matisses hired Lydia Delectorskaya as a studio assistant in 1932. She was young (22) and Russian. Within a few years she began to model for Matisse. “She thought of him as a kindly and polite old gentleman because (unlike previous artists, who had taught her to detest modeling) he never pawed at her or tried to take off her clothes. “Gradually I began to adapt and feel less ‘shackled,’ ” she wrote, “…in the end, I even began to take an interest in his work.” She posed for “The Pink Nude” in 1935, a painting which Pierre Matisse told his father, renewed himself as a painter.
It was the working alliance between Matisse and Lydia, rather than any question of adultery, that precipitated a crisis in Matisse’s marriage. Faced with an ultimatum from Amélie (“It’s me or her”), Matisse chose his wife and sacked Lydia, but it was too late. Amélie, still furious over what she viewed as his betrayal, left her husband early in 1939. Matisse and his wife met the last time to discuss details of their legal separation, in July 1939. One of its key provisions was that everything would be divided equally between the couple.
The meeting took place in Paris at the Gare St. Lazare and lasted thirty minutes, during which Amélie Matisse kept up a flow of small talk while her husband.”My wife never looked at me, but I didn’t take my eyes off her…,” Matisse wrote on the night of that final encounter: “I couldn’t get a word out…. I remained as if carved out of wood, swearing never to be caught that way again.”
After her dismissal, Delectorskaya shot herself in the chest with a pistol, remarkably with only a slight effect. Soon after the artist and his wife were legally separated Delectorskaya was back. She arrived with a bouquet of white daisies and blue cornflowers from her Aunt’s garden on July 15th, St Henry’s Day. War had been declared with Germany and Lydia was trapped with Matisse in a stream of people fleeing invasion after the declaration. “A decision had to be made there,” she said, “as to whether or not he was to take me with him.” Matisse drew Lydia in her traveling hood at the start of the long journey they were about to make together through war-torn France. She remained at his side for the rest of his life. Their working collaboration was to last right up to Matisse’s death in 1954. In the face of the family’s icy resentment, the Russian said of Matisse, “He knew how to take possession of people and make them feel they were indispensable. That was how it was for me, and that was how it had been for Mme. Matisse.” Matisse died in 1954 at age 84. The day before his death he sketched Lydia with her hair wrapped in a towel. He used a ball point pen, holding the last drawing he ever made out at arm’s length to assess its quality before pronouncing gravely, “It will do.”
Mark Rothko, Untitled, c. 1946-47
Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1951
Happy birthday to Piet Mondrian, who was born in Amersfoort, Netherlands in 1872! Mondrian is best known as the creator of perhaps the most rigorously abstract paintings of the first half of the twentieth century. Working with only the most basic elements-straight lines and primary colors, he strove to create pure objective art that he believed would change the world.
”Composition with Blue and Yellow,” 1932, Piet Mondrian
Happy birthday to Eugène Delacroix! When Delacroix showed his huge painting inspired by Lord Byron’s play “Sardanapalus” in the Paris Salon of 1827–28, he changed the history of art. With this painting, the splendor and opulence of Baroque painting returned full force, putting to question all the restraint and clarity that had been revered as classical truths. It marked the coming of age of Romanticism and launched the thirty-year-old Parisian’s meteoric career.
For all its notoriety, Delacroix’s painting, now in the Louvre in Paris, was not sold until 1846 when, art historians think, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s picture of the same subject was done as a smaller, quickly worked reprise. The artist’s obvious pleasure in mixing color and relaying drama remains undiminished in the copy, as Delacroix records the last moments of the Assyrian king. As Sardanapalus’s palace is besieged, he reclines on a sumptuous bed atop an immense pyre that will soon be set aflame, and he orders the slaughter of all his women, his attendants, and even his horses and dogs, so that no objects of his pleasure would outlive him.
“The Death of Sardanapalus,” 1844, by Eugène Delacroix
Inside Labrouste’s reading room at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris