Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Met’s Costume Institute, at the entrance to its new extravaganza, “The Model as Muse”
There are elephants in the room at the Metropolitan Museum’s absorbing, highly entertaining (but also highly problematic) The Model as Muse show (to Aug. 9). And those conspicuous pachyderms are not the huge cutouts looming at the entrance to the Costume Institute’s show, meant to evoke this iconic Richard Avedon image of “Dovima with the Elephants”:
Evening dress by Dior, photo published in “Harper’s Bazaar,” September 1955
The “elephants” I’m referring to are the unseen but weighty sponsors for this show—designer Marc Jacobs and Condé Nast Publications, whose Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, co-chaired the Met’s Costume Institute Gala Benefit.
Marc Jacobs and Anna Wintour, facing the cameras at the Met’s press preview last week
The connections between the sponsors’ professional interests and the contents of this deftly installed, intelligently explicated extravaganza seem too close for curatorial comfort. The result is a confection that’s delicious but leaves an objectionable aftertaste.
As I departed, I realized that the clothes themselves—usually the main attraction at Costume Institute exhibitions—had been upstaged by the photos, magazine covers, sensuous fashion spreads, lively filmed backdrops and cleverly chosen music representing each decade. These bells and whistles conspired to overwhelm the static cloth creations—objects from public and private collections that should have been the main attraction.
It’s hard to know whether the sponsors’ influence on what we see was actively hands-on or subtly indirect. Either way, it’s hard to miss. When I asked Wintour about the show, having encountered her by chance in the galleries, she told me:
I love the show….I think it’s much more animated than some of the Costume Institute exhibitions….I’m very proud of it.
Then I asked her to what extent she had been involved in the design of the show and the selections for it. She replied that her involvement was confined to the dinner for the benefit gala. “That’s all.”
But we all learned at the press preview that her role was not confined to the gala: The large group of assembled journalists and photographers were told that on Wintour’s tour of the exhibition, just three days prior, she had declared that the gallery devoted to 1990s grunge (with musical accompaniment by Kurt Cobain‘s Nirvana) was insufficiently grungy. Julien d’Ys, who had created the heads and wigs for the show’s mannequins, was quickly summoned for emergency grungification:
Julien d’Ys’ rapidly executed wall treatment (detail)
Here’s a grunge-wear installation shot:
The show comes across more as a display devoted to Vogue than as an exhibition focussing on garments from the Met’s own collection and lenders. Arrayed in front of costumed mannequins is the much more eye-catching sight of gorgeous models posing on the covers and in the fashion spreads of magazines that made the women and clothes famous. The overwhelming preponderance of this printed material comes from (you guessed it) Vogue:
Photo by Herb Ritts on the cover of “British Vogue,” December 1988
The portrait above depicts Stephanie Seymour, celebrated in the Met’s accompanying label for having “gained cross-market fame by appearing in then-boyfriend Axel Rose‘s music videos (“Don’t Cry,” “November Rain”) and 1991 and 1994 Playboy spreads.” (Nowadays she’s in the news for another reason—divorce proceedings against the major contemporary art collector and Art in America magazine publisher, Peter Brant.)
In case you missed the synergy between the funder and what’s funded, Condé Nast’s “Sponsor Statement” for “The Model as Muse” connects the dots:
Vogue has always featured the women whose very beauty and individualism made fashion as compelling and as exciting as any of the clothes they wore. And for the first time, their importance [not to mention the importance of Wintour’s own publication] will be acknowledged in this exhibition.
I’m not the only one who sensed that this powerful editor, thanks to her company’s sponsorship, her longstanding Met connections
and perhaps even her direct influence, received excessive deference here. Cathy Horyn (with Eric Wilson) of the NY Times wrote this about complaints expressed by fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa about the exclusion of his designs:
He blamed the omission not on the Met’s chief costume curator Harold
Koda, but rather on Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, who
organizes the party. “She has too much power over this museum,” he
said. (Alaïa has had very little presence in Vogue in the last 15
years.) He also conveyed his displeasure to Marc Jacobs, whose company
is sponsoring the event, in a telephone call on Saturday.
Reached this morning, Koda said that Wintour has no involvement in
Costume Institute shows. He said Alaïa had not been asked to loan
garments for this particular exhibit, despite his history with models,
because the curators didn’t believe the designer would agree to
participate in a group show. [Did they ask him?] Koda added that he hopes to someday have a
one-man exhibition of Alaïa’s fashion—provided the Met changes its
policy about monographic shows of living designers.
I had been under the impression that the policy had essentially already been changed—at the Met’s 2005 exhibition that was ostensibly devoted to French fashion icon Coco Chanel, but had also featured a superabundance of designs by her successor, Karl Lagerfeld. In my critical appraisal for the NY Times‘ Op-Ed page, I quoted Koda’s comment to me that he then regarded “Chanel” as ”a test” of whether the Met could, in the
future, mount one-person shows of designers who were still active.
Speaking of living designers, the current show, which (according to the Met’s own press release) “examines a timeline of fashion from 1947 to 1997,” nevertheless gives the last fashion statement to the show’s lead sponsor, Marc Jacobs, whose creations displayed by Koda in the show’s “coda” (as the Met calls it) are of much more recent vintage—just last spring. They are, as the label tells us, “the Richard Prince and Marc Jacobs collaboration of masked, anonymous
nurses (Stephanie Seymour and Natalia Vodianova) in Louis Vuitton.” These “nurses” sport Jacobs’ ever-popular Richard Prince joke bags. (I’m joking about the “popular” part.):
Marc Jacobs, white techno silk lab coat; multicolored silk tie-dyed dress
One joke that I just don’t get is how the catalogue, below the Met’s usual level of seriousness, got through the standards censors. The commentary for the full-page magazine photos in this glossy, oversized compendium is provided by the always insightful and interesting Koda. I assume that the Met’s curator in charge of the Costume Institute is also the intelligence behind the wall texts in each gallery, which astutely analyze the creative symbiosis of models and designers.
But the longer essays in the catalogue are more closely related to breathless fashion magazine hype and celebrity hagiography than to serious scholarship. These contributions come from the show’s guest co-curator, Kohle Yohannan—“an art historian and fashion writer and curator,” in the words of the catalogue’s press release. He also has a Vogue connection, as author of “John Rawlings: 30 Years in Vogue.”
Here’s one sample of his writing from the Met’s catalogue:
Future devotees of the cult of beauty will undoubtedly recognize the meeting of the titans of beauty and commerce made human in the Spring 2009 [that would be now] Versace campaign, which features Gisele Bündchen and Kate Moss perched on a glass-slab patio overlooking an ocean-backed horizon, their names blazoned across the page above the designer’s logo-type.
We also learn from Yohannan about the “media blitz of reporters and paparazzi attendant on their [supermodels’] every move” and also about “what industry insiders refer to as the ‘Grand Slam’—landing sequential or simultaneous covers of American, British, French and Italian Vogue.”
What we don’t find in the catalogue are images of the actual costumes displayed in the exhibition—usually the chief focus of Costume Institute publications. Those garments are relegated to a small-print checklist (with no images) at the back of the book.
The lapses in “The Model as Muse” argue for a new model for future Costume Institute exhibitions: No major sponsorship should be solicited or accepted from a business or individual having a substantial professional
and financial interest in the specific contents of the show. If the current show hasn’t actually been compromised by conflicts of interest, it gives that impression. Such conflicts, real or perceived, undermine the soundness of the enterprise.