Amid the throngs of women attired like birds of paradise, the men in their usual palette of blues and grays, the clink of cocktail glasses and the rhythmic swell of conversation, the delicate watercolors and the ebullient swatches of fabric on the gallery walls blended into the scene at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Unlike the "Angels in Italian Art" exhibit, in which people huddled around single paintings in small groups and lingered before them, murmuring in awe, Raoul Dufy's work seemed to provoke guests to turn from the walls toward fellow museum-goers, pausing occasionally to glance backward at the closest print or watercolor, smile, and then raise their glasses to their smiling lips. And this, perhaps, is exactly what Dufy would have wanted.
Since his death in 1953, the critical consensus on Dufy has fluctuated like one of his own sinuous brush strokes. He has been honored with solo retrospectives, been dismissed as a cheerful lightweight or a "mere" decorative artist, had his work replicated in heavy black impasto by a contemporary painter, and, in 1996, a Canadian performance artist intentionally vomited on one of his paintings.
Why all the fuss? Why not simply accept Dufy as a bell époque Fauvist and an important textile designer? Why does Dufy, with his lighthearted canvases and sublimely playful pattern designs, provoke such controversy?
At the opening for "Dufy: A Celebration of Beauty," I overheard a young man ask a museum volunteer if the kind of art one prefers says anything about oneself. Indeed, and one's opinion of Dufy, in particular, can say a lot.
"What I would say to people who call Dufy a lightweight is that they are afraid of beauty," said Dan Piersol, deputy director for programs at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Piersol may be right; modern viewers tend to be suspicious of beauty without a sinister side, of joy without irony. What Dufy represents most of all is not Fauvism or modern textile design, but the spirit of France at the time when he lived there, the delectation of ephemeral beauty and ease of living, the elusive joie the vivre that Shirley Reif Howarth, the exhibition's curator, astutely ascribes to Dufy's work. Liking Dufy is, then, an inherently nostalgic proclivity, and doing so may say a lot about one's desire to escape the post-modern, conceptual approach to art and about one's idea of the role of beauty in art. For Dufy and his admirers, visual beauty and a certain light loveliness were paramount, an attitude that is no longer universal.
Despite Dufy's relish of the present moment, he lived in an artistic era that was obsessed with moving forward. Fauvism, the artistic movement that critics associate Dufy with, received its name when a critic compared the artists to "le fauves" or "wild beasts" because of their violent, unbridled use of color. Seeming to dash every convention of shadow, color and line, the Fauvists violated the guidelines of artistic taste.
As art critic Michael Brenson once wrote in The New York Times, "Fauvism must have made many members of the French art public believe that no order or tradition was sacred." Matisse, in particular, substituted color for shadow and line, flattening the painting in a way that brought every brush stroke to the topmost plane of the canvas in a bold, eye-filling manner.
Although Dufy is always a poetic colorist, he rarely flouted the formal rules of color and line as brazenly as many other Fauvists. Seen amongst his peers, Dufy's uniqueness becomes apparent, especially in his paintings. Dufy's brush strokes are bold but never heavy; his paintings are technically flat but retain an atmospheric quality through layers of translucent hues; and his color choices are stunning but never confrontational. Rather than obliterate line, Dufy gives it autonomy, allowing it to float like calligraphy over his luminous colors. In this exhibit, Dufy proves himself a master of the small, precise, evocative brush stroke lying over a swath of diaphanous color like a serpentine metal brooch pinned to a delicate scarf.
The exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art also gives much deserved space to Dufy's textile design work, which he began with the famous couturier Poiret and then continued under the magnanimous aegis of Bianchini-Ferier, a leading French silk manufacturer. The relationship between Dufy and Poiret is definitely one to celebrate, and Poiret's influence on Dufy is clearly visible in the textiles on display.
Poiret is the revolutionary Parisian designer credited with liberating women from the corset in favor of flowing neoclassical gowns and who also debuted the idea of couture trousers for evening. (He also introduced the hobble skirt, thus binding women back up a bit). The recent subject of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Poiret was, as pointed out in a 2007 New Yorker review, "the first couturier to brand himself by building an empire that purveyed, in addition to scents, home furnishings, 'genuine reproductions' for the mass market, and a life style." Also, Poiret was fascinated with the aesthetics and the art of the Orient.
In that same New Yorker review, Judith Thurman notes that "he (Poiret) was enthralled with the barbaric splendor and the hyper-refinement of an imaginary Orient." Poiret's Orientalist fetish clearly influences Dufy, who adopts Asian images and styles in many of his fabric designselephants wander through tropical jungles, flowers are stylized in arabesque lines, designs repeat in intricate tessellations. There are even designs explicitly inspired by Chinese art and Arabic script. As if to complement Poiret's break from corset to drapery, Dufy's designs are purposefully fluid and loose, not rigid and exact like conventional fabric design. Part of the mystique of Dufy's textile design is the tension between the gestured, expressive quality of Dufy's designs and the mechanized replication of that design to form a textile pattern.
One could also call this symbiosis between fashion designer and artist a precursor to later obsessions with the use of the human body in painting, sculpture and performance art. When Shigeko Kubota created her "Vagina Painting," or Janine Antoni sculpted chocolate and soap bust portraits for "Lick and Lather," they were operating under a similar premise as Dufy in that the human body was the focal point of the creative process. Dufy, just like the radical postmodern conceptual body artists, had to consider scale, movement, color, action and intention in relation to the human body when creating his designs.
Scale is one of the areas where Dufy is most adventurous, playing with the size of his patterns to the body of the wearer and considering the different feel of ornamentation that is visually closer to the scale of the body than to the scale of conventional adornment. Traditional fabric prints were always subordinate to the body, but Dufy raises them to a scale where they compete for attention with the wearer herself. Also, the graphic nature of his designs, coupled with the scale of his prints, vie for primacy with the silhouette of the body. When there is no clear winner, the body becomes almost abstracted by the textile. The scale of Dufy's design elements in relation to the body are less similar to European fabric traditions and closer to traditions of body painting and tribal adornment.
Since this period in Western art is characterized by an interest in African artistic tradition, it is possible that African clothing, art and textile design influenced Dufy as well.
Dufy was one of the first well-known fine artists to ally himself creatively with the fashion industry, an act that was part of a movement at the turn of the century when artists turned their aesthetic sensibilities to the design of utilitarian objects. The Wiener Werkstatte in Vienna, which designed everything from clothes to furniture, included artists such as Gustav Klimt. So, at the time, Dufy was not the only painter turning his attention to design. And, of course, Dufy's collaboration with Poiret and Bianchini-Ferier is noteworthy now because of the recent surge of liaisons between fine artists and fashion labels such as Takashi Murakami and Louis Vuitton, Gap's artist edition T-shirts and the Mobile Art-Chanel Contemporary Art Container, which Zaha Hadid designed and intended to serve as a gallery for other art about the iconic quilted Chanel handbag.
But Dufy's work with Poiret and Bianchini-Ferier differs from the contemporary art-fashion partnerships mentioned above. These differences don't just highlight the changes that have taken place in the fashion world, but also the changes in society's perception of what art is and what art should do. Dufy's textile designs are entirely about Dufythe colors, forms and the feel of his creations are about color, form and feel. The textiles are not supposed to convey a message about fashion or be anything other than beautiful designs.
On the other hand, the modern-artist-fashion-house collaborations are usually reflexive reactions to the nature of fashion, the nature of art and the issue of the commercialization of art. Much modern-art-fashion creations focus on subverting or commenting on iconic logos or forms; the artist sees his or her role as that of a provocateur or commentator whose job is to be hyper-aware of the implications of liaising with a commercial fashion label. In this context, the artist's creativity in association with the fashion house pivots on the fact of the association and does not exist as simply another outlet for the artist's independent creativity.
Dufy's work is the polar opposite of this; he is exuberantly immersed in the personal creative opportunities presented by his collaboration with Poiret and Bianchini-Ferier and does not treat the partnership as the subject of his art, but merely a way to facilitate the art he would have wanted to make anyway. This dichotomy is extremely indicative of the difference in artists' perception of their role between the turn of the century and now. For Dufy, art existed for the sake of beautifying the world and not as a self-conscious mode of analysis and commentary. It is important to bear this in mind when viewing Dufy's textiles and to simply imagine a world styled according to Dufy's exuberant sensibility.
"Having seen this exhibition, I am more appreciative of everything, from architecture to what people where," Piersol says. "When you see Dufy, I think that reminds you that the world can be beautiful and should be beautiful."
Viewers should also be sure to take the time to closely examine some of the line drawings in this exhibit. These pieces are brilliant examples of how the expression and rendering of a line can convey an improbable amount of information and feeling. Stand-out pieces include "Devant la Place de la Bourse," "Réception," "Baccara" and "La Fontaine, étude pour la piscine du Normandie" In each of these ink or pencil drawings, Dufy conveys the atmosphere, light, movement, and crampedness or spaciousness with deft insinuations of line. Here is the agile, playful observer stripped to his barest instinct, and viewers can see the great observational skills that underpin all his work.
"La Fontaine, étude pour la piscine du Normandie," is particularly masterful. In this drawing, Dufy's study for the poolside fountain design aboard a luxury cruise ship, Dufy shows an exuberant scene filled with the warm glow of a chandelier, the slick surface of marble and the reflection of light against water. The curving movement of his lines conveys the baroque intricacy of his fountain design while also intimating the bubbly atmosphere of the cruise ship. It is a stunning example of brevity and eloquence married in the skillful manipulation of line.
After losing yourself in Dufy's "floating world" of color, light, line, elephants, flowers, air and water, stop by the "Icons" gallery in the front of the museum directly behind the reception desk. Here you can peruse the work of some of Dufy's contemporaries in a small but articulate exhibition, "School of Paris Master Prints," which Piersol curated. It's a reminder of what was different about Dufy, and how, in his soft watercolors and lightheartedly vivacious textile, he was taking a stand for his philosophy on life and art.
As Piersol says: "Art does not have to be disturbing to be purposeful and profound."