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One of the first exhibitions I visited, as a young fashion student, was Fashion: an Anthology by Cecil Beaton, V&A, 1971-72. This was the first serious exhibition to be mounted in London on the subject of fashion and it made a lasting impression on me. Today the stakes are much higher and we have grown used to the idea of both the blockbuster exhibition and the study of dress as a legitimate academic pursuit. The more exhibitions I visit, the more susceptible I become to the influence of the environment in which they are presented.

Recently I saw four exhibitions in Paris:





c Image: Composing, Alan Beeton

This is an exhibition I had  previously viewed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, under its original title Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish. Jane Munro has curated an exceptionally well-researched, detailed and insightful exhibition. The Paris version, currently showing at little-known Musée Bourdelle in Montparnasse, is smaller than that mounted in Cambridge. So which gave me more pleasure? Given that the Musée Bourdelle became an instant favourite with me on my first visit in 2011 to the excellent Mme. Grès retrospective, it is perhaps unsurprising that this show pleased me more. The intimate atmosphere of the Bourdelle seemed far better suited to the subject matter than the grandeur of the Fitzwilliam’s lofty rooms. Smaller exhibits such as Romano Alberti’s devotional statue of a child-martyr, gained by being displayed in more confined spaces, and the beautiful painted wooden “neo-classical” manneqin related perfectly to Bourdelle’s own classically inspired works.

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Alan Beeton’s lay figure was infinitely more affecting, and redolent of the mood of Composing, when seated in the semi-gloom of Bourdelle’s sculpture studio, than it was in the well-lit set at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which faithfully recreated the detail, but not the atmosphere of his 1929 painting.


Image: © Susie Ralph.

The same is true of the jointed wooden mannequin posed reclining on a chaise-longue in Bourdelle’s painting studio, like an exotic Mme. Récamier with dark polished skin. This tableau subtly invoked the relationship between artist and mannequin, for at the Bourdelle one is immersed in the world of the artist. Although the rest of the exhibits are displayed in neutral, dedicated exhibition rooms, the proximity of Bourdelle’s home and studios still exerts an influence. In the more academic atmosphere of the Fitzwilliam I made copious notes and was able to do valuable research, but at the Bourdelle I succumbed to pure enjoyment of the works on display.


Image:© Susie Ralph.


The Pinacothèque is the first Parisian private museum, opened in 2007, just off the Place de la Madeleine. It is currently showing In the Time of Klimt, the Vienna Secession. Having recently visited Vienna and seen much of Klimt’s work, including the Beethoven frieze in situ I was in two minds about seeing this exhibition. My time in Paris was limited but my curiosity was piqued by the Pinacothèque’s statement concerning: “the Beethoven Frieze, a monumental work, reconstituted to scale and shown for the very first time in France.” Reconstituted to scale – exactly what did this meansurely they had not removed it from the walls of the Secession building? Was such a thing possible? 

The exhibition was crowded and I did not buy the catalogue, but I was intrigued to be able to view the work close up, mounted with the base at eye-level. There were no barriers and anyone could have touched it. Painted as a fresco on plaster, one could examine all the detail of the brush-strokes, the applied gilding and gems. Having spent a long time gazing upward at it in the Secession building, longing to see it in more detail, this was a wonderful experience. But how had they moved it?


The internet provided the answer. After much searching, I  discovered that it is a faithful copy, made in 1984 and displayed at the Venice Biennale. You can find the information here:


Did the discovery that it was in fact a copy disappoint me? Having seen the original, I am surprised to answer – not to such a great extent as I would have imagined, so beautifully was it rendered. This seems to go against all the opinions I express elswhere in this post . The frieze is not original and it is displayed out of context, but the ability to get very close to it mitigated these factors to a great extent. I am not sure what this tells us about the way we perceive and appreciate works of art, but it seems a pity to dissemble about the true nature of the work on display as it is in itself an extraordinary feat.




The Jeanne Lanvin retrospective at the Palais Galliera is a long overdue tribute to the genius of one of the early twentieth century’s greatest designers. Her reputation has long been overshadowed by the over-valourisation of Poiret and Chanel.

This is an elegantly presented exhibition and Lanvin’s fanatical attention to detail – particularly in her frequent use of beautifully precise topstitching, highlights the skills of her anonymous machinists. There is something decadent in the unbelievably labour intensive techniques employed in order to create an often understated effect. But as one who delights in intricate pattern-cutting and sewing myself, I know the pleasure and satisfaction which comes from creating something beautiful – even if it is not necessary or useful. Adolf Loos’ critique of decoration Ornament and Crime comes to mind: Whilst himself desiring a pair of shoes which are perfectly plain and smooth, conforming to his aesthetic principles, Loos nevertheless acknowledges that by depriving the shoemaker of exercising his skills in the field of ornamentation, he is depriving him of most of the pleasure his work affords. The nineteen twenties and thirties are most often associated with a paring-down, a streamlining of design, but these decades saw ornamentation, particularly in the field of bead-embroidery, employed lavishly. There are many exquisite examples in this show.

Lan 1

There were numerous beautiful illustrations of Lanvin’s designs on display.

The mode of displaying examples of dress, is as prone to the vagaries of fashion as the objects themselves. Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera, and Alber Elbaz, artistic director of Maison Lanvin, have devised some elegant solutions. Whilst many garments are displayed on the mannequin others are laid in individual waist-high cases with mirrors angled above.

Lan  2

Heavy beading, especially that worked on fragile fabric like silk chiffon, is put under great strain when not properly supported. This was therefore partly a matter of conservation, but it also encouraged detailed study of the embroidery. The cut of dresses from the nineteen twenties is generally simple – presented on static mannequins they lose much of the charm they present on the moving figure. Draping them flat, with a swirling suggestion of movement, seemed to me an exellent solution. The angled mirrors made the exhibits visible throughout the galleries, overcoming the display disadvantages of flat cases. There are of course different aspects to consider when displaying dress: the serious researcher will want to be able to see how the garment is cut and how it drapes on the body. It is often impossible to achieve this with one display method as the images below illustrate. It is also possible to convey entirely different moods, depending on the method chosen. The advertising for the Lanvin exhibition featured a beautifully clean-cut, symetrical, kimono-like garment (pictured above) with what appeared to be diamanté embellishment. I reached the end of the exhibition thinking I had not seen it. In point of fact I had – but I had read it in an entirely different way. The photograph below left shows the garment as it is displayed on the mannequin. This softly draped evening coat with its panel of gold studs had registered in my mind as an entirely different garment from the flat black silhouette of the poster.


Tribute must be paid to the late Dean Merceron, researcher and author of the definitive work on the designer, for helping to bring her to public notice.


There is an excellent website on the history of Lanvin:

and an app available for this exhibition :

During the period when it was closed for renovation, the Palais Galliera mounted a series of exhibitions hors les murs, which benefitted enormously from their locations, turning necessity to advantage. Notable amongst these was the outstanding Mme. Grès retrospective at the Musée Bourdelle (where Grès’ classically draped dresses were perfectly complimented by Bourdelle’s sculpture) and the exceptionally lavish Fastes de cour et cérémonies royales : Le costumes de cour en Europe which took place at the Palace of Versailles. It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate setting, or one which so brilliantly enhanced the lavish exhibits.



There is an incongruity in mounting an exhibition on the diminutive, visceral, street-singer that was Piaf in the vast, clean, state controlled spaces of the Très Grande Bibliothèque. That said, the BnF holds a considerable collection of archive material on Piaf and has exhibition spaces large enough to comfortably accommodate the large number of visitors. As a lifelong admirer of Piaf I was fascinated by the dozens of artifacts on display and the large number of her recordings available on headphones. Sadly, C’Était Un Jour de Fête, a particular favourite, was not amongst them – but the sheet music was!

A little black dress  by Jacques Heim hung from the ceiling in a red-painted room – the colour scheme throughout the exhibition was black and red. The information about the dress was confusing, rather in the manner of that concerning the Beethoven frieze at the Pinacothèque. We were told only that this example was by Jacques Heim, Piaf’s couturier from the late 1950’s. Was it one of Piaf’s own dresses?

I discovered that Piaf’s mother Line Marsa was a singer from whom Édith inherited her distinctive vibrato voice. In her photograph she could easily be mistaken for her daughter.

Line Marsa, c.1942, by Serge Lido.

The dozens of press-cuttings, photographs, posters, recordings and film clips were fascinating, but the atmosphere however disappointed. To gain a more affecting impression of her life I think I must visit the small Édith Piaf museum in her old apartment in Ménilmontant.

Musée Édith Piaf

To conclude – setting and display are as important as the objects themselves when it comes to one’s enjoyment of an exhibition. Given that the vast majority of visitors will be enthusiasts and not serious researchers, there is a strong case for mounting exhibitions hors les murs in sympathetic spaces, when possible.