’33 — ’29 — ’36
UM GALLERY — ACADEMY OF ARTS, ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN / PRAGUE (Czech Republic)
20.12.2016 – 25.02.2017
In 1929, a project in Brno, Czechoslovakia, tried to produce some answers to a conundrum that Modernism had so far failed to resolve: the so-called ‘woman question’. Entitled Civilised Woman, this was an exhibition and a book in which its organisers, a group of avant-garde designers including BOŽENA ROTHMAYEROVÁ-HORNEKOVÁ, proposed a functionalist way of living based on the primacy of the trouser suit and short hair. It devised practical outfits for the related spheres of work, leisure and pregnancy, and placed women in the labour-saving ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’. But other than advocating chopping off long hair braids and keeping house more efficiently, Civilised Woman had little to offer in the way of real emancipation. In the interwar period, the figure of the New Woman, with her exaggerated visibility, was a symbol of Modernity that was both seductive and troubling to society. The doctrine espoused by this exhibition and book was one that equated femininity with the irrational, and adornment with primitivism, very much like Adolf Loos’ theories outlined in Ornament and Crime. Women, preoccupied and narcissistic, held progress back; their ‘womanliness’ therefore had to be eradicated. In the project itself, that clash between ideology andrealitywasencapsulated by ROTHMAYEROVÁ-HORNEKOVÁ’s drawings of trouser outfits, which follow the stylistic rules of contemporary fashion illustration to the letter while claiming to reject girlish frivolity. The fundamental inconsistencies in the project’s message are most clearly epitomised, however, in the realistic, ultra- feminine mannequins wearing incongruous jumpers and slacks. Clearly, the civilised women they promoted could not exist outside of propaganda.
If the question is about something that appears radical yet is nothing of the kind, then Civilised Woman finds its counterpoint in the figures of MADELEINE VIONNET and KATÓ LUKÁTS. Vionnet was an eminent French couturier in the same interwar period. Superficially her work seems to be all about glamorous ‘red carpet’ gowns, but in terms of defining an emancipated female identity within Modernism she is worth a closer look. She espoused her own rationalism; dress patterns were simplified to geometric abstractions derived from her knowledge of both the behaviour of fabric and the human body in motion, paving the way for the sportswear that transformed dress throughout the 20th century. Her designs were often at odds with the period’s insatiable appetite for novelty because she was partial to timeless ideals, such as dynamic symmetry in the natural world and the proportions of Classical antiquity. Her authoritative synthesis of movement and abstraction did not negate femininity; on the contrary, her clothes turned her clients into supple, Futurist goddesses, and it was this, alongside her humane employment practices that made her an agent of accelerated progress.
Neoclassicism reinterpreted anachronistic forms and combined them with new materials and Modernist ideas. In a similarly experimental way, the graphic designer and illustrator KATÓ LUKÁTS worked with conventional imagery to produce a personal vision within the restrictions of consumer culture that became a great commercial and artistic success. Her compositions, and particularly her use of repeat patterns, depict a seductive kaleidoscope of archaic ideals embodied in such things as religious festivals, childhood games and nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But these sentimental cyphers are so streamlined that they become instrumentalised for her own will and project. She often used hybrid archetypes – in one illustration an elegant 1920s ‘flapper’ stands in the foreground, while framing her is the silhouette of a historical figure, complete with crinoline skirt and ringlets. Just as in Pauline Réage’s classic erotic text The Story of ‘O’, in which ‘O’’s sexual pleasure is formalised through eighteenth-century costume, LUKÁTS understood that the generation and promotion of pleasure is facilitated by fantasy, and layering the past and the present. Almost completely unknown today outside of her native Hungary, LUKÁTS worked in the Interbellum with commercial packaging, advertising and illustration, and her clients included manufacturers of confectionary, automobiles and underwear, as well as the promoters of fashion and tourism. Collaborating with her husband Gyula Kaesz, she also produced interior decor. After World War II, her work shifted to illustrating children’s books, and as private business evaporated under Communist rule, her previous work exposed her to anti-bourgeois criticism. Taken together, the achievements of ROTHMAYEROVÁ-HORNEKOVÁ, VIONNET and LUKÁTS form a complex set of intersecting aesthetic concerns, with the dualisms of Feminism and the feminine, pattern and repetition, antiquity and the ultra-Modern lying at their heart. They show how radicalism can be hiding in plain sight when measured by the usual narrative standards, and how representations of emancipation and oppression can be misleading. They also provide a compelling illustration of how fashion and the applied arts can act as a kind of double agent, oscillating freely going between opposing forces.
For this exhibition LUCY MCKENZIE has invited a number of contemporary artists and designers to respond to these issues. These include practitioners working with geometry and abstraction, who were asked to consider how such concerns relate to their sense of female identity, and whether they regard these seemingly ‘timeless’ structures as relevant to contemporary discourse. Similarly, the designers were invited to respond to the complex and conflicting messages of Civilised Woman. After all, we still operate in a culture in which notions of femininity act as a controlling force on women’s behaviour, while at the same time fashion and consumer culture can themselves be a major site of feminist agency.
ATELIER E.B is a design company that was set up to facilitate a creative collaboration between the designer BECA LIPSCOMBE and the artist LUCY MCKENZIE. For ‘33 – ’29 – ‘36 they have focused on the display techniques that make Civilised Woman such a fascinating project, exploiting the resonance between their own fashion collections and the spirit of Božena Rothmayerová-Horneková by including, for example, capsule wardrobes of practical workwear onto which more complex elements have been layered. Outfits include workcoats, outerwear and adaptations from sportswear, such as polo shirts and jogging bottoms. Their designs are shown on the same kind of anti- Modern mannequins used in Civilised Woman, and by bringing different styles and periods into confrontation they expose how hierarchies of taste are formed and enforced. BECA LIPSCOMBE has produced a series of printed posters responding to elements of Civilised Woman’s ideology, exploring what happens when practicality and adornment meet.
Curated by Lucy McKenzie
Courtesy of the artists and UM GALLERY