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Is It Art? Grace Kelly: Style Icon

"So", he says with a smile "Is it Art?" I had just spent a few minutes praising the beauty that is Bendigo Art Gallery's Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Just truly gorgeous 1950s dresses and attractive hats and shoes, (and the less appealing 1970s kaftans but I won't mention those)...... all up a very pleasant way for a textile devotee such as myself to spend a Sunday morning. My pre-booked ticket in hand I joined the queue for the first session of the day: 10am, and I just have to say I was glad I went in early. By the time I left at about 11.30 the gallery was packed! The exhibition unashamedly focuses on the wardrobe of Grace Kelly, this is not a hard hitting critique about the role of women in the 1950s, or the Cinderella dream. But does it have to be to be in an art gallery? (No, I don't think so.) Grace Kelly's life in the movies and as the Princess of Monaco is told through the exhibition labels, and the clothes on display are linked perfectly to those stories. In a world where the clothes on offer (in Australia anyway) are pretty boring, taking time out to enjoy the beauty of design and skill of craftsmanship is a treasure.

But to the question: is it art? With my professional background as a (history) museum curator, my husband well knows the debates that rage in museum and gallery circles. Hence his provocative question, he knows my answer. So are the 'soft' things, those dresses really art? Do they deserve a place in an art gallery? Isn't it all just a bit populist to have an exhibition of dresses? So to make an inexpert stab at an answer (I studied history, not art!), I googled, as you do these days, a definition of art.

Most of the definition says the same thing around this theme: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power". To me, that seems pretty straight forward, an item can be considered art for:

  • its beauty or
  • its emotional power, so its ability to tell a story or connect with you at an emotional level.

Then to Beauty I can say that I definitely appreciated the Grace Kelly collection for its beauty. It takes a high degree of design and practical creative skill to produce such beautiful clothing. So on that count alone, I think a gallery is justified in having a textile collection on display. It meets the beauty criteria.

Tell me a story I can't assume that everyone who viewed the exhibition would come away musing on:

  • How we all love Cinderella stories. (Or do we?)
  • How a woman in the 1940s and 1950s made her way to the very top of a highly competitive industry. (The movie business)
  • Why do textiles and craft have to fight for recognition for the centuries of creative endeavor and design skill by both men and women. (There are just so many museums full of tanks and trams!)

But for some it would raise these and other questions. It did at least for me meet the story telling / emotional connection criteria as well. So it meets both criteria, so I am very happy that it is on display and protected by the V&A. (As my husband knew I would answer!) I do think its time all those "soft things" received more recognition for the creative effort put into them by both male and female designers.

I would also argue there are plenty of things in art galleries which may meet only one criteria - beauty or emotion - and in some cases fail dismally on both accounts! But then I guess beauty, like art, is all in the "eye of the beholder."

Jennifer Forest

Best Selling Author of Jane Austen's Sewing Box

Just released: Behind Jane Austen's Door

Love craft, vintage, design, travel, reading & history


Follow on Twitter @jen_forest


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