28 April 2015

Elsa Schiaparelli's true story

This is the sum total of what I know about Elsa Schiaparelli. “Coco Chanel and Schiaparelli launched their fashion houses in the first decades of the last century with equal ambition. Schiaparelli was homely and aristocratic, a poet of couture rather than a prose stylist like Chanel, designing clothes for an emboldened New Woman. Her talent allowed her to subvert convention and redefine beauty. She helped make pants and shoulder pads much more acceptable and chic. She was the architect of the power suit and of hard chic. Her styles were worn by Dietrich, Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Her talent allowed her to subvert convention and redefine beauty” (New Yorker 2003).

But when Meryle Secrest published her book Elsa Schiaparelli : A Biography (Knopf) in 2014, my certainty about this well known woman suddenly disappeared. She was of course not the first famous person in history to hide her past. But Schiaparelli’s story was more veiled in mystery, confusion, lies and omissions than most. Even the supply of wonderful photos in the book may have been staged.

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) was born into a quiet and scholarly family in Rome in 1890. Convinced from an early age of her ugliness, and clear about the need to avoid her parents’ marriage plans, she quickly moved herself to Paris. After Paris she then moved to London where, in 1914, she married a strange conman called Wilhelm de Wendt de Kerlor. After de Kerlor was deported, Schiaparelli followed him to New York. There they had a daughter, Maria Luisa/Gogo but once de Kerlor deserted the family, he was never seen again. Unfortunately for young Gogo, her mother was not a very warm or attentive parent either.

Elsa returned from the USA to Paris in 1922 and had one of those serendipitous events that change lives. Thanks to a friendship with Gaby Buffet-Picabia, ex-wife of the Dadaist artist, Schiaparelli was introduced to a wide range of new and influential artists, including Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp and the incomparable Paul Poiret. Schiaparelli readily acknowledged Dali’s role in designing her fabrics and acces­sories. And thanked him for introducing her to decadent, arty parties.

Schiaparelli and Dali
France 1950
photo credit: The Guardian

I imagine that the Pour Le Sport collection, which expanded in 1927, was seen as revolutionary. Her bathing suits, ski-wear and divided tennis skirts, were sensible and smart. Her silk crepe dresses, short fitted suits or jack­ets teamed with black dresses were classical. She soon added evening wear to the collection, and her Paris business boomed. Her shocking pink colour, used in dresses and perfumes, was memorable.

The Depression years must have been uncertain for anyone in a luxury business. De­sig­n­ers found that increasingly modern and luxurious clothes would not appeal to families who were unemployed and often hungry. So Schiaparelli made masculine, non-luxurious dresses with wide shoulders, narrow waists and zips. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world came to life in clothes designed for travelling in lux­ury lin­ers, trains or motoring in streamlined cars. It must have worked; she made an enormous amount of money. In 1935 she was able to move into a huge mansion on Paris' Place Vendome and opened a large salon on the ground floor. By 1932 she was a tough boss, responsible for 400 workers.

She was most creative in the years before war broke out in 1939, teaming up with Dali and Cocteau and obscuring the boundaries between art and fashion. Did Schiaparelli copy Hollywood or did Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo (who moved to the USA in 1924), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers keep up-to-date with Paris’ trends? Paris designers like Schiap­arelli readily acknow­ledged the impact of film costumes on their work. But with freedom of move­ment her design goal, Elsa Schiaparelli (and a few other French designers) created the first real style for the modern wo­m­an in the fashion capital of the world. Paris, not Hollywood!! But that leads us to another question. During the 1930s, when Schiaparelli and Chanel were great designer rivals, who led and who followed?

The worst part for me was when Secrest reported that the dress designer was most probably a German spy during the early years of WW2. Schiaparelli was a friend both of Otto Abetz, Hitler’s ambassador to France, and Gaston Bergery, one of the Vichy regime’s senior figures. This sounded very familiar. After the Germans occupied France in 1940, Coco Chanel lived with Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. And Chanel became a very close friend of Nazi General Walter Schellenberg

The book Elsa Schiaparelli : A Biography 
written by M Secrest
Note the Shocking Pink used in the background

Schiaparelli moved happily between France and the USA, even after France was occupied! But eventually she moved to the safety of New York. In 1942, she helped Duchamp organise First Papers of Surrealism, an exhibition which raised money for French relief charities. She volunteered as a nurse’s aide. She refused to design clothes in exile, out of solidarity with the designers and workers in Occupied Paris.

When the war ended and Schiaparelli returned to France, she was questioned by the authorities but never charged with collaboration with the Germans. This again reminds me of Coco Chanel.

Though she hired a young Hubert de Givenchy as her assistant in post-war Paris, Schiaparelli's designs were no longer sensational and her business closed in 1954. She became a cranky old lady.







25 April 2015

Mark Rothko: from expressionism to abstraction

To say that, until the C20th, western art had few visual artists of Jewish ancestry is silly. The Pissarros and Simeon Solomon were not odd exceptions; the culture may have produced verbal rather than visual imaginations in earlier centuries but that was no longer true during the Age of Enlightenment. Collectors looked for 19th century artists like Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Isador Kaufmann, Maurycy Gottlieb, Joseph Israels, Solomon A. Hart, Abraham Solomon and Max Liebermann, to commission or buy their wonderful paintings.

Nor can we say that Rothko and his colleagues introduced modern art to the USA. That honour is usually said to belong to The 1913 The International Exhibition of Modern Art or Armory Show in New York's 69th Regiment Armory. It famously exhibited contemporary paintings, sculptures and decorative works by hundreds of Europeans and Americans at a time when Rothko was still in primary school.

Now is the time to read Annie Cohen-Solal's book Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel. Mark Rotkovitch (1903-1970) was born in Dvinsk Latvia in 1903, did his primary schooling in Yiddish and Russian, and immigrated to the USA with his parents and siblings just before the Great War started. It was inevitable that a child who did not speak a word of English would not find integration easy, but had the family gone to New York or Chicago, it would have at least  been easier. Instead they went to Portland Oregon.

This clever, bookish lad eventually became a scholarship student at Yale but that too was a miserable experience. The university, as represented by the dean, was elitist and racist. The dean specif­ically wanted to “put a ban on Jews” so Rothko left the university without a degree..

It is difficult to know why in 1923 Rothko chose to join art classes at the New York School of Design and become a full time artist in that city. But he did, and was particularly influenced by Russian Jewish cubist artist Max Weber. By the late 1920s, Rothko was teaching at the Brooklyn Jewish Centre’s art school, joining with other art colleagues in avant-garde exhibitions and confronting the art establishment. As the Great Depression rolled on, Rothko's parents were terrified that a career messing around in art would leave their son impoverished once again.

Rothko, The Party, 1938
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Max Weber had painted in a figurative style influenced by the ideas of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. During the 1930s Rothko added Surrealism to the mixture and was interested in bringing all these styles together in paintings that expressed the tragic nature of human existence.

In late 1935, Rothko joined with all the other Jewish abstract expressionist artists (Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Lou Harris, Ralph Rosenborg, Louis Schanker and Joseph Solman) to form the Whitney Ten Dissenters. Their goal was "to protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting.

The abstract expressionist artists who worked in New York after World War Two made an internationally important contribution, particularly Rothko. He had experimented with figurative, surrealist and mythical imagery, but now Rothko’s art was made up of horizontal colour fields floating and dissolving. Cohen-Solal noted that as Rothko had been so thoroughly immersed in Jewish culture, it would explain why he was emerging from minimalist abstraction. His stunning floating abstracts of dissolving oblongs survived. He had become one of the founders of a new generation of 20th century art movements.

Rothko’s canvases from this period were becoming showy. But although there is the suggestion that these paintings did not really work, there is a clear recognition that they were starting to attract attention. How strange.

The artist did not know when he was going to die, but he devoted what turned out to be the last decade of his life in presenting his new conception of art as an experience. Cohen Solal’s story peaks with Rothko’s most radical project, the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas.

In February 1970, Rothko's assistant found the 66 year old artist lying dead in his studio. He had overdosed on anti-depressants and sliced his arms with a razor. The young Russian immigrant from Dvinsk, moody and unhappy all his years in the USA, is now considered to be a crucial change agent of the art world. Orange, Red, Yellow was a 1961 Rothko that sold at Christies for $87 million in May 2012. The sale price was a record price for Post-War contemporary art at public auction and for Rothko works in general.

Recently (2003) the Latvian city Daugavpils/Dvinsk erected a monument to their most famous son on the river bank. A decade later the artist’s children donated original works and placed them in the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils.

Rothko, 1950
White Centre/aka Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose, 206 x 141cm
We start to see Mark Rothko’s lasting style i.e blocks of layered, complementary colours on a large canvas


Annie Cohen-Solal wrote Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel in 2012 (published by Yale University Press). Readers will also find the Spectator’s review of this book useful. But be warned; the review of this book in the Spectator unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism. Whether people like modern art in general, or Rothko in particular, should not concern us. But to attack modern art, socialism and Spinoza because they were Jewish is vicious.












21 April 2015

Gardens at Wombat Park, Daylesford - a legacy from goldrush and from Edwardian days

The story of Wombat Park (Midland Highway Daylesford) began in 1854 when grazier William Stanbridge built a modest, timber homestead and began planting a magnificent garden. His collection of exotic trees was to be described in the local paper as superior to any that could be seen in any private or public garden in the state of Victoria. The extensive and varied garden is still one of the jewels in the crown of Victoria’s garden heritage.

 Wombat Park in autumn


Elm avenue

William Stanbridge was a Member of the Legislative Assembly who became wealthy from the 1850s gold rush. By 1860 Stanbridge had built a substantial brick stable and coach house complex and by 1872 a second homestead (which was relocated to Daylesford in the 1930s). He had also laid out a garden in the rich red volcanic soil. In what is now known as the Old Garden, later owners uncovered beds surrounded by quartz gravel paths and box hedges.

At the turn of the C20th, Stanbridge’s daughter Florence and her husband built a splendid Arts and Crafts style house and created, with landscape gardeners Taylor and Sangster, what has become known as the New Garden. The entrance to the 160-hectare estate is a long romantic avenue of spreading English elms that dates from Florence's time, as does the famous crenellated tapestry hedge, the largest and oldest in the country. These are both listed on the National Trust Register of Significant Trees.

The pleasures of English style country life on the croquet lawn, under the shade of a deciduous forest and meandering pathways that seamlessly link the gardens and the farm, are much appreciated today.

The Arts and Crafts style home today.
There is a 1913 photo in the National Library of Australia that shows these same gabled roof, windows, chimneys and covered entrance that were built for Stanbridge’s daughter.

When the Mackenzie family bought Wombat Park in 1996, they took on a wild and beautiful place. Since then, Isabel Mackenzie, with gardener Stewart Henderson, has overseen and implemented the steady restoration of the structure of the whole garden. At the same time, they lovingly preserved a unique past.

While the Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens are open all year around, the family garden is only occasionally open to the public. So join Friends of Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens for a delightful day in the country with delicious food, wine, coffee and a superb range of plants from Lambley Nursery. View one of Australia’s most impressive and historic private gardens, experiencing the vivid autumn colour, historic plantings, National Trust Register listed trees and the sweeping scale of the Sangster and Taylor designed Wombat Park. All proceeds from the opening will support the restoration of the historic fern gully and cascade at Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens in Daylesford. It will be open from 10 am – 4 pm on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd May 2015.

Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens
The conservatory and Wombat Hill House Cafe are in the background

Many thanks to Barbara Strange for sending me this material.