by Nadia Buick
I was lucky enough today to get a first look at Valentino, Retrospective: Past/Present/Future at the Gallery of Modern Art. It was the media preview and we were welcomed by Tony Ellwood, the Gallery's director, along with QLD Premier Anna Bligh and Pamela Golbin, Chief Curator at Les Arts Decoratifs, where the exhibition originally showed in Paris. Golbin gave an impressively quiet speech about meeting 'Mr.Valentino' and embarking on the large task of curating her hugely successful and considerably larger exhibition, Valentino: Themes and Variations, in 2008. While much smaller, the selection we're seeing in Brisbane is still a big one: 100 dresses that take up the entire lower floor of GoMA.
But the speeches came after we were allowed to enter the exhibition. When the doors of the gallery space opened and we were ushered in, things looked promising. A red strapless dress from Valentino's first couture collection, in 1959, stands dramatically in-front of several panelled mirrors. The effect was beautifully dramatic; just what I had hoped for. Before I say anything else, I want to say how amazing it is to see these garments. They are spectacular. Not having them behind glass (as they were in Paris) makes details so visible that you get a real sense of how these garments were made, and what they might feel like to wear. This is, in my opinion, a great thing for the audience, who can feel distanced from exhibitions of fashion that separate the viewer from the clothes themselves.
In her speech, Pamela Golbin said that when she met Valentino to discuss her curation of an exhibition of his work, he basically said "You're a curator, and I'm a designer. You do your job, and I do mine." He left her alone to select the garments she felt best represented his work. Quite a gesture for such a star of the fashion world (and a slap in the face to critics who say that you can't have single name designer exhibitions without them compromising curatorial integrity). But it brings me to something I want to say about fashion curation. The selection of garments, for me, is only part of the job. Personally, exhibition design is as important to me as a curator, and is something I work on simultaneously to other curatorial tasks. It's a shame that the exhibition design of Valentino was seemingly non existent, because I can't imagine a better time to go all-out.
For those of you who saw GoMA's Easton Pearson exhibition, you may notice a pattern emerging. In that show, Easton Pearson's brightly coloured garments were contrasted against a sea of light grey walls and mannequins. This worked quite well to highlight the pattern, colour and detail of Easton Pearson's work. In the case of Valentino, the walls are predominantly a very dark charcoal, at times seeming close to black. What was perhaps dramatic in the Paris exhibition seems blank in the large, open space of GoMA. I felt like I was in a void, and rather than showcasing the opulence and excitement of the clothes themselves, I felt many of them had to fight to resist being sucked into the darkness. The sections that worked the best were those set against white, including Valentino's famous 'White Collection' from the late 1960s, which was a highlight for me. Also, the white section in the middle of the main room was incredibly striking and showcased the garments so well.
Tonight I went to the official opening and started to feel like perhaps I was being too harsh a critic; everyone kept raving about how beautiful it all was. But what is beautiful is the clothes themselves, and they tell us something about the entire world that creates them. The house of Valentino (and everyone that helps to realise these entirely hand-made garments) is driven by the desire to make women beautiful. Valentino says this about his work continually. Beauty is important. It's valuable, and it makes an impact. Beautiful things thrive when displayed in beautiful settings, whether on the runway, in a showroom... or in an art gallery.