What do we reveal and conceal with dress?

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Two marvellous shows on in London at the moment highlight artists with a keen sense of portraiture and vibrant colour, but also distinct in the way they used their art to convey and conceal.

London’s National Gallery is hosting a major exhibition of Goya’s portraits, covering the European aristocratic elite of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  It is a fascinating show, made all the more so by a talk given by dress historian, Jacqui Ansell. One look at these paintings tells you that Goya (1746-1828) was a wonderful painter of textiles but what is less immediately evident is the way he used careful observation of dress, fabrics and accessories to convey information about his subjects.

Goya’s portraits of Spanish ladies frequently depict them wearing the mantilla, the distinctive black lace veil that acted as both a national and religious identifier, conveying both a certain patriotism and piety.  There is power in the mix too: late eighteenth century Europe was a place of rigid court hierarchy in which conspicuous consumption as well as strict codes of dress demonstrated rank.  20151221_132730Goya’s 1787 portrait of the Countess of Altamia depicts her in a gorgeous pink silk gown, tightly corseted with a voluminous crinoline skirt embroidered with flowers and other motifs.  It is the very image of a similar gown worn by Marie Antoinette as Ms Ansell demonstrated for us.

Most fascinating of all though is the way the personality of his subjects shows through.  The most eye-catching portrait in the show is of the Duchess of Alba (top left), staring defiantly out from the canvas, wearing a black lace dress and mantilla with red sash.  In contrast to the rigidly formal court portraits, this dress is adapted from a simple and popular style of national costume, conveying a sense of a woman who was practical and down-to-earth, whilst also (from her stare alone) poised and self-possessed.  The portrait reaches across the centuries to give us an extraordinary insight into its subject.

In direct contrast to this is a small show of Saul Leiter’s photography at Somerset House.  Through a Lens: Saul Leiter and Carol, highlights the inspiration behind Todd Haynes’s film and Ed Lachman’s glowing cinematography.  Saul Leiter (1923-2013) saw the New York of the 1950s in glorious technincolour.  He trained as a painter (after studying as a rabbi) and like Goya’s portraits, Leiter’s photography seems to delight in colour, textile and texture. 20151214_174804 The male peacock of the royal court may be translated to a Manhattan street, his powdered wig replaced by a natty boater but we still sense the power of self-expression and the will to kick against the conventional or dreary.  But where Goya’s work might aim to illuminate his sitters, some of Leiter’s photographs seem intent to create mystery around his.  So we see a snatched silhouette on the edge of the frame, figures diffused through fog or streaks of rain, overlaid images reflected off a shop window.

Leiter’s depiction of his subject is no less intimate but it reveals in different ways.  There is no projection of piety, power or personality.  Instead we sense a passing moment, just the few seconds it takes to notice a stranger in the street and remark upon their extraordinary poise and bearing.  Both these shows give a wonderful insight into what it is about personal image that draws us in, makes us curious and tells us (just some) of what we want to know.

See Goya: the Portraits at London’s National Gallery and Through a lens: Saul Leiter and Carol at Somerset House before both close on 10 January.

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