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LONDON — I like clothes. I like to wear nice clothes, and sometimes I even admire haute couture even if the nuances of which fall beyond my knowledge and experience. I certainly would be out of my depth though if I were to try curating a collection for the catwalk this fall. How easy it would be then, upon reviewing the one-time Spice Girl, now fashion designer Victoria Beckham’s pop-up display of 16 Old Master paintings in her flagship Mayfair store, to level the same withering summary at her: she likes art, and even enjoys buying it, and hanging it on her walls. She says, “It was my first visit to the Frick in New York last year, that really opened my eyes to Old Masters, and is where my fascination began.”
It would be elitist and presumptuous, however, to dismiss her qualifications for curating an Old Master show out of hand, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, in her press release portrait image how uncanny is her stance, hips squarely thrust forward, shoulders back — the fashionista’s controposto — and rich green dress in their mirroring of the bride in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait? Maybe we will see fresh new angles and interpretations in her designer’s visual sensibility.
There is no denying that the raison d’être of the project is a marketing ploy: the paintings are a selection from those that will be auctioned by Sotheby’s as part of Old Master week, when the other big hitters Christies and Bonhams similarly mount Old Master sales. Sotheby’s Old Master catalogues sit on the polished chrome shop furnishings nestled with the bags and shoes. The pop up runs from June 22nd to 27th, finishing just in time for the preview night of Masterpiece Art Fair, London’s premier fair for high rolling customers to purchase high priced antiques. The whole thing is the cynical next step up in the growing trend for auction houses to mount “transhistorical displays,” i.e. displaying old and ancient works for sale next to modern and contemporary (let’s not forget Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was sold in a Contemporary Art auction); this is a “transdisciplinary display” of paintings and fashion, distinct from say the likes of Alexander McQueen, whose work could more arguably be called a genuine fusion of fine art and fashion. At least Jeff Koons’s art handbags perpetuated the sheer cynicism of his unique pop ideology. This show instead exists solely to cross pollinate the market of people buying art and people buying dresses. Because this is about as calculated a marketing ploy as any imaginable – Beckham says without irony: “I hope [these paintings’] installation in such a contemporary setting is as inspiring to my customers as it is to me” — surely this excuses the project from critique regarding Beckham’s curatorial skills?
In short, no it doesn’t, because throughout we are shown Beckham’s unique display choices that distinguish viewing these paintings in her showroom from viewing them on the shop walls of Sotheby’s sales rooms. The building itself is a stunning zig-zagging contemporary creation of beautifully sharp angles and smooth surfaces by architect Farshid Moussavi. Its first and second floors alternate wall spaces between painting and clothes rack, where you can stop to contemplate a Cranach or circle of Leonardo da Vinci between some jackets and trousers, while its basement is predominantly a gallery space with full-length portraits by Joseph Wright of Derby wedged beneath the stairs, reflected multiple times in the mirrored walls. I imagine if I had a very large walk-in closet this is how I would decorate it.
Much is made of her choice of pictures being entirely portraits. Portraits were an expensive commodity to produce and hence were regarded as a status symbol. Some of the sitters included are therefore shown wearing the cutting edge high fashion of their day, just like the couture Beckham produces. The ones she has chosen happen to be the best (most expensive) ones in the sale, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Portrait of a Man with a Spotted Fur Collar” (£1.5 – 2m estimate or $2.1–2.7M); Rubens’s “Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman” (£3-4m estimate or $4.1–5.6M). No ugly Renaissance babies here. Fashion is an expression of ourselves, our moods, aspirations, and character, and as the press release says, “Who better to understand this notion of self-presentation than Victoria Beckham, one of the most photographed women in the world?” Indeed, she enhances our contemplation of the depiction of ourselves with some transhistorical quotes: “Every painter paints himself” (Cosimo di Medici); “It’s really absurd to make … a human image” (Willem de Kooning); “I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you” (Frida Kahlo).
It doesn’t really matter what I write as this show isn’t meant for me. Neither is it for the clientele who usually buy Old Masters. It is an attempt to widen the market for Old Masters by encroaching on fashion’s territory, and in that respect it cannot be faulted for getting one up on its auction house rivals. However, as I passed each rack to get to the painting, I couldn’t help but notice the other punters passing each painting to get to the racks, although one half an hour visit may not be representative of an overall trend. One wonders where transdisciplinary display will go next.
Sotheby’s Old Masters paintings are on view in Victoria Beckham’s Dover Street store in Mayfair (London) until June 27.