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Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, an enormous exhibition of more than 2,000 artifacts spread across two of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s venues, has three parts. Secular clothing is displayed amid the Medieval and Byzantine Galleries and in the Robert Lehman Wing at the Met Fifth Avenue; clerical garments are installed downstairs in the Costume Center of that building — no photography is allowed there; and additional garments are shown throughout the galleries far uptown at the Met Cloisters. Normally special exhibitions are presented in the galleries for temporary shows. However, most of the garments in Heavenly Bodies were shown alongside the paintings and sculpture on permanent display.
This, the first show linking these two sites of the museum in one exhibition, is extremely popular. On the morning I stopped by the Fifth Avenue location, there was a line waiting to enter the museum; and while usually there are relatively few visitors at the Cloisters, even there this exhibition was crowded.
The real subject of a museum, the literary scholar Philip Fisher has nicely said in his book Making and Effacing Art: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums (Oxford University Press, 1991), “is not the individual work of art but relations between works of art [. . .] and what in the sharpest way clashes in their juxtaposition.” And he goes on to say: “that we walk through a museum [. . ]. recapitulates [. . .] its power to link.” So, in the Met when you take the short walk from Caravaggio’s “The Denial of Saint Peter” (1610) to Poussin’s “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” (1658), you see dramatically opposed 17th-century visual styles. And when in the modernist galleries you move from Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” (1950) to Jasper Johns’s “White Flag” (1955), you grasp what Johns learnt from his precursor.
Eleven years ago the Met showed Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991), which contains a 13-foot tiger shark in formaldehyde. Philippe de Montebello, who was then the director said in a statement on the museum’s website: “It should be especially revealing and stimulating to confront this work in the context of the entire history of art, an opportunity only this institution can provide.” This Hirst looks very unlike the other sculptures in the museum, but in context it was possible to understand the claim that it was a work of art.
What then does the proximity of the garments in Heavenly Bodies to the Met’s sacred art reveal? Some designers were inspired by the luxurious fabrics of the garments presented in these paintings and sculptures. They sometimes appropriated images from old master Catholic painting. And they were enchanted by the Catholic vision that regards “material things as symbols of the spiritual [. . .]. The obscurity and incommensurateness of the symbols of truth reinforced the distinctions of elite and multitude” — here I quote from David Morgan’s essay in the catalogue (“Vestaments and Hierarchy in Catholic Visual Piety,” Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, Yale University Press, 2018). In the Met, Byzantine mosaics, medieval sculptures, paintings and tapestries become works of art, detached from their original sacred sites. By contrast, neither the displays of Heavenly Bodies nor the catalogue essays demonstrate that these fashions are akin to works of art. Presenting contemporary garments alongside Byzantine and Medieval artworks only underlines the visual differences between these different genres of objects. When two Romanesque sculptures, “Virgin and Child in Majesty” and “Enthroned Virgin and Child” were installed at the Cloisters on either side of an ensemble by Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren for Viktor & Rolf, I found myself contrasting the rhythmic but otherwise ascetic carving of the two ancient works with the glittering textures of the lavish garments. Both represent a yearning for the divine. The sculptures depict personages worthy of worship — a key element of the history of art — while the garments reflect the wearer’s desire to be worshiped — a key element of the history of fashion, and a crucial difference.
Why then present these examples of couture in galleries normally devoted to Byzantine and Medieval painting and sculpture – without disturbing the normal permanent displays in those galleries? No doubt, to be practically minded, because most of these galleries are usually amongst the least trafficked spaces in the museum. In any event, juxtaposing older visual art with contemporary fashion presents an obvious fiction, a timeless Catholic visual sensibility.
Some philosophers of art have said or suggested that placing any artifact in a museum suffices to make it a work of art. (I perhaps have said that myself.) This exhibition demonstrates that that is not the case. It might have been called, Foreign Bodies, because by juxtaposing pre-Renaissance art with contemporary garments it creates a surreal effect; rather than calling attention to visual affinities, the result is to demonstrate that fashion artifacts are strikingly unlike Catholic works of art. Museum catalogues of artworks typically include provenances, with a detailed account of the particular works; although this massive, two-volume publication includes some interpretative essays about Catholicism and fashion, and color photographs of the garments, it doesn’t treat them seriously as art. We learn that Mussolini gave Pope Pius XI a mitre with symbols of Matthew and John, and an image in silver of the Virgin and Child; that Dolce & Gabbana put an image of the bejeweled Virgin and Christ Child on an evening dress; that Christopher Kane printed an image of Saint Christopher and the infant Christ on a blouse; and that an evening dress by Alix Barton is inspired by Francisco de Zurburán’s “Saint Francis in Meditation” (1635–1639). But you don’t get the scholarly apparatus associated with art history writing.
This is the most challenging recent Met exhibition I have had the pleasure of viewing — challenging because the relationship between fashion and the fine arts is often contentious. Like paintings, fine clothing is judged aesthetically. Like works of art, upscale clothing is a luxury good. And like visual art, fashion reveals the cultural history of a society. And yet we are often suspicious of fashion. Perhaps this reflects bias against quasi-utilitarian art forms. Heavenly Bodies deserves comparison with China: Through the Looking Glass, the 2015 exhibition devoted to Chinese fashion, also organized by Andrew Bolton, who is director of the Costume Center. That show juxtaposed Chinese garments and Chinese and Western films about China with fashionable clothing made by Western designers inspired by Chinese styles. Bolton wrote in the exhibition catalogue that it was “not about China per se but about a China that exists as a collective fantasy” (China Through the Looking Glass: Fashion, Film, Art, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015). Like Heavenly Bodies, that show mixed temporal displays with works from the permanent collection. This more focused exhibition, claiming to trace the influence of Catholicism on designers who grew up in that tradition, as I see it, has a somewhat different, much narrower theme. It is about a certain tradition of aestheticism — the fascination with the lavish ceremonial aspects of traditional Catholicism. This is not the Catholicism of Robert Bresson, Dorothy Day, or Robert Gober, to name three very different Catholics. Why then is this exhibition of upscale, essentially unwearable garments, not usable for anyone but senior clerics or celebrities going to the Met Gala, so popular? That I do not understand. But after all, as the present Pope has recently said, admittedly in a somewhat different context, who am I to judge? Certainly it presents one legitimate, if very specialized perspective on Catholicism. If I could have made one change, I would have turned off the intrusive music in the Great Hall.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and the Met Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan) through October 8.