Intersecting Clothes and Art / by Jeannine Cook

I recently saw a wonderful production of Sleeping Beauty by the Moscow Ballet in Palma de Mallorca. It was a delight to see, for the quality of dancing was extremely high. One of the most interesting aspects, however, was the brilliant colours of the otherwise traditional costumes. I don't recall ever seeing such "technicolour" dresses and tutus, ranging from the most vivid wisteria mauves to turquoises, blues and citrons. It made for a vivid and arresting mixture with the dancers' skills, the pure lines of arabesques and the sense of movement in space.

I could not help but think that today's omnipresent brilliance of colour in television, on the web and everywhere else has an influence on such choice of colours for the costumes. We have all become accustomed to colours that are accentuated, often far beyond Nature's version of these colours. I find it interesting to see the same influence in art; with the ever-extending palette of colours in oils, acrylics, watercolours..., a dazzling intensity of colour is easy to achieve. And, conversely, art produced in a "lower register" often appears dull and less noteworthy to the average viewer. For the most part, we do not seem to live in an age of subtlety.

While I was thinking about this role of colour in our current world, I fell on a fascinating article in CAM, the Cambridge Alumni Magazine for Lent 2011, entitled "A Sense of Proportion". Dr. Ulinka Rublack, a fellow at St. John's College, has published a book on "Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe" (Oxford University Press). In it, she states that "Clothes to me are no different from art in our contemporary sense of a human assembly of form. Clothes are rich in categories of visual interest and tell us so much about the peculiar sensibilities of an age. Their study can bring a fresh focus to the Renaissance and our own time."

Dr. Rublack talks of how the Renaissance was a time when not only was there an amazing influx to Europe of rich fabrics and furnishing as trade routes opened more and more to the Far East, but also an era when artists were increasingly depicting humans in paintings, sculpture, medals... Mirrors were also more and more available. How a person looked to the outside world became of great concern and interest. The author cites as a wonderful source of insights on this evolving sense of self, an album of watercolour paintings of Matthäus Schwarz, chief accountant for the Augsburg powerhouse Fugger family of merchants and bankers. The image at right was painted in 1517, showing him
with Jakob Fugger. He lived from 1496 until 1564, so he was able to savour of all the energies and fashions in art and self-images that the Renaissance brought to Europe.

In July 1526, at aged 29, Schwarz commissioned the first portrait of himself, nude and slim. He went on to commission 135 more paintings of himself, dressed in many a garb as befitting the overt or subliminal messages he wished to covey to those who saw him or his painted image. They depict himself through his long life.

The images are wonderfully varied and let one savour of everything from his fencing outfit, with differing hose, to his sweeping hats and expensive fur collars. (The image at right is courtesy of the Musée du Louvre.)

In others, Schwarz carried green heart-shaped leather bags when he went out to court a lady - green being the colour of hope.

At aged 41, his courting days were suspended, as he records on this image of himself from the rear. He wrote "20 February 1538, when I took a wife... this coat was made". No mention of his amazing scarlet hosen!

Matthäus Schwarz' Book of Clothes or Klaidungsbüchlein is now held in the museum in Brunswick, Germany. A version of it has been published in French as "Un Banquier mis à nu".

My musings on the brilliant costumes in Sleeping Beauty are just a reminder that colour has long played a key role in our perceptions of the human body, its sartorial role in different cultures and its use for different messages. Art has been an integral part of that conversation.