Catholic Inspiration for Fashion at the Met

Balenciaga’s 1967 silk wedding dress in the Romanesque Chapel at the Met Cloisters

The brilliant installation of haute couture in the historic halls of the Met Cloisters, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, closing October 8, also serves as a surprising showcase for the spectacular medieval art residing in the same space.

Curator Andrew Bolton’s thoughtful placement and narrative creates a genuine conversation between European couture and religious-themed works made over 500 years ago at both the Cloisters and the Met’s Fifth Avenue location.

The Cloisters show starts spectacularly with Balenciaga’s 1967 wedding dress dramatically casting shadows across the floor of the largest room at the Cloisters, the Romanesque chapel with its outsized arch and crucifix.

Closeup of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2007 evening ensemble printed with 15th c. image of the Virgin by Jean Fouquet.

The jeweled pieces of German stained glass are echoed by Gaultier gowns, and Craig Green’s avant-garde ensembles created from Islamic prayer rugs are at home amidst the 13th century tapestries in the Hall of Heroes. Looking at each contemporary expression fully reflects the magnificent artwork resting just a few feet away.

Hidden spaces, leafy cloisters, underground tombs, light-filled corridors, and dark, secret corners of the Treasury all provide surprises and context for exploring visitors – Valentino’s Garden of Eden dress, Galliano’s Machiavelli gown for Dior, Dolce & Gabbana’s gold silk-and-metal macramé wedding ensemble, and McQueen’s crown-of-thorns headpiece.  Seek and you will find.

Sleeve detail of monastic paper taffeta 1969 evening dress by Madame Grés.

Take a look at our Flickr album to see many close-up the details of all the clothes and surrounding artwork.

The Met has gone all out to make the connections between clothes and the Catholic themes explicit, providing innovative high-res photos, several brief videos and blog posts. Read more about the themes here.

Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, gives an overview of all the inspiration and documentation of the exquisite clothing, jewelry, and inspirational art work in the show in this video here.

Closeup of Olivier Theyskens’ 1999 evening dress with a hook-and-eye closure in the shape of the cross. From the Crusades section of the show in the Gothic Chapel.

Click here to walk through every room of the Cloisters with Andrew Bolton and hear him explain how he made the selections according to the surrounding artworks.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

Highlights include a procession of works from Gianni Versace’s last collection, Gaultier’s hologram votive dress, Mugler’s floating angel, and the loft high above it all, populated by ethereal figures wearing choir robes by Balenciaga.

1984 dress by Thierry Mugler from his Winter of Angels collection, part of the Celestial Hierarchy at Fifth Avenue

Here’s a link to the Met’s walkthrough video.

An important part of the Met’s undertaking is a spectacular mini-exhibition of incredible works of clothing art from the Vatican, which took significant negotiation. Here, Andrew shows highlights of the items on loan from the Vatican, some of which have never been displayed abroad before.

Walk through the Met’s Vatican section of the show here.

Weitzman’s Historic Shoes at NYHS

Crystal reproduction of Weitzman’s 2012 “Million Dollar Sandals”

It’s a clever journey through one man’s shoe collection. Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes, on display through October 8, zigs and zags through the fourth-floor gallery of the New-York Historical Society, presenting new insights to shoes and the history of American women in the workplace (and dance floor) through three centuries.

The emphasis is on history with a dash of celebrity and tons of glitter and glamor. See what we’re talking about in our Flickr album here.

The introduction, dedicated to collecting, provides glimpses into how and why shoe collections begin in the first place – wedding memories, baby mementos, and even Revolutionary archeology (go, shoe buckles!). Whether it’s everyday people or museums, it seems that there’s always a reason to collect shoes.

Ragtime era 1912-1914 beaded cross-strapped shoes

The presentation section of the show describes how footwear can be transformative – taking a dowdy career girl into an elegant, champagne-sipping flapper.  Or, more recently on Broadway, taking Cinderella to the ball or Billy Porter (aka Lola) to the town saved by Kinky Boots.

The shoes here show the progression of fashion and pop culture of trends and dance crazes that required show-off shoes.  First, it was “artistic” women who needed embroidered footwear to peep out under those Fortuny gowns. Then, it was ragtime music and high-buttoned shoes.

Eventually it was all about those small-heeled, strappy statement makers for the Charleston and Tango in the Jazz Age. Women were moving so fast, that they needed to make sure the shoes stayed on their feet.

1930 silk and satin Frank Bros. T-strap shoes

Next, the show tells the history of shopping in New York entirely through shoes – the evolution of Ladies’ Mile in the 1860s, the department-store-as-entertainment trend of the 1890s on Sixth Avenue, and window shopping.

It chronicles the rise of collection shoes sold exclusively at Saks (before the shoe department there had its own zip code) in the Forties and the rise of the designer label.

Delman 1948 leather and rhinestone evening sandals

Fads, styles, and designs like spectator pumps, platforms, high-buttoned shoes, Mary Janes, T-straps, and slingbacks are all there to tell their stories – the women who wore them and the men and women who created them. There’s even a nod to the provocative gold and silver sandal craze inspired by Hollywood sirens starring in Biblical epics and toga dramas of the 1930s and 1940s.

Back toward the end of the gallery, NYHS pulls out the history book and takes you on a brief journey to a time when the United States was the center of the global shoe industry.  They make it clear that working in the industry, beginning in the 1850s, was a way for women to step into the greater economy.

1954-55 embroidered Ferragamo “Madonna” sandals with Tuscan needlepoint lace. Originally made for Sophia Loren

By 1900, the United States was largest shoe producer in the world, and women were one-third the shoe industry labor force and 20 percent of the total American workforce. By 1910 in the era of Ragtime, eastern Massachusetts and New York City were shoe manufacturing capitals of the world.

The show puts a spotlight on Beth Levine and the other female designers who began their own labels and the current generation of concept shoe designers emerging from New York City schools (part of a program launched by Weitzman).

Fashionistas have been flocking to this show since April. Be sure to see it before this weekend so you can begin to look at your own shoe collection through an entirely new lens.

1950s silk and rhinestone pumps by Mabel Julianelli

More photos of Stuart’s remarkable, historical collection here.

Fashion Man-About-Town on a Bike

Bill’s jacket, bike, and Nikon

Bill Cunningham’s stuff isn’t going anywhere.  It’s going to stay right inside the New-York Historical Society, a tribute to the man that made “as seen on the street” a go-to source of what’s happening in style on the sidewalks of New York.

To celebrate its acquisition of Bill’s photographs, letters, and personal mementos from a life spent documenting clothes, people, and fashion, the NYHS has populated its second-floor micro-gallery with his early hat designs, his own instantly recognizable blue jacket, and his Nikon in Celebrating Bill Cunningham through September 9.

Take a look at some of the show’s highlights here.

A 1960 beach hat made from raffia and rooster feathers — wearable art

The NYHS show features hats and dramatic evening hair ornaments that Bill designed under his own label after he arrived in New York, back in the Fifties. It’s a piece of his life story that few know, so it’s nice to see the fantastic feathered “wearable art” that delighted his clients. His summertime Hamptons shop sign is even preserved here.

When women stopped buying hats in the Sixties, he switched careers to fashion journalism, first for Women’s Wear Daily, then as a stringer for big-city papers throughout the country.

Bill began taking photos at fashion shows in 1966, and soon embarked upon a fun project – finding interesting building facades around the City, getting period clothes that matched the building’s year, and asking friends to pose. Here’s our Flickr album of a few spectacular photos from this project, which the NYHS showed in 2014. Read our coverage here.

Bill Cunningham covering a fashion show

The work for which Bill is best known is tucked into a little case – his work for The New York Times — the photo-mosaics that Bill assembled from the candids he shot.  Society types, people going to work, edgy downtown twentysomethings – they were all part of Bill’s mosaic. Real people showing real style.

One day it might be black-and-white polka-dots spotted around town; another day, the story might be bright yellow. If there was a particularly severe streak of hot, cold, rainy, or windy weather – particularly during Fashion Week, Bill would show us the person-on-the-street fashion and gear solutions that he admired most.

Everyone became used to people-watching through Bill’s eyes and lens.

2009 coverage in The New York Times

Anyone planning a high-end charity event in New York sat on pins and needles on the night of the event, hoping “Bill would make it” and anxiously asking others on the committee, “Has Bill arrived?” If he did, you could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that your friends and charity cause would get some real estate in the precious pages of The New York Times.

Always low-key, Bill often bicycled to two or three events in one night, quietly snapping pictures and then heading off to see which ones were the best.

Steady streams of gallery goers have been popping into the tribute show to get close to a legend who held a unique place in the New York social and fashion scene. All day long, people are sitting at the far end of the gallery, quietly watching the documentary and listening to this humble icon speak for himself.

Still from 2011 Bill Cunningham New York

Women Rise Up for Cruelty-Free Hats

1885 satin evening dress embellished with swans’ down. Collection: Brooklyn Museum collection, The Met.

While early 20th century American women were still lobbying for the vote, activists first scored a victory for the environment – convincing the United States government to change the laws to protect wildlife and lobby the millinery industry to remove the mania for birds and feathers from the fashion equation.f

The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, running through July 15, presents a neat three-gallery exhibition that tells a forgotten tale of the citizen uprising and activism that led to a major environmental win for wildlife. Take a look at some of the items in our Flickr album.

The exhibition uses its Audubon watercolor collection to maximum effect.  The final gallery of the show displays JJ’s life-sized depictions of gorgeous water birds in their native habitats, providing an emotional counter-punch to the dozens of disturbing 19th-century hats, muffs, fans, and headgear adorned with plumage of the same creatures in the first gallery.

Must-have 1894 accessory, a gold aigrette with diamonds and feathers from breeding Great Egrets. Collection: MCNY

The show tells the story of the fashion feather craze that swept the world of high society in the 1880s and 1890s across America and Europe – a mania that resulted in large-scale destruction of birds, nesting grounds, and habitats. Destined for millinery shops in major cities, birds were shot and nests ransacked for exotic plumage, fluffy down, and entire bodies of wild and domestic birds that could be artfully arranged across shoulders and on brims.

Aigrettes, a delicate diamond-encrusted tiara, with wisps of egret feathers, were fashion accessories in extremely high demand. Hunters laid in wait for Great Egret males during mating season just to get these little wisps for the European and American trade.

Audubon’s portrait of the majestic male hangs in the final gallery. Its label states that in 1902, London alone received shipments of 1.5 tons of this wispy plumage, representing a sacrifice of about 200,000 birds and perhaps three times that number of trampled Great Egret eggs.

Audubon’s life-size 1821 watercolor of the then-endangered Great Egret. Collection: NYHS

Audubon’s Birds of the World could only be purchased by super-wealthy patrons, but smaller, individual prints of the massive, famous set were widely available and people loved them. Armed with binoculars and inspired by Audubon’s journeys, societies of bird enthusiasts took to pastures and woods to document and enjoy local species across the eastern United States from the 1880s on.

Gallery 2 tells the stories of these early environmental leaders, such as publisher George Grinnell who pioneered Audubon Magazine and Mabel Osgood Wright of Connecticut who used photography to document local bird species and educate others about them.

But even as they enjoyed the diversity of bird species around them, bird lovers, scientists, and environmentalists of the 1890s were horrified by the magnitude of the destruction.  Every fashionable woman on the street was wearing or carrying some accessory with a bird, bird part, or feather. The magnitude of the problem, they knew, was unsustainable.

Contemporary reproduction of an early 20th c. Audubonnet, which uses ribbons, not feathers

They faced daunting odds, since the millinery trade employed thousands, retail giants were benefiting, and the average fashionista simply didn’t want to know.

Emboldened by the activist strategies surrounding suffrage, the concerned women and men protested, lobbied, and offered solutions. One solution was the Audubonnet, a wildlife-friendly design approach that advocated dramatic ribbons and bows to replace wildlife on hats.

Copy of a 1900s newspaper ad selling featherless ladies’ hats.

By 1904, the fashion and retail pendulum swung in favor of the activists. Saks and Gimbels started promoting Audubonnets, and the industry agreed to abandoned the use of exotics and restrict itself to domestic birds and fowl, such as pigeons, doves, crows, hawks, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, and the like.

Buyers felt good about moving away from destructive fashion and sporting eco-friendly looks. The ribbon and artificial flower trade boomed. By 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed, banning bird hunting and killing and protecting all bird parts, feathers, nests, and eggs of hundreds of species.

Naturalists, scientists, activists, the Supreme Court, and Theodore Roosevelt all played a part in shifting environmental consciousness and politics of the time – a larger story than this exhibition tells but one that’s outlined in the first-floor TR galleries across the street at the American Museum of Natural History.

Audubon’s 1833 life-size watercolor of the Common Eider, once endangered by down gatherers disturbing eggs and nests in the wild. Commercial farms now raise them and collect their down.

The AMNH’s historic 1902 diorama of the Pelican Island water bird habitat, created to inspire New York audiences to protect endangered wildlife, is long gone from the museum.

But what a pleasure to see the NYHS Audubon watercolors continuing to do the job that JJ intended them to do — amaze, inspire, and bring the wilderness and the birds he loved to life on Central Park West.

How Ancient Tablets and Scrolls Became Books via Socks

Show curator, Georgios Boudalis, and map of how new book technology spread in the ancient world

How did people make the transition from reading and writing on scrolls to creating bound books? And what did it have to do with making socks and sewing?

You’ll take the journey across several centuries in The Codex and Craft in Late Antiquity, an exhibition on early bound book forms on display at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery through July 8.

Curator Georgios Boudalis of Thessaloniki’s Museum of Byzantine Culture explains how papyrus (or parchment) packages were joined together and modified over time by sewing, thread-looping, cutting, gilding, and fancy leather embellishments.

“Poetess of Pompeii” with her tablet, 50-70 A.D. Fresco photo: National Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Modern readers constantly debate the pros and cons of reading on tablets versus bound books, so it’s relevant that the exhibition’s story begins with fourth-century tablets.

Ancient tablets are about the same size as iPad minis, evidence that young people were using portable re-writable (i.e. wax) media long before the modern era. Just look at the portrait of the “Poetess of Pompeii.”

Boudalis makes the case that the technological transition to the “big book” idea began when craftsmen started to modify wax tablet frames (i.e. holes and grooves) so they could stitch and loop several together in a stack. After that, the stacks began to sport wooden covers.

The show includes some rare, early ninth-century manuscripts, when this type of book production was mainly commissioned by monastic religious orders.

Tooled and cut leather on 9th c. Gospel uses similar techniques as footwear. Collection: Morgan Library

In 1911 on his annual pilgrimage to Egypt, J.P. Morgan seized the opportunity to buy several old bound manuscripts discovered in a dry well in the Fayum oasis. The bound pages, most likely a Coptic monastery’s entire library, were hidden a thousand years earlier by monks to save their literature and gospels from destruction by invading armies.

The Morgan Library generously allowed Boudalis to examine the fragile bindings on this ninth-century treasure and lent it to Bard for the exhibition.

Along with ancient, fragile works from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Yale, and other American collections, the exhibition’s digital animations and modern replicas vividly demonstrate how craftsmen bound books, embellished covers, and protected sacred writings.

Modern sample of cross-knit looping technique for ancient socks

Complex looped-thread techniques were used to join sections of these early books – technology application used by many ancient cultures. As evidence, the exhibition features ancient woven leather belts and creative looped-knit socks next to woven book straps and looped-thread bindings of the manuscripts.

Complicated textile patterns and interlocking designs on textile fragments are shown next to similar gilded and tooled leather book covers.

Modern facsimile of the Morgan’s 5th century Glazier Codex. By Ursula Mitra

Gilded and tooled leather shoes were likely made by the same craftsmen who cut, tooled, and gilded leather book covers. Take a look at more on our Flickr album.

As ancient people sought more convenient and artistic packages of their intellectual property, they turned to skilled craftsmen to create it.

Listen to the Boudalis speak about the art of sewing and craft in the birth of books and see his examples of Peruvian feathered blankets, Parcas textiles, and fish nets from Camaroon – which all use simple, one-thread loop techniques to create astonishing things:

Grant Wood Puts Sophisticate Spin on American Myths

1930 American Gothic, which Grant Wood modeled on his sister and dentist – an “invented” couple. Collection: Art Institute

Travel the world, but paint what you know.

It seems to be the philosophy that guided the artistic development of our homegrown American painting virtuoso, as told in the Whitney’s revealing exhibition, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, on view through June 10.

Although the Art Institute never lets American Gothic leave the Windy City, the famous couple has been having quite a time on the High Line, surrounded by a wealth of beautiful paintings, crafts, furniture, magazine covers, book illustrations, drawings, and lithographs. See our favorites in our Flickr album.

Since Wood’s iconic masterwork burst upon the scene at the Chicago Art Institute in 1930, it’s surprising to know that this is only the third time that Wood has had a one-man show in New York. Whitney curator Barbara Haskell and her staff decided to give Wood the props he deserved by assembling this satisfying and revealing tour of his life’s work.

1930 Arnold Comes of Age, a European-inspired birthday portrait of his studio assistant froom Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum

It’s clear from the start (after you pass the corn chandelier) that Cedar Rapids, Iowa treasured their native son, handing him design and ad commissions galore. Although he always lived close to his mom and sister (the model for the mysterious “Gothic” gal), his artistic direction was solidified fairly early on by trips to Paris and Germany as a young man.

Forget impressionism and expressionism. Wood was captivated seeing the works of Durer and Memling, whose style matched his own precise painterly tendencies.

Returning home, he embarked upon a series of portraits that were completely local (e.g. his mom, art students, neighbors), but harkened back to the centuries-old European style – precisely rendered central figures and metaphorical symbols scattered across shrunken landscapes. Straight out of the 1400s.

1931 folk-inspired The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere from The Met’s collection

When Gothic appeared on the cover of the Chicago Evening Post in 1930, his fate as the quintessential “American” painter was sealed. And he committed himself to staying in the Midwest, painting what surrounded him.

The show takes us through his journey from there: interpreting and busting American myths, celebrating the hometown and ordinary, and sometimes veering into the visual language of folk art to create a feeling of a simplified time.

Cover illustration for Time magazine commemorating famed aviator Wiley Post, September 23, 1940.

When World War II began to brew, Woods was even more convinced that the power of his images could be harnessed to engender a call for action among everyday Americans. Deceptive simplicity on the canvas only underscores his highly sophisticated understanding of the power of symbols, craft, and art history.

Woods embraced many types of WPA and commercial commissions, while keeping up his fine-art output, including selling lithographs (“affordable art”) by mail order. Although one of a naked farmworker got him in hot water with the United States Postal Service, the accusation of “porn in the mail” really didn’t hurt his reputation.

The final two galleries of the show assemble his highly precise, fully modern farm landscapes from a ten-year period – rich, colorful, and geometric until they aren’t. The curators have interspersed gorgeous but melancholy graphite drawings of barren, snow-covered fields. Their presence captures the melancholy of Grant Wood’s final years – grappling with illness and life in Iowa as a closeted man, who died far too young.

1940 charcoal drawing March from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Even with the somewhat sobering feel, it’s a glorious gallery to end the show – one that leaves visitors marveling about the skill, talent, and magic wrought by an artist whose they feel as if they are discovering for the first time.

The Whitney persuaded lots of other Iowa museums to contribute to the show, too. They shipped everything but the WPA building mural (click here to see a silent video) at the University of Iowa Ames library.

Take a virtual walk through the show with the audio guide and see photos of the different work as the curators talk.

Listen to the brilliant curator Barbara Haskell, as she puts this man’s work into context:

Gold and Other Ancient Luxuries at The Met

Gold crown, headband, and ear flares worn by high-status person from Peru’s Northern Coast (Chongoyape), 800 – 500 B.C. Collection: NMAI, Smithsonian.

What constitutes luxury? Something wildly extravagant, made of expensive and rare materials, and incredibly intricate and beautiful.

There’s plenty on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, running through May 28.

The show, which returns to New York after a run at the Getty in Los Angeles, is a fulfilling journey that takes you over 3,000 miles through North and South America and across the years – from 1200 B.C. to the Spanish conquest of mighty kingdoms.

The star attraction is gold, which was hammered and fashioned into portable ornaments worn by high-net-worth individuals centuries ago. Crowns, ear flares, and nose ornaments from Peru’s northern coast, made sometime between 800 and 300 B.C., are on display right at the start of the show.

Front of a headdress from Peru (Moche), 300 – 600 A.D. Collection: Lima’s National Museum

But as you wind your way further through time and cultures, many more virtuoso works are displayed – a gold sheet octopus for the front of a headdress and the dramatic crescent-shaped burial ornamentation for the Lord of Sipán, both Peruvian pieces from the Moche culture made 600 years later.

In the center gallery, you encounter whimsical gold sculptures from Colombia made nearly a thousand years later by Colombia’s Muisca people, who “sacrificed” some of these precious items to the gods by tossing them into lakes or cenotes – a practice that unfortunately led the Spanish to believe that the mythical El Dorado really existed.

Incan tunics for votive figures, 1460 – 1626 A.D. From The Met, Field Museum, and AMNH.

Curators segment the show by highlighting the various approaches to luxury by different indigenous cultures – intricately woven textiles, feathered shirts and temple wall hangings, carved jade, monumental stone portraits of royalty, and even a lime container in the shape of a jaguar that is partly made from platinum.

Because materials were sourced so far from where the luxury items were crafted and preserved, the show weaves a rich tale of trade. Networks for jade far from Guatemala, tropical birds far from the Amazon rainforest, and ocean shells far from the dry Andean highlands.

Pair of gold, shell, and stone ear ornaments from Peru’s North Coast (Moche), 200 – 600 A.D. Collection: The Met

The mosaics, beadwork, and of multiple precious-stone inlay are dazzling, both in their visual impact and when you stop to consider the South American supply chain.

The magical properties of shells were acknowledged by everyone in these ancient kingdoms – from the rulers and lords that sported patterned multicolored shell collars to priests using shell-shaped ceramics for ritual offerings to everyday farmers who ensured sufficient rain by scattering broken shells in their fields.

Mixtec mask of spondylus shell, mother of pearl, and turquoise, 1200 – 1521 A.D. Collection: Italy’s MIBACT Museum of Civilization

Spondylus shells – the ultimate in marine adornment – only came from the oceans near Ecuador or northern Peru. Rulers just had to have them.

By the time the Spanish arrived in the New World, the level of artwork was at an all-time high. A particularly virtuoso inlaid Mixteca mask is shown toward the end of the show – one so beautiful that it came into the hands of Count Medici and is on loan from a museum in Italy.

Take a look at the beautiful items on the Met’s exhibition website and our favorites on our Flickr album.

See what’s behind the golden door by taking a peaceful video walk through this gorgeous show. All you’ll hear are the magical Mayan cenote bells:

Find out more by listening to the audio guide of the show here.

Americas Prehistory Revealed in Places No One Has Looked

Fun Greater Coclé monkey plate from Panama’s Rio Coclé del Sur (AD 700 – 850)

It’s easy to think that that prehistory in America is all about the grand architecture of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. But the National Museum of the American Indian wants you to think differently.The current show at NMAI’s Customs House in New York, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, on view through May 20, takes you deep into the rain forests of several countries to show how colorful clay pots reveal a rich story of artistic complexity, style, and cross-cultural trends.

The achievement of the show – a multiyear exhibition that began its run at the NMAI in Washington, DC in 2013 – is telling a story through the humble material that nearly every village home knew how to shape. The everyday nature of the items stands in sharp contrast to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current Golden Kingdoms show that focuses on the luxury trade.  Yet, it tells a similar tale.

Mayan rain god Chaac makes an appearance on a Guatemalan incense burner (AD 250 – 900)

In skilled hands, artisans over the last three thousand years transformed their clay into whimsical daily objects, powerful ritual tributes, technological implements, and shockingly intricate storytelling media.

NMAI took a ground-up approach to uncovering history, focusing on six relatively unknown sites where discoveries are being made by universities and students in Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama.

The focus is on the pottery, although you also see jade pendants that the Mayans threw into cenotes as offerings in Guatemala and upscale gold and spondylus shell necklaces excavated in Panama’s Greater Coclé sites.

The show emphasizes the style that each cultural group brought  –Mayan incense burners from Guatemala with dramatic portraits of the rain god Chaac, storytelling painted vessels from Honduras, and vessels, plates, and icons depicting monkeys, tapirs, vultures, frogs, and birds of the surrounding rain forest.

Ulúa River jaguar-paw bowl from Honduras (AD 850 – 950)

The sites where these clay treasures were found functioned primarily as agricultural villages, not grand palaces; however, many sites show paved roads leading in and out.

The artistic and archeological evidence makes it clear that local artists were adapting and interpreting the lore, myths, histories, and styles picked up along the bustling trade routes through Central America, where birds, jade, gold, cacao, and humble pots were being traded, used, and refashioned.

Lempa River artists from El Salvador near Palacio, Cuscatlán made armadillo pots and lots of other animals (AD 900 – 1200)

You don’t often link ancient pottery and mass-market production, but at least one case shows a ceramic mold from El Salvador that was used by the artist to crank out Mayan-style pendants about 1,500 years ago.

There’s also a case showing how pottery stamps were used to embellish textiles even further back in time. These stamps are from Honduras and Costa Rica, but you can be sure that techniques to make your everyday cotton tunic a little nicer was fairly widespread.

View some of our favorite items on our Flickr album.

The introductory gallery of the show describes some of the early archeological activities in Central America, which were often spurred by the powerful agri-businesses (e.g. United Fruit) that set up shop in Central America in the early 20th century.

Examples of how pottery stamps were used to print fabric since 300 BC. Here, a Honduran monkey stamp and two others from Costa Rica.

The show makes the point that the next wave of amateur treasure-hunters in the Sixties and Seventies swept a lot of the archeological finds out of the county and into US and European museums.

Today, however, the NMAI salutes the universities, professors, and students throughout Central America that are discovering ancient histories in their own backyards and developing the scientific skills to contribute to the scientific dialogue about the past.

The show leaves you with a sense that the discoveries are just beginning. Watch this video and travel deep into the rainforests and meet the next generation of Central American archeologists on the cusp of making new discoveries:

Download the catalog here to see maps of the area and get to know more about bustling prehistoric cultural production centers you never knew, like the Ulúa river valley in Honduras and the vibrant Gran Cocle in western Panama.

2012 painted Lenca vessel from Honduras — showing that artists are still going strong after 2,000 years

The Skies Have It: Thomas Cole Paints to Protect Nature

Cole’s 1936 panoramic masterpiece The Oxbow – a call to preserve the rapidly disappearing American wilderness. Collection: The Met

Awestruck by the magnificence of nature, romantic painter Thomas Cole set out to create visions so powerful that they would convince development-obsessed American to preserve landscapes and vistas for future generations.

Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition chronicles his artistic journey, Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings, on view through May 13, the subtext of the show is how he leveraged the romantic thrill of nature for a higher purpose.

Cole was battling pro-development sensibilities back then, in the same way environmentalists are fighting eco-battles today — 200 years after Cole started sketching upstate New York.

Detail from Turner’s 1829 Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus that Cole sketched in London. Collection: National Gallery

The exhibition sums up how British painters in the early 1800s were rebelling against the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, how Cole romanticized the drama views of nature, and then took the techniques that he learned on his trip to Europe to turn his painting into a call to action.

The most famous Cole works showcased at the Met – The Oxbow and The Course of Empire – are from New York City collections, but the curators have placed Cole’s artistic development into a global context by showing us the powerful Turners and Constables that actually inspired Cole on his Grand Tour of Europe in the 1820s and 1830s. Visitors get to experience them as he did.

Constable’s 1824-28 expressive oil sketch Rainstorm Over the Sea. Collection: Royal Academy

The presence of these landscape giants is exquisite – enormous masterworks with overpowering skies, majestic vistas, mythological allegories, and poignant ruins. The show also includes ethereal and dramatic cloud studies that Constable did out in the open air – works that inspired Cole to do the same.

Back in America, he founded the Hudson River school of painting – the first great art movement of the United States — and encouraged students to learn from nature. They certainly did, as shown by the dramatic landscape paintings by Chuch and Durand.

Take a look at all 76 paintings and studies in the exhibition on the Met’s website and see closeups of our favorite Cole, Turner, and Constable paintings in our Flickr album.

Cole’s 1832-1841 paint box used when he worked outdoors. Collection: Bronck Museum

The Met has given The Oxbow and The Course of Empire series positions of honor at the center of the show. To prepare these six paintings for their showcase, the conservation team did investigative work that uncovered some insights to Cole’s thinking (the video below shows what’s beneath the painted surface).

In the concluding section of the show, the curators point out that Cole’s students and followers didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the preservationist instincts of their teacher.

Cole’s romantic vision of nature fell out of fashion (for a while), replaced by big-sky and big-vista landscapes that elevated the “beauty” of building roads, harnessing nature, and seeding new towns and industries.

Industrial progress in 19th-century America was inevitable, but the experience of seeing Cole’s unspoiled vision of wilderness still shows visitors that there is value in keeping up the fight.

Take a look at the Met’s insightful film about Cole, his inspirations, and what it was like to paint in the Age of Jackson:

And for a glimpse into what the Met’s curatorial team found, watch this silent movie about about Cole’s thought process as he created his masterpiece:

If you miss this magnificent show, you can visit the room where it happened at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York. More about that trip here.

Church’s 1849 Above the Clouds at Sunrise, a tribute to Cole

FIT Challenges Designers over Shape, Physique, and Fashion’s Future

Red carpet looks for curvy women: Roberto Cavalli’s ensemble, LaQuan Smith’s see-through for Kim Kardashian, and Christian Siriano’s dress for Leslie Jones

Against the historical context provided by examples of how women (and men) have pushed and pulled their bodies into fashionable silhouettes since the 1750s, The Museum at FIT asks a broader, more contemporary question:  Why don’t designers today create attractive clothes for women who don’t fit into a size 2?

The exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique, on display through May 5, begins with a thoughtful video in which young New York designers, including Christian Siriano, call for change in the industry to give plus-size women fashion-forward off-the-rack options that project youth, style, and pizzazz.

As usual, FIT has an excellent website for the show, where you can step through 250 years of fashion history in sequence to see and read about how the concept of the “ideal” body has changed.  For some of our favorite items, see our Flickr album.

1845-1855 corset with metal eyelets and 1865 Scottish dress buoyed by hooped crinoline

The 1800s fashions on display from the FIT archive pair undergarments – like corsets, crinolines, and bustles – to demonstrate how fashion emphasized the importance of tiny waists through most of the 19th century. The swags covering protruding bustles eventually gave way to the no-corset looks of early 20th century artistic women who worshipped the exotic excesses of Paul Poiret.

The curators focus on the roots of fashion-induced body issues back then, too. An iPad shows the proliferation of fashion illustrations that draw women with impossibly tiny waists. Nearby, they show evidence from their collection to bust the myth that all corsets were laced tight enough to achieve an 18-inch waist. Simply not true. The illusion of that “ideal” was created with wide skirts and pouf sleeves.

When powerful structure was in: a 1981 dress by Mugler and 1986 jacket by Donna Karan

From there, the show moves through the next 100 years, providing examples of tube silhouettes of the Twenties, languid body-skimming styles of the Thirties when women used girdles to achieve the “ideal” body, the built-in structure of Dior’s New Look, and through to more recent times.

Although the intricate architectural cut of a Thierry Mugler dress would not normally be paired with a soft-tailored jacket by Donna Karen, the curators note that the “ideal” shape for women in the 1980s was athletic, fit, and toned. The pairing of these two designers shows how the impact of powerfully shaped fashion worked for equally well for Grace Jones or for powerfully shaped women who inhabited the C-suite.

In more recent times, the show makes the point that designers and image-makers increasingly shifted the “ideal” shape to the super-young and super-slim, encouraging completely unrealistic expectations about women’s bodies. Men and women obsesses over diets and fitness to achieve body shapes that are fairly impossible goals.

Two padded looks: a 1996 statement dress by Rei Kawakubo and the 1994 Wonderbra

The show concludes where it started – with a conversation about how designers, fashion fans, and the rise of social media are influencing and showing how real women dress today.

A fantastic red-carpet evening gown that Siriano designed for Leslie Jones after a Tweet storm ensued about designers not offering to dress a larger woman serves as the cornerstone content of the show. One dress says it all – class, elegance, beauty, sass, and bravery all summed up in one statement-creation.

Listen to what Christian and the other passionate young designers have to say about where fashion must go for the good of all:

If you have more time, listen to the conversation between Valerie Steele and Tim Gunn, which led FIT’s all-day seminar on this topic. This conversation digs deeper into lack of industry and designer support for less-than-ideal-sized women and concludes with ideas on what emerging designers can do to bring about change.