Diana Vreeland’s Travelling Eye

Time moves faster in New York City. Surrounded by masses of bodies always in a rush makes me claustrophobic.  So, for relief, I stretch my neck to look up as if the sky were the Sistine Chapel ceiling. NYC is heaven for some, hell for others. For me it’s a limbo, a penance I have to pay to enjoy its pleasures.  Like the MET.

In 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was born and its first acquisition was a Roman sarcophagus. Later, in 1946, the Museum of Costume Art merged with the MET as The Costume Institute. For years it was just a bunch of dated dresses collecting dust.  Then Diana Vreeland came along and, with an explosion of extravagance, pumped life into a cadaver.

Hugh and I were in New York to celebrate my birthday. Diana had curated the exhibit The 10s, The 20s, The 30s: Inventive Paris Clothes 1909–1939 and I was anxious to see it. The exhibit included designers like Paul Poiret (who began his career making doll clothes for his sister), Madeleine Vionnet (known for her bias-cut Grecian style dresses), and Elsa Schiaparelli (addicted to Surrealism).

Schiaparelli’s evening jacket designed with Jean Cocteau had me drooling. I was dripping all over myself when this woman came up to me and loudly said: “Where in the world did you get that dress you’re wearing?” To my amazement, it was Diana Vreeland and she was asking me about one of my own creations. Intimidated, I stumbled around for words thinking she was going to rip me to shreds. Instead she said “Darling, that dress is wonderfully wicked. “ When I told her I’d made it, she stared at me with x-ray eyes. Ten minutes later I was in her office drinking Scotch and water. Water, she said, is good for your health.

Since we were both addicted to our Daily Aesthetics, we had much in common. Her aesthetics were by far more sophisticated (and expensive) than mine. But, she said while eying my dress, bad taste is better than no taste at all. “You gotta have style,” she continued, “It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody.”

You know the saying in vino veritas, well it works with Scotch, too. And soon Diana was telling me all about herself. I‘ve found that people are always willing to talk if they find someone willing to listen.

Diana had been very unhappy as a child. Part of her unhappiness stemmed from the exceptional beauty of her mother and sister causing Diana to be considered the ugly duckling of the family.  But at age 14, she decided to change this and initiated a self-improvement program. She started keeping a diary aimed at helping her achieve perfection and decided to: 1. Transform the way she looked 2. Improve the way she spoke 3. Work hard in everything she did.  Diana’s strategy was “Become the best possible version of yourself”.

To transform her looks, she relied much on fashion.  Because the way we dress not only changes the way we see ourselves, it also changes the way we’re seen by others. But clothes aren’t enough. Diana understood that it took style and personality to make a nondescript person appear wildly attractive.

Projecting energy also makes a person captivating. So Diana made it a point never to be idle but always in motion.  Because the more energy you expand, the more energy you create.  She loved to dance because it gave her a feeling of vitality and let her energy flow.

Improving the way you speak also means having something intelligent to say. That’s why Diana often spent days in bed reading. And this helped prepare her for her career as a fashion columnist.

While at Harper’s Bazaar, Diana penned the column “Why don’t you…” full of extravagant and playful ideas.  Like: Why don’t you tie black tulle bows on your wrists? and Why don’t you wear fruit hats?

Diana was also known for her sayings such as “blue jeans are the most beautiful things since the gondola” and “the bikini is the most important thing since the atom bomb”.

Our senses are biased. The “halo effect” reflects that bias. We tend to make overall evaluations about people and places based on appearance. And fashion, that courts and seduces the eye, helps manipulate those evaluations. But Diana’s eye was not a product of fashion. To the contrary, her sense of fashion came from having developed her own personal aesthetics and from those aesthetics she educated her visual sense.

Diana’s eyes were hungry and in constant motion searching for nourishment. They were hungry for novelty that could make her dendrites grow.

Vision is often considered the most important sense organ. However, there’s a difference between looking and observing. One is passive, the other active. Diana’s eyes were active. And for that reason she believed that the eye must travel.

John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, writes that seeing came before words and that “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” The way we perceive what we see is affected by knowledge and belief, by our way of seeing the world (Weltanschauung).

When walking down the street, notice the men looking at women and turning them into objects. This looking is not a reciprocal experience as women, when walking alone, avoid eye contact because eye contact attracts attention it’s considered provocative as Victorine Meurent knew well.

Years before I’d been to the Musée d’Orsay to see Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. The woman in the painting was looking at me.  She was sitting on the grass totally naked next to two men fully clothed. I’d read that the painting had created quite a scandal and that the first time it had been shown, an outraged man tried to hit it with his umbrella.

You see, the painting made men uncomfortable because of the way that the model, Victorine Meurent, looked at them. Men, accustomed to rubbing their eyes all over women’s bodies, could not accept Victorine’s gaze that said “instead of you looking at me, I’m going to look at you”.  Even in terms of using the senses, women were not considered men’s equals.

Victorine, Manet’s favorite model, had often been described by art historians as a drunk and a prostitute.  But it wasn’t true. Victorine, who from a poor family, wanted to be an artist. She sang in cafes, gave violin lessons, and modelled just to earn money for art lessons. And, in 1862, going from one gig to another as a street musician playing her guitar in cafes, she met Manet. Intrigued, Manet asked her to model for him. He painted her eating cherries on the street, as a matador without a bull, and as a woman with a child near Gare Saint-Lazare.

Victorine also posed for the paintings considered to be Manet’s most scandalous: Le Dejeuner as well as Olympia (who’s wearing only a black ribbon and a pair of slippers). It wasn’t as if women had never been represented without clothing before. But they had been represented as goddesses or mythical beings who were nude but not naked. Because alone I am nude. In front of you, I am naked.

Victorine had one of her paintings accepted by the Salon the same year Manet had been rejected. In all, she was accepted by the Salon six different times and, in 1903, accepted as a member of the Sociéte des Artistes. Nevertheless, the art critic Adolphe Tabarant, saw her not as an artist but simply as a drunk aging beauty who had arrived at a “fin douloureuse”. He even wrote that Victorine was dead even though she was still alive and painting.

When in her 40s, artist Norbert Goeneutte painted Victorine with her guitar. But, as we well know, age tends to make women obsolete. So, too old to model and unable to earn enough money from her paintings, Victorine became an usher in a theater until she moved to Colombes outside of Paris.  Here she lived with the piano teacher, Marie Dufour, for 20 years.

After the death of Victorine and Marie, the contents on their home, including paintings and a violin, were burned in the yard. All that’s left of of Victorine’s struggles to become an artist is Le jour des rameaux, a painting now located at the museum in Colombes.

Nutritious food also helps.  Bell peppers help reduce the risk of age related macular degeneration.  Blueberries reduce the risk of cataracts and glaucoma.  The beta carotene in carrots and sweet potatoes combats the loss of vitamin A which is the leading cause of blindness in poor countries. Chia seeds contain much omega 3 that helps protect the eyes from macular degeneration and dry eye syndrome.

Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness. To help prevent diabetes, limit your sugar intake, drink a lot of water, exercise and lose weight.

Sight is the most relied upon of the senses. To prepare for old age, we can exercise our eyes just like we do our bodies. Here are four examples:

To relax your eye muscles, with enthusiasm, rub the palms of your hands to heat them up then place them over your eyelids.

To exercise focusing, sit in a comfortable chair then stretch one arm straight out with the thumb sticking up. Gradually pull the thumb closer to your eyes then further away again.

To exercise peripheral vision, sit with your head facing straight ahead. Without moving your head, look towards the left then look towards the right.

To increase blood circulation to nourish the eyes, stand up straight with your right index finger in front of your eyes. Now sway to the left then to the right while continuing to focus on your finger.

Imagination is visual. It gives us the ability to envision something that doesn’t exist. Maybe that’s why Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Many athletes use visualization to enhance their abilities. The famous golfer, Jack Nicklaus, for example, used visualization to prepare for tournaments. He would visualize a routine over and over again so when he actually had to perform, he would hit the ball perfectly.

Any change you want to make in your life begins in the imagination. To make that desired change, use visualization. Seated and in a relaxed state, close your eyes and imagine doing what’s necessary to make the desired change. Keep practising this visualization a couple of time a day until you get results.

Seeing is believing. You cannot believe in God unless you use your imagination.

-30-

 (from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

About Art for Housewives

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