This winter, London-based Somerset House is presenting a collection of some of the most iconic images by the 20th century illustrator René Gruau titled 'Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and the Line of Beauty'.
The exhibition, which will run till January 9, 2011, will showcase over forty original illustrations by Gruau (1909-2004) for Christian Dior Parfums, exquisite vintage perfume bottles, sketches, magazines and poster adverts.
The show will also feature a selection of Dior Haute Couture dresses personally selected by designer John Galliano including a special dress designed by Galliano himself, in homage to Gruau.
In addition, five of the UK's most cutting-edge illustrators - Jasper Goodall, Daisy Fletcher, Erin Petson, Richard Kilroy and Sarah Arnett - will showcase specially commissioned pieces for the exhibition.
Presented by Christian Dior Parfums in consultation with Somerset House, the exhibition is designed by Gitta Gschwendtner using a system of transparent gauze boxes in shades of red, pink and nude, with graphic design by Studio Frith.
Curators of the exhibition, Vincent Leret and Claire Catterall, in a brief interview discuss intriguing aspects of the exhibition, the unique collaboration between the illustrator and the House of Dior and the legacy of Gruau's work.
This exhibition looks at the creative collaboration between René Gruau and the House of Dior; could you tell us more about the special relationship between Gruau and Christian Dior and how it evolved?
Vincent Leret: René Gruau and Christian Dior's great friendship dates back to the 1930s when both men met on the fashion desk of the French newspaper Le Figaro. They came from the same bourgeois backgrounds, shared the same childhood dreams and had a very similar upbringing.
Their friendship deepened during World War II and the hardships of the years under German occupation.
When Christian Dior launched his first haute couture collection, the famous New Look in 1947, Gruau was extremely supportive. Having become a renowned fashion illustrator himself, he played a key role in the success of his close friend and confidant.
Tell us more about the relationship between the Dior perfumes and Gruau's illustrations. What makes his work for Dior so distinctive?
Vincent Leret: From the very beginning Christian Dior saw himself as much as a perfumer as a couturier. He considered women from a global aesthetic point of view, which was a new concept at the time; the Dior woman had to be dressed in Dior from head-to-toe, with matching perfume and accessories.
When Dior launched his first fragrance Miss Dior in 1947, he naturally turned to Gruau to create a series of drawings to illustrate the perfume. Dior instructed Gruau: Do exactly what you want; we speak the same language. Thus began one of the most fruitful relationships in illustration history.
Gruau invented for Dior a completely new advertising style, which was sophisticated, daring and humorous, all at the same time. He was the first one to break free of the product and rely on symbolic interpretations and enduring motifs - rather than simply drawing the bottles themselves. By doing so, he created a very powerful and iconic visual identity for the House of Dior.
The famous swan image, which was the first drawing in the series submitted by Gruau for Miss Dior, is a perfect example of the illustrator's work: the elegant white swan, whose long neck is adorned with a black ribbon, perfectly embodies the elegant, flirtatious and graceful character of the fragrance itself.
How have you chosen to organize the exhibition?
Vincent Leret: We have chosen to design the exhibition around five major themes in Gruau's work:
'Flower Woman' theme echoes Christian Dior's passion for flowers, which inspired him to create the New Look and to launch wonderful floral perfumes such as Diorissimo.
'Gesture & Attitude' reflects Gruau's ability to perfectly capture the moment and evoke whole worlds by the use of a simple, elegant posture or expression. Just like Dior, Gruau idealized his mother and her refinement. Each gesture, each attitude and each cigarette, all the smallest details of everyday life were elevated by Gruau's powerful style.
'Line & Silhouette' is a tribute to the new, bold lines invented by Dior and by Gruau to glorify women after the war.
'L'Homme Gruau' section shows how Gruau reinvented the image of men in advertising, introducing a new debonair and humorous spirit in his illustrations. Urban, relaxed, virile, yet tender, the Dior Parfums man was new because he escaped all the clichés of his time.
'A Shared Vision' ends this aesthetic journey by evoking the deep friendship between Dior and Gruau, which was rooted in a profound understanding of each other's views on taste and style. Together they developed new, modern aesthetic codes whose timeless quality make them as powerful and fresh today as they were when they were first conceived.
Why is this a good time to exhibit René Gruau's work?
Claire Catterall: There has never been a major showcase of René Gruau's work in the UK; in fact his last big show was in 1997 in the Musee de la Publicité at the Louvre, Paris. This is the first time so many of Gruau's works have been showcased in one place. The majority of works come from his 'golden period' of the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s.
Why in London? Why at Somerset House?
Claire Catterall: Gruau loved 'English elegance', and he loved the 18th Century - both things he shared with Christian Dior (who borrowed the famous Dior black and white 'houndstooth' motif from English tailoring). What better place to exhibit his work than in one of London's finest 18th Century buildings?
Why is the exhibition sub-titled 'The Line of Beauty'?
Claire Catterall: 'The Line of Beauty' in the title refers to the aesthetic theories of the 18th century English artist William Hogarth. Hogarth was intrigued by the concept of expressing ideals of beauty and grace through art.
He presented a curvaceous' shaped line as an example of a 'line of beauty', that would attract the viewer, also capturing movement and vitality. This s-shaped line, he argued, existed in many of the greatest artworks and was an inherent factor in their success. This use of the bold, sinuous line is characteristic of Gruau's illustrations.
What is the legacy and influence of his work on fashion illustration?
Claire Catterall: Gruau is acknowledged as one of the masters of fashion illustrators, and is known as 'the illustrator's illustrator'. His influence on fashion illustration is immense; whole schools have grown up around him. His economical style, reduced to a few simple lines and blocks of flat color, his daring use of negative space all gave his work an incredibly dramatic and modern quality, full of vitality and movement. He conveys whole worlds in a few simple brushstrokes.