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Surrealist? Modernist? Artist? - The vicissitudes of Elsa Schiaparelli

West, Emma 2016. Surrealist? Modernist? Artist? - The vicissitudes of Elsa Schiaparelli. In: Allmer, Patricia ed. Intersections - Women Artists/Surrealism/Modernism, Rethinking Art's Histories, Manchester: Manchester University Press,

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Elsa Schiaparelli has been variously portrayed as a surrealist, a modernist, an artist and a designer. Described by Chanel as ‘that Italian artist who makes clothes’, in her three decades as a couturier Schiaparelli drew on, engaged with and transformed schools of modernist and surrealist art and design, working with figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí. This article considers Schiaparelli’s interactions with both modernism and surrealism, asking how her experience as a woman and designer affected her status as artist/surrealist/modernist. In reference to writing about and by Schiaparelli, her fashion designs, and theorisations of modernism and surrealism, I question the usefulness of such categories while also utilising them to explore the vicissitudes of Schiaparelli’s liminal position – both and neither artist/designer, modernist/surrealist. Throughout her oeuvre, Schiaparelli exhibits hallmarks of each category: her surreal incorporation of the trompe l’oeil and objets trouvé and her externalisation of subliminal desires; her modernist preoccupation with architectural purity, colour and form; her commitment to vanguard aesthetics over conventional ideas of beauty; and her shrewd marketing of the new, shocking and daring. In incorporating elements from these often contradictory categories, all within the “feminine” sphere of fashion, Schiaparelli’s work destabilises prevailing definitions of modernist and surrealist art, revealing parallels and tensions between the two movements. In performing aspects of both modernism and surrealism, Schiaparelli’s designs resist definition as either. Drawing on the work of Yuri Lotman, I argue that her designs are ‘cultural translations’ of both surrealist and modernist art. In them, she adapts, embodies and popularises niche, abstract, ‘masculine’ notions into garments that women actually wore, subverting ideas of femininity, the ‘modern woman’, fashion, and modernist/surrealist art in the process.

Item Type: Book Section
Date Type: Publication
Status: In Press
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
Uncontrolled Keywords: modernism, surrealism, fashion, Schiaparelli, cultural translation, mass culture
Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 9780719096488
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Last Modified: 17 Jun 2017 11:07

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