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  • Writer's pictureDenise Bishop

Karen LaMonte: Théâtre de la Mode

Sculpture Exhibit Now Open At The Barry Art Museum

Karen LaMonte, Étude 12, cast glass, 2017. On loan from Karen LaMonte.

Words by Denise Bishop. Images courtesy of the Barry Art Museum as credited.

There is an exciting new exhibit at the Barry Art Museum that combines aspects of fashion, lighting, sculpture, and theatre (with hints of movement & music) in a remarkably unique way! Karen LaMonte’s Théâtre de la Mode exhibit opened on Friday, September 10, and I was fortunate to attend a virtual pre-opening event the Thursday prior, hosted by the museum director, the artist, experts, and collaborators.

But first, a little backstory: Théâtre de la Mode was a touring exhibit in 1945-1946 which consisted of wire mannequins at approximately ⅓ human scale wearing equally small-scale clothing designed by top Paris fashion designers. The exhibit was created in the wake of World War II when France’s economy was devastated, and it was an attempt to generate revenue to fund the war-relief effort. LaMonte was deeply influenced by the French mannequins, saying, “The small scale of (Théâtre de la Mode) with its large intention and effect...was a declaration of the importance of beauty and culture particularly during difficult and confusing times.” This was also a way to say that “art was commercially viable and could save the war-torn economy.”

The contrast of beauty and art coming out of the unprecedented devastation of World War II is paralleled by the timeline of this particular exhibit which came to fruition entirely during the current global coronavirus pandemic. First suggested in October 2020 and designed and mounted in less than a year during a global pandemic, LaMonte collaborated with museum staff and the Theatre Department of Old Dominion University to create this exhibit. Interestingly, LaMonte wasn’t the only person drawing inspiration from Théâtre de la Mode in 2020. Dior’s and Jeremy Scott’s 2020 fashion releases were inspired by it as well.

The pre-opening event last Thursday included some history of fashion dolls including the Queen Anne doll, the Pandora doll, Cissy, Barbie, etc. As it happens, the Barry Art Museum has its own collection of historic fashion dolls which made this collaboration a sort of kismet. According to expert doll collector Bruce de Armond, Théâtre de la Mode used the earlier concept of the Pandora doll and “brought together a number of talents to show the world that creativity was still there. That fashion was alive and it was ready to move forward.” According to the press release for this exhibit, “A selection of the original French mannequins, on loan from Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, will be on view to offer a richer historical context.”

As part of this exhibit, there are selections from LaMonte’s life-size series of Nocturnes as well as her ⅓-scale series of Études. In the pre-opening event, LaMonte explained that as she began work on the Nocturnes, sewing and draping evening gowns on nude mannequins, she didn’t feel confident in her sewing ability at first. She remembered Théâtre de la Mode and decided to pause work on the Nocturnes and make some on a smaller scale. That’s how the Études originated. (In music, an étude is a short piece, often used for practice, which helps a musician learn and build technique on their instrument.) This allowed her to hone her technique on the smaller scale before completing the full-size Nocturnes. After the gowns were built, LaMonte worked with German chemists to create a very specific type of glass where it is darker where the fabric is thicker and lighter where it is thinner. The selections on display at the Barry are cast glass, iron, and bronze.

Karen LaMonte, Étude 13, cast glass, 2017. On loan from Karen LaMonte.

In 2016, her Nocturnes were installed on a stage, and she wanted to do the same with the Études (in the same manner that Théâtre de la Mode used scenery to display the fashion dolls). She tried a puppet theatre, but it was the wrong scale for the Études. She kept the idea in mind, and this is the first time the Études are displayed on theatrical sets.

James Lyden and Elwood Robinson of the ODU Theatre Department designed three stages for this exhibit. The first stage is known as The Theatre. It was inspired by Christian Berard’s set for Théâtre de la Mode, and the colors were inspired by Marie Antoinette’s play theatre. This stage uses forced perspective and a catwalk for added theatricality.

The second stage is the Port of Nowhere and is somewhat post-apocalyptic. Said LaMonte, it was “once a beautiful place that has been beaten up a little bit.” They paired white bronze Études with this stage.

The third stage was designed after La Grotte Enchantée (one of the original sets for Théâtre de la Mode) by French designer André Beaurepaire and was paired with rusted iron sculptures. For the set, Robinson said he was inspired by an artist’s sketchbook, and “the bas relief style gives a good sense of depth in a 2D drawing.” He also mentioned the contrast of the 3D sculptures against the 2D feel of the set.

Rounding out this exhibition are photographs of LaMonte’s Nocturnes installed in historic theatres (including the Estates Theatre in downtown Prague where Mozart premiered his opera Don Giovanni) showcasing the power of the empty dresses in an empty theatre.

Karen LaMonte’s Théâtre de la Mode exhibit will run through January 2, 2022 at the Barry Art Museum, 1075 W. 43rd Street in Norfolk, VA.

More information:

For the history of the Pandora doll to current times, listen to this podcast.

For historic images of the original sets of the Théâtre de la Mode, visit Maryhill Art Museum’s online exhibition.

An article with video on Jeremy Scott’s Théâtre de la Mode-inspired 2020 fashion release.

Check out this video of Karen LaMonte explaining her interest in Théâtre de la Mode and subsequent artworks inspiring her Nocturnes:

And this video of the Dior Théâtre de la Mode-inspired 2020 fashion release:

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