California Baptist University
The Oblivious and the Concealed: A Tale of Two Dresses
Carol Kinney Student ID 503951 ART 387 BE Contemporary Visual Arts and Culture Samuel Park November 22, 2013
If Khalil Gibran is correct, then “art is a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed (BrainyQuote.com).” Zac Posen’s Wedding Dress: Dress and Train and Karen LaMonte’s Evening Dress with Shawl were both created in 2004 and exemplify a transformation of “what is obvious and well-know” into the “arcane and concealed.” Posen and LaMonte have chosen different paths to achieve the same goal; Posen’s is a natural work of art and LaMonte’s is abstract. Viewers are able to clearly identify the works as dresses, but the beauty of each dress is that there are hidden symbols and contexts within the work. However, the mystery and concealment of art can be revealed with a little effort on the viewer’s part. Erwin Panofsky and Roger Fry have developed systems in which created objects of art are evaluated and understood for context. Panofsky’s iconology is a tri-level study of art in order to gain understanding of aesthetics, symbolism and meaning (Howells and Negreiros 24-25). “Fry’s process [elements of design] of studying the lines, mass, space, light/shade, and color of art is meant to allow the viewer to form and emotional bond with the object from a more imaginative(Howells and Negreiros 42)” perspective. When viewers evaluate Posen’s and LaMonte’s dresses by using both Panofsky’s and Fry’s processes, the “concealed” that Gibran speaks of becomes revealed. Panofsky’s iconology, “the branch of art history which ‘concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art’ (Howells and Negreiros 24)” encourages the viewer to study works of art at three different levels: primary, secondary and tertiary. At the primary, or “natural level (Howells and Negreiros 24-25)” the viewer only identifies the “very basic subject-matter” of art. At this level, the viewer identifies Posen’s and LaMonte’s pieces as art because a dress is easily recognized and understood. No other information about the dresses is needed to identify the subject matter. At the “secondary, or conventional level (Howells and Negreiros 25)” of Panofsky’s iconology “is where the real work begins” for the viewer. At the secondary level, the viewer studies the work of art
and applies what they already know about a wide variety of topics and disciplines from a “cultural” viewpoint in order to interpret the work. This level required conscious critical thinking on the viewer’s part. At the tertiary or “intrinsic” level of iconology, the viewer does not consciously interpret hidden meanings of the art, but the viewer’s worldviews and stored thoughts help determine the meaning of the object. By studying Posen’s and LaMonte’s dresses using Panofsky’s iconology, the viewer is able to uncover the “arcane and concealed” in each piece. Posen’s Wedding Dress: Dress and Train is a naturalistic and functional work of art. Not only is Posen not what most people would call and artist, but the fashion designer did not set out to create a work of art that would be on display in museums. At the primary level of Panofsky’s iconology, the viewer can clearly identify the subject as a blazing crimson, fuchsia, and orange woman’s formal dress. It is also clear that the piece is an actual dress that is meant to be worn. No other information is needed to understand the subject. However, the second and third levels of iconology are needed to understand the hidden symbolism and appreciate the beauty of Posen’s dress. At the secondary level, the viewer can understand what transforms this dress into a work of art that is part of a traveling art exhibition “Something Old, Something New: A World of Bridal Fashion” from a group called International Arts & Artists. At this level, the viewer learns that the dress is a wedding dress. Posen says Wedding Dress: Dress and Train is for his sister “who is not a white dress kind of girl (Haight, Sarah 2008).” The dress is also designed to “replicate the poppy fields in the movie The Wizard of Oz (Haight, S. 2008),” which Posen says grow wild in the field of their parents’ home where the wedding takes place. “The dress just became a part of the whole experience (Haight, S. 2008).” Given this information, the context of Posen’s piece is understood by the viewer. The viewer must make a conscious effort to learn this information about Posen’s piece or the meaning cannot be understood.
While the viewer is learning about Posen’s dress and the reasons that the designer created it, the viewer is unconsciously drawing from cultural knowledge and experience to interpret the learned information. This third level, the viewer understands that the dress is made from typical material, silk and organza, but the vibrant colors are not typical of western wedding gowns. The viewer is also most likely aware that the wedding trends of 2004 are similar or the same as the wedding trends of 2013. In 2004, the trend to make “the big day as interesting and personal as possible (Fox News 2004)” still continues in 2013. It is also highly likely that the viewer has knowledge of what the poppy fields look like from the classic movie and the viewer can picture an outdoor setting of a wedding. The viewer does not need to think about this information; it is stored knowledge that helps interpret what is learned. When the first, second and tertiary levels of Panofsky’s iconology are all applied, the viewer learns why Posen’s Wedding Dress: Dress and Train is not an average wedding gown. It has hidden symbolism and cultural references and its form, medium and function make it a naturalistic work of art. At the primary level of iconology, the viewer understands Karen LaMonte’s Evening Dress with Shawl in the same way as Posen’s dress. At first glance, LaMonte’s art is an impressive dress made from glass, accessorized by a matching shawl. However, to understand how LaMonte’s dress is different from Posen’s dress, the viewer must move to the second and third levels of Panofsky’s iconology. It is at those levels that the viewer discovers that LaMonte’s dress is an abstract representation, as opposed to Posen’s naturalistic dress. Iconology helps the viewer to understand Posen’s underlying intent in his creation, but does not detract from the fact that Posen’s dress is actually a dress. Iconology only enhances the viewing experience of Posen’s piece. However, this is not the case with LaMonte’s piece because the artist’s intent was not to portray a dress at all. At Panofsky’s second and third levels of iconology is where the abstractness of the piece is revealed.
LaMonte says she works in the glass medium to show both “presence . . . and absence (Oldknow, Tina 2008),” which is the intended meaning of Evening Dress with Shawl. Again, at first glance, LaMonte’s piece appears to be just a dress made out of glass, but when the viewer looks slightly closer, the outline of a human form can be seen under the dress. To fully embrace LaMonte’s intent, the viewer must consciously learn more about the statement the artist is making at Panofsky’s second level of iconology. Originally, LaMonte does set out to “just . . . make a dress (Oldknow, Tina 2008)” out of glass, but early in the process discovers that she has a metaphorical statement about society. That statement is that society is contradictory in that there is interdependent dictates that present presence and absence at the same time. LaMonte asks the viewer “Do we define our societies? . . . Or is the society defining us (Oldknow, Tina 2008)?” By using glass as the medium, LaMonte emphasizes the duality in that both the dress and the human form are both present and absent at the same time. Also at the second level of iconology, the viewer learns that LaMonte also makes a statement about women, clothing and society. In all of LaMonte’s large-scale glass castings of dresses and the female body, the artist challenges the viewer to consider societal expectations of women (Rice, Robin 2008). In Robin Rice’s essay about LaMonte’s creations, Rice quotes LaMonte: “Apparel radiates its wearer’s physicality like a discarded shell or an outermost layer of skin. It is our second skin, our social skin.” Rice states that LaMonte challenges societal norms of women’s clothing that are “distortions” of truths about a woman’s true beauty by placing “social restrictions on women’s freedom” to choose what to wear. LaMonte also addresses male thought that the female reproductive system is a “vessel (Rice, Robin 2008),” much like glass objects are typically “functional . . . literal vessels.” The clear glass symbolizes both absence and presence that challenges the thought that women’s bodies are merely reproductive vessels, only to be judged by males for the outer beauty and usefulness to males. LaMonte is also challenging the viewer to consider how women are viewed in different cultural societies, and how
clothing dictates treatment of them by men (Oldknow, Tina 2008). The relationship between the shawl and the dress also addresses this dual expectation of women’s clothing by men; men want to see the naked female body themselves, but they also expect women to not reveal their bodies to the entire world. Again, LaMonte’s intent is to show that women are objectified by men and clothing is used by men to perpetuate this. Panofsky’s third level of iconology is helpful in understanding LaMonte’s statement about women and clothing. In 2004, at the time that LaMonte created Evening Dress with Shawl, the events of September 11, 2001 is still mentally fresh, as are the constant presence of war in the Middle East. Included in this memory, women’s rights in the Middle East are examined and scrutinized (Ottaway, Marina 2004). Also in 2004, Facebook is launched, social media becomes an integral part of life, and one of the topics that a vast majority of people are talking about on Facebook is the Middle East and other parts of the world that do not embrace Western societal values and culture (Kirkpatrick 2010). Additionally, personal freedoms are a topic that people are debating (Bouchard, Jeff 2013). LaMonte makes her statement on women’s clothing for all women, but in 2004 she is challenging the world to consider how fashion and men dictate how a woman views herself and her body and how clothing strips personal freedoms of women in non-Western cultures. Because the events of 9/11 and all related topics are still woven into society, it is easy to assume that virtually every viewer of LaMonte’s Evening Dress with Shawl would have these bits of information to unconsciously interpret the learned intent of the artist. Just as Panofsky’s iconology helps the viewer to understand the meaning of Posen’s Wedding Dress: Dress and Train, it helps to uncover the abstract reasoning behind LaMonte’s intent of Evening Dress with Shawl. It is not a glass dress, but rather an idea that there exists a dual reality in that both absence and presence can be shown at the same time
and how society has both expectations and dictations of women and their bodies and cultural consequences for not following those dictates. Where Panofsky’s iconology is an intellectual exercise for the viewer, Roger Fry challenges the viewer to approach art from an emotional viewpoint by studying the various elements of the design. Fry’s approach to studying art is that artists reveal the hidden meaning of their work through “emotional elements of design (Howells and Negreiros 43), which are, as previously mentioned, line, mass, space, light and shade, and color (c.f. Howells and Negreiros 42). In other words, Fry’s theory is that meaning of art is found in the viewer’s attachment to form rather than through “structured (Howells and Negreiros 43)” thinking. Fry also believes that art is the “expression of the imaginative life rather than a copy of actual life (Howells and Negreiros 42).” Contrary to Fry’s overall thesis, this imaginative life can be portrayed in different ways: in naturalistic and abstract. As other art theorists debate Fry’s full theory of the relationship of emotion in order to define what is or is not art (Howells and Negreiros 45-59), both Posen’s and LaMonte’s dresses can be examined for the emotional impact based upon just the five element of Fry’s theory of form. The first element of design that Fry says has emotional impact is “the rhythm of the line (Howells and Negreiros 42). An examination of Posen’s dress shows that it has long, flowing straight lines that only slightly curve diagonally toward the bottom where the dress pools on the floor or grounds. The bodice of Posen’s strapless dress also has shorter, curvier concave lines at the bust line and the back. However, the curvature of these lines is subtle, just like the long line of the gown is only very slightly interrupted by raised flowers. By studying the only the lines of Posen’s dress, no hidden meaning or context is revealed because the elements are typical of most wedding gowns.
On the other hand, the lines in LaMonte’s dress begin to reveal the abstract thoughts that the artist intended to convey. LaMonte’s dress also has long flowing lines in both the dress and the shawl, yet there are also clear horizontal and angular lines that agree with the theme of absence and presence. Laurie Schneider Adams says that lines such as the long, flowing, slightly diagonal lines on Posen’s dress are “slow [and] graceful (Looking at Art 53)” which agrees with a naturalistic view of wedding gowns. Conversely, Adams says that when an artist uses a variety of angles and lines, such as is the case in LaMonte’s dress, “it is consistent with the [idea] that the figure is . . . in motion (54).” Adams also states that “such open spaces (54)” like the ones LaMonte uses through the medium, in the design of the dress and shawl and the open space between the dress and the shawl, is intentional to relate motion and Posen’s closed spaces of lines is more consistent with a relaxed state (56). Even though LaMonte’s use of lines hints at a hidden abstract meaning, like Posen’s dress, the full emotional impact is not yet revealed. The second element of Fry’s theory is mass. Both Posen’s and LaMonte’s dresses appear to have greater “volume (Howells and Negreiros 42)” than they actually have, and both artists use the same means to achieve this. Posen manipulates the fabric medium to create larger than life poppy appliqués to achieve volume and LaMonte uses the glass medium with the same result. Both artists also use live, female models to “control (Adams 52)” the medium. Studying mass of Posen’s dress begins to reveal the hidden meaning and elicit an emotional response from the viewer, although not fully. Studying the mass of LaMonte’s dress reveals nothing more, except to impress upon the viewer the uniqueness of a life-sized glass object. The third element of Fry’s theory is space. The naturalistic aspect of Posen’s dress is found in the space that it occupies. The artists dress is also fully functional as clothing in the typical wedding setting, yet it is also credible as art in a museum. As mentioned in the element of line, there is no “air space
(Adams 63)” within the shape of the dress and fits a female figure typically of a wedding gown. In contrast, LaMonte’s dress follows the artists abstract thought in that the dress is not functional outside the setting of the museum. LaMonte also uses space to between the dress and the shawl to reveal the artists statement about the male expectations of women’s clothing, and the empty space inside the dress to make a statement about the female reproductive system. Overall, LaMonte’s use of space highlights the artist’s dual arching statement regarding presence and absence coexisting. The setting of Posen’s gown communicates emotion for the viewer in either the wedding or museum setting. The space of LaMonte’s dress communicates emotion in the abstract meaning more than the setting. The fourth element of Fry’s theory is light and shade. Posen’s dress is naturalist; the artist’s use of the element is designed mainly with his sister’s skin tone and preference in mind (Haight, Sarah 2008). LaMonte uses light and shade in an abstract manner to reveal the “obvious and well-known (Gibran, Khalil, Brainyquote.com)” and what is “arcane and concealed” at the same time. Posen uses various shades of color and natural lighting to illuminate the dress, but LaMonte uses light and shading to not only enhance what is present, but what is absent. Posen, a fashion designer, uses lighting to enhance features of the garment or the person who will wear it; LaMonte’s use of lighting to reveal hidden meaning. Yet both artists manipulate light and shade to communicate emotion and setting affects how light and shade is used. As previously stated, the setting of LaMonte’s dress is only in museums where lighting is manipulated to highlight works of art, but the light and shade of Posen’s dress is affect by the setting and is different when worn by his sister at her wedding than it is in a museum. The last element of Fry’s theory is color. Both dresses use color, or the lack of color to symbolize context and elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Posen’s dress has both primary and secondary meanings of the bold colors; LaMonte’s dress is opaque and clear which point the viewer to the abstract meaning of the piece.
Posen’s dress challenges the norms in color and causes the viewer
to accept or reject the created work. The challenge for the viewer is to imagine a wedding dress that is not white or off-white. Through color, Posen is also making a statement about his sister’s personality. By using crimson, fuchsia and orange, the artist is revealing that his sister is extroverted, “meant to be happy (Spriggs, Maleeka, 2013),” is “good natured, likable and social,” and that she is “a person with desire, appetite [and] a will to live life fully (c.f. Haight, Sarah 2008). While Posen’s dress was a naturalistic interpretation of a specific person’s personality, LaMonte uses color in a different way. LaMonte uses lack of color and an opaque variation on the lack of color to further emphasize the abstract theme of the duality of presence and absence. Both Posen’s naturalistic dress and LaMonte’s abstract dress strive to elicit and emotional response from the viewer. Fry’s theory is useful in studying both Posen’s Wedding Dress: Dress with Train and LaMonte’s Evening Dress with Shawl in that the viewer can see how form can communicate emotion (Howells and Negreiros 43). All five of Fry’s elements show the viewer that some level of emotional response and meaning is revealed in the form of the works of art. However, Fry’s theory stops being useful to the viewer attempts to apply Fry’s thought that only art that is not a “portrayal of reality (Howells and Negreiros 43; 55).” If the viewer were to take Fry’s theory into consideration, neither dress is considered art since both dresses are or appear to be replications of a tangible object. However by using both Fry’s elements of design theory and Panofsky’s iconology in concert with one another, both dresses are valued as authentic works of art. By using both theories the viewer gains understanding of Zac Posen’s Wedding Dress: Dress and Train and Karen LaMonte’s Evening Dress with Shawl. Panofsky’s iconology acts as an intellectual guide for the viewer in uncovering hidden contexts and symbolisms that challenge societal norms. Fry’s theory of form challenges the viewer to understand the artists’ hidden reasons for choosing the elements in the works. Fry’s theory also shows how emotion is communicated in both the naturalistic and abstract
versions of a simple dress. Where Fry’s theory falls short for the viewer is that both Posen’s and LaMonte’s dresses are works of art, based upon his own theory. Panofsky’s and Fry’s theories work together to uncover the truth that both Posen and LaMonte are artists that dared to think beyond the “obvious and well-known (Gibran, Kalil, Brainyquote.com) into the realm of “the arcane and concealed.”
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Spriggs, Maleeka. “Favorite Color Reveals Personality Type.” Weekly World News. Bat Boy LLC. 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013. < http://weeklyworldnews.com/headlines/12653/favorite-color-reveals-personality-type/>. “Wedding Trends: Making It Personal.” Fox News. Fox News Network, LLC, 29 Mar. 2004. Web. 07 Nov. 2013. <http://www.foxnews.com/story/2004/03/29/wedding-trends-making-it-personal/>. Images:
Zac Posen, Wedding Dress: Dress and Train, 2004, silk and organza. <http://www.artsandartists.org/exhibitions-somethingold-somethingnew.php>.
Karen LaMonte, Evening Dress with Shawl, 2004, cast glass. Photo by Nick Kinney at Crossroads Gallery at The Corning Museum of Glass (2013), used with permission.