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Jean Cocteau

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Théâtre de la Mode, part VI: Loss & Rebirth—Again

(For the start of this on again-off again series on the Théâtre de la Mode, please see my blog of March 14, My visit to the Théâtre de la Mode, part 1.)

In 1983, Professor Stanley Garfinkel of Kent State University was told about the Théâtre while researching at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The next year he went to Paris where he met Eliane Bonabel and Jean Saint-Martin (the designer of the dolls and the wire artist who made their structures) and he presented the story to Susan Train, the Paris Editor for American Vogue. No one in Paris knew of the dolls' continuing existence at Maryhill. A Franco-American partnership was spearheaded by Garfinkel and Train.

In the mid 1980s the dolls were sent to Paris for meticulous restoration, and in a few cases, total recreation. All but a few of the sets were recreated by Anne Surgers.

In 1990 the exhibition reopened in Paris, later traveling to New York, Tokyo, Baltimore, London, Portland and Honolulu before settling back at Maryhill in 1995. It is on permanent rotating display there, with three of the sets on view at any one time.

Eliane Bonabel with the dolls in 1991

In searching for information about the restoration of the Théâtre, I came across a Telos film called Théâtre de la Mode.

The film has a double poignancy in that it was made along with the exhibit's restoration. Many of the people interviewed were involved with the original project and are now gone. The restoration (and the film) seem to have come from a cusp time: Society was finally eager again to see this work of couture's past greatness, and it was not too late to find some of the original creators. Robert Ricci (son of Nina Ricci), who was instrumental from the conception of the Théâtre de la Mode, died two weeks after he was interviewed for the film. Eliane Bonabel, Stanley Garfinkel, Jean Saint-Martin, all but one of the set designers, and all the fashion designers are gone now.

Eliane Bonabel, a beautiful 72-year old in 1991, was the highlight of the film for me. She describes the Cocteau set, saying that he gave only vague instructions about the set-up and meaning. It was clearly a bombed out building, and a bride is lying dead while her spirit flies off, a symbol of hope and rebirth. The other dolls look on in shock and sorrow. The couturiers at first balked at having their creations appear in such a scene, clearly a reference to The War, but eventually all consented, agreeing that the gowns were even more beautiful in this setting.

The original Cocteau set in 1945


The film is in all ways touching, a reminder of the loss that inspired the Théâtre de la Mode, and the rebirth that was in turn inspired by it. Now it has been 20 years since the newly resurrected Théâtre and we have lost so many more people tied to the exhibit—but we still have their dolls. Susan Train wrote of the dolls in her introduction to the book Théâtre de la Mode:
Born at a moment in history and under circumstances that were more than difficult, but in an élan of solidarity and hope for the future, they stand also for the creative ability, skills, and pride in perfection of detail of the artisans, couturiers, and artists of France. Their message is as strong today as it was in 1945-1946 when they carried it through Europe and to the United States and, inanimate though they appear to be, they are in fact, like the phoenix, a symbol of life.
Doll dressed by Madame Grès, photographed by David Seidner,
shown on the cover of the Telos film Théâtre de la Mode

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Théâtre de la Mode, part III: The Sets

"Le Théâtre," the grand set originally created by Christian Bérard, gave the show its name. The recreated set is featured on the cover of a book devoted to the history of the exhibition.

The Théâtre de la Mode's artful dolls and their fashions were displayed in a series of décors, or sets, each designed by an artist or set designer.

The Théâtre made its debut in Paris on March 27, 1945 and it was still being shown when the war ended in May. By then 100,000 French had seen the exhibit, and it traveled to England, where it attracted even more visitors. Parts of the exhibit were shown in capitals throughout Europe and Scandinavia. In the spring of 1946 the fashions were updated and the show went to New York. Everywhere it went, the Théâtre dazzled and charmed, reestablishing French fashion leadership.

The last stop for the Théâtre de la Mode was San Francisco, where it opened on September 12, 1946. After the exhibition closed, the sets and dolls were stored at the City of Paris department store, and by the 50s, with French couture thriving, the exhibition was abandoned and presumed destroyed. It had served its purpose.

In fact, most of the dolls survived but the sets did not.

The sets now seen at Maryhill, on rotation, are recreations. Of the 12 original sets, 9 were recreated.

The variety in these sets is remarkable.

In Jean Saint-Martin’s "Croquis de Paris," the artist used wire to create his "sketch" (photo, denisebrain)

Maryhill’s Théâtre de la Mode is currently featuring Jean Cocteau’s Ma Femme est une Sorcière (My Wife is a Witch), and Jean Saint-Martin’s Croquis de Paris (Paris Sketch), both originally created in 1945 and re-created in 1990 by Anne Surgers. Also on view is Scène du Rue (Street Scene) created by Anne Surgers as a replacement for Georges Wakhevitch’s set The Port of Nowhere, 1945.

Anne Surger's "Scène du Rue" (photo, denisebrain)

Jean Cocteau's "Ma Femme est une Sorcière" (photo, denisebrain)

Cocteau's dreamlike set was a tribute to the French filmmaker René Claire. The dolls in beautiful gowns, exposed to ghastly gashes in the surrounding architecture were haunting—I'd even say disturbing—to me. The creation dates from the Paris of WWII, and one can only imagine the feelings this set must have stirred.

Detail of Cocteau's set, gown by Worth (photo, denisebrain)

Gowns by Mad Carpentier and Calixte (photo, denisebrain) click on any of my photos for a closer view

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My visit to the Théâtre de la Mode, part I


Taking a closer look at an ivory silk damask evening dress by Worth in a set designed by Jean Cocteau (photo, denisebrain)

I've never been to France, but recently had the feeling of traveling through both time and space to the Paris of 1944-46. The occasion was a visit to the ongoing exhibition of the Théâtre de la Mode at the Maryhill Museum of Art near the town of Goldendale, Washington.

The museum stands quite alone, a grand chateau located on a precipice overlooking the Columbia River Gorge.

A view from the Maryhill Museum grounds on the cold November day I visited (photo, denisebrain)
It is home to an eclectic collection of art, including the Théâtre.

Created in Paris starting in 1944, the Théâtre de la Mode is a work of haute couture, theater and art, with stage sets and dolls designed and created by artists, and fashions by over 55 design houses. They came together for the survival of haute couture.

Some of the clothing designers who dressed these artful dolls in miniature versions of their best and most current fashions include Balmain, Balenciaga, Fath, Hermès, Lanvin, Paquin, Schiaparelli and Ricci.

I'll be writing more about this incredible exhibit as I get a chance in the next several months.


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