A Material World: Ned Denny on How Clothes Can Reveal a Painting's Hidden Mysteries. (Art)

New Statesman (1996), July 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Material World: Ned Denny on How Clothes Can Reveal a Painting's Hidden Mysteries. (Art)


In The Doors of Perception, his excellent and undervalued account of an experiment with mescalin, the novelist Aldous Huxley relates how, deep into his trip, his gaze suddenly fell on his own crossed legs. Not his legs themselves, exactly, but the grey flannel in which they were sheathed, no longer a mere pair of trousers but a "labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity". Later on, with the effects of the drug beginning to wear off, Huxley is reminded of this sartorial epiphany while leafing through a Botticelli monograph. He flicks quickly past the more famous works and stops at a somewhat less familiar and not very good picture, Judith. My attention was arrested and I gazed in fascination... at the purplish silk of Judith's pleated bodice and long wind-blown skirts." Once again, the mysterious intricacies of folded cloth reduce him to open-mouthed silence.

So why this fascination with clothing? After a typically dazzling passage in which he discourses on the various ways in which artists throughout the ages have made painted draperies an active element of their pictures, Huxley comes to an interesting conclusion. "For the artist as for the mescalin taker," he surmises, "draperies are living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being." In a sense, this "unfathomable mystery", smuggled in via the complexities of folded cloth, is the secret subject of Judith or any great painting. And yet "Fabric of Vision: dress and drapery in painting", currently showing at the National Gallery, starts on a distinctly less esoteric note. A series of paired works, one a fully dressed figure and one a nude, illustrates the theory that the naked female form has always been painted to mimic the forms of contemporary fashion. "The nude woman in art," we are told breathlessly, "has looked her best to the contemporary eye when sh e seemed to be wearing the ghost of an absent dress." In effect, she should make the viewer feel as if he's wearing X-ray specs.

This opening gambit might be a good way of getting our attention, but it seems to miss the crucial point about fabric in art. Huxley, on the other hand, who doesn't even get a mention in the catalogue, makes it brilliantly. Clothes, his argument runs, simply because we all wear them most of the time over most of our bodies, take up a large proportion of any picture with figures in it. This abundance of abstract or near-abstract forms, with which the artist can take liberties, often sets the tone of an entire painting. …

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