Lewis Carroll cannot take complete credit for the expression: “as mad as a hatter”. Even before he created the most famous tea party in world literature, hatters had quite a reputation. The mercury compounds used in 19th century hat making induced a range of symptoms including trembling fits and mood swings.
It is unlikely that many visitors to the Queensland Art Gallery’s Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, will be stricken by violent mood swings. The overall tone is mildly frivolous – a piece of popular entertainment rather than a disorienting immersion in the cauldron of contemporary art. This is the first of two international fashion exhibitions to be held at the QAG this year, with the Valentino retrospective coming up in August. Last year saw a show devoted to local designers, Easton Pearson.
Is the QAG overdoing the fashion at the expense of art? I’ve heard this opinion on several occasions, but it would be premature to pass judgement. The contra argument for these shows is easy to state: a righteous distaste for the serious business of art being displaced by the commercial fripperies of fashion. It’s easy to accept that significant works of art may not be instantly comprehensible and appealing. Perhaps good art entails a degree of elitism, requiring a certain amount of knowledge from viewers, or at least the willingness to spend time acquiring that knowledge.
It is less appealing when such criticisms are merely the fruit of snobbery. Snobs – of the intellectual or social variety – take an obscene pleasure in the idea that they possess something the rest of the world envies but cannot acquire. When the masses jump on a bandwagon, the snob jumps off.
The pro argument is all to do with audience-building. If the QAG can draw crowds with fashion shows then they serve a useful purpose. Those who come to peer at frocks may stay to look at paintings, and discover a taste for art.
If I incline towards the pro rather than the contra, it is partly because it is difficult to make a case for the significance and seriousness of much contemporary art. When Patricia Piccinini’s fans view a bunch of silicone toys as an incisive comment on genetic engineering, it’s time to buy them a book by Richard Dawkins. When Jeff Koons stands in front of a huge, stainless steel sculpture of a balloon dog and tells us how “spiritual” it is, it’s time to pass the bucket.
The false seriousness of contemporary art is not merely a bore or a marketing ploy, it is pernicious. We are continually told that a work is witty or funny or insightful, when it is purely banal. Such claims ultimately destroy our capacity for wonder and pleasure. It is like listening to Parliament and trying to retain any faith in the intelligence or nobility of politicians.
In this context, shows such as Hats have a role to play as civilised divertissements. Go in unprepared and one can hardly fail to be charmed by this extraordinary array of headgear sourced from the holdings of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, along with many other private and public collections. The anthologist, Stephen Jones, of Covent Garden, is one of the world’s most fashionable milliners, accustomed to working closely with designers such as John Galliano, Rei Kawakubo and Marc Jacobs.
The title of the show is modelled on a ground-breaking survey at the V&A, organised by celebrity photographer, Cecil Beaton, in 1971. Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton, brought the world of haute couture onto a new plane of cultural respectability. It celebrated the creativity of leading designers and the style of their clients. It treated taste as a form of amazing grace bestowed by a fastidious deity, and it worked as a supreme advertisement for Cecil Beaton.
Hats is no less a protracted advertisement for Stephen Jones. A large percentage of this show is drawn from Jones’s personal collections. Every historical helmet or headdress seems to share a vitrine with one of his contemporary adaptations. Even the catalogue reads like a sales brochure for the discerning client.
It would be slightly repellent if it wasn’t so shameless, and so much fun. Jones himself comes across as the archetypal fashion victim, having run the sub-cultural gauntlet, from punk to neo-romantic and beyond. On the way, he has acted like a creative kleptomaniac, borrowing motifs from displays in museums, old Hollywood films, different cultures and ethnic groups, landscape, architecture and everyday life. Nothing has been too grand or small, too exotic or humdrum, to escape his omnivorous appetite. No sooner has he sucked in an idea than a hat will emerge from his workshop. In the catalogue one flips from a straw hat echoing a rock formation in Utah to a cap covered in miniature fruit and vegetables, based on a costermonger’s trolley; to a geometric design drawn from the symbol for the London underground.
Jones describes the hat as not only an extension of the personality, but as “a primary act of being.” He notes how New Guinea tribesmen may go almost naked apart from an elaborate feather headdress.
The show is punctuated by old newsreel films that instruct women on how to buy a hat, or convey documentary information about this mysterious industry to the general public. They are primarily advertisements but nonetheless amusing in the patronising tone they adopt in regard to feminine desires.
From the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1950s it was a golden age for the hat business. Not only were hats obligatory items of everyday wear, there was a thriving market for more exclusive items made for special occasions. The salons of the big New York milliners were so glittering and otherworldly they might have been designed by Walt Disney or Salvador Dalí.
The great era of hats may be over, but Stephen Jones and peers such as Philip Treacy seem to be making a very nice living catering to the rich and famous. There has always been a peculiar intimacy in the relationship between a milliner and his or her customers, and this is no less true today. Jones admits, pragmatically, that a hat is nothing but an inanimate object when it is not being worn. It is the personality of the client, be it the Princess of Wales or Dita Von Teese, that brings a hat to life and ensures a legion of imitations will follow.
A hat may be a device for protecting us from the elements, but as this show demonstrates, it is also one of the supreme fantasy objects. While there are those, such as yours truly, that hardly ever wear a hat, there are individuals who seem diminished without one. A hat is always a statement of some kind, often dramatic, which is perhaps why we have become less inclined to wear them. Contrary to the claims of fashion, most people would prefer to blend in with the crowd rather than stand out. Many dedicated conformists will see this show and imagine – momentarily – what it might be like to put on a hat and assume a fabulous new identity.
One emerges from Hats only to step into a different world of fantasy: James Fardoulys: A Queensland Naïve Artist. According to curator, Glenn Cooke, this is the first time one of Australia’s major public galleries has hosted a retrospective by a naïve artist, and Fardoulys (1900-65) is a worthy recipient.
Fardoulys was born on the island of Kythera, and came to Australia at the age of 14. Following the footsteps of a multitude of Greek migrants, he began working in cafes, but gave up and joined a travelling vaudeville show when he married a ventriloquist. After five years or so, the family settled in Brisbane, where Fardoulys became a taxi driver, devoting his spare time to painting.
Almost immediately, his bright, colourful pictures won him admirers, including Roy and Betty Churcher, and Barry Humphries. Looking at this collection of almost fifty works, blissfully free from conventions such as perspective, happy to jumble historical fact with fantasy, the appeal of Fardoulys’s work is undiminished. It may be the departure of Burke and Wills, or a portrait of his cat, Doula, but Fardoulys approaches every task with the same love of “depth and clarity”. No matter how distant the details, Fardoulys captures them with as much precision as anything in the foreground. The most important figures in a picture are usually much larger than their neighbours.
Fardoulys painted his reminiscences of travelling around the countryside, but also historical and Aboriginal scenes, religious subjects, and fantasy landscapes with dozens of exotic birds. His masterpiece is probably Blue Roses(1964), which was initially titled Betty the Barmaid, and resembled his own version of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies- Bergère. When Fardoulys imagined that Betty Churcher disapproved of the subject he transformed the bar into a florist shop. Yet somehow, it still looks just like a bar, with a sultry, dark-haired Greek barmaid standing in for Manet’s blonde Parisienne.
Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, Queensland Art Gallery, March 27 – June 27, 2010
James Fardoulys: A Queensland Naive Artist, Queensland Art Gallery, March 27-June-20, 2010
Published in the sydney Morning Herald, April 24, 2010