Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and The Line of Beauty

Promotional Postcard, Exhibition Front, Somerset House Banner, René Gruau signature

I fell in love with this exhibition just before Christmas, and last week, two days before it closed I stumbled across Somerset House and decided to revisit. René Gruau is a genius. The exhibition still as popular as ever, we milled about among fellow viewers- me magpie like not following the exhibition plan but darting instead at each illustration which caught my eye- and there were lots, too many for my brain to function. I needed to sit down. I actually ended up going around the room again properly, drinking it all in- the colour, the boldness, even the funny anecdotes about each of the pieces. There was just something about seeing an image that you are so accustomed to seeing (such as the Miss Dior adverts) in its original state. It made me think more about how popular images, even logos which we see today come about. For instance- you could see parts of drawing where Gruau had rubbed out lines, or painted over a woman's leg here and there to make it longer. It made everything seem more real, and, teaming it with the finished result of the advert, made me realise that a person drew these beautiful things- not an Adobe application. The room was quiet, it was like we were all stunned into submission, with the clip clop of carefully treading heel wearers and soft oohing and aahing as a soundtrack.

Miss Dior, 1949. Diorling, 1963

Set apart in one arched room high above London, the Curators at Somerset House divided Gruau's illustrations into themes- the first of which was 'The Flower Woman.' Here we found women painted as flowers- one enveloped in her dress, the fabric placed around her face forming petals. There were plenty of bouquets made up of the flowers used in each corresponding fragrance campaign- a woman biting a jasmine for 'Diorling' or one smelling a bunch of lily of the valley for 'Diorissimo'. We learnt of Christian Dior's passion for flowers and of Gruau's strong relationship with him- so strong in fact that Gruau continued to paint flowers after Dior's death in 1957, paying tribute to an endless shared inspiration. Speaking how this inspiration came about, Gruau said "I was drawing flower women, soft sloping shoulders, generous busts, a slim waist and wide skirts like flower petals."

NB: Tim Walker used this swan (above) as a backdrop for his Vogue Pantomime shoot for December 2004. Seen here.

Dioressence Advertisement, 1973.  Eau Sauvage, 1966

'Gesture & Attitude' followed, focusing on the casual everyday things women do- but turning them into poised, almost purposeful poses- a woman tying her hair up to have a bath, kicking their shoes off, or pausing, chin on hand in contemplation. The latter became the face of the exhibition- the blonde leaning on her hand with a flower resting in between, created for 'Miss Dior' in 1960. We also saw movement- flirtatious couples, women spinning and others peeping seductively through masks or gloved hands.

My favourite section was 'L'Homme Gruar' where a bouquet wielding man, besuited, face obscured by his grand gesture was a highlight. Incidentally he was the first man to feature alone on a female fragrance campaign- that must have been some spray. Also not a woman but a man's bare legs were draped over a Louis XIV chair holding which at first glance looks like a glass of whiskey but is actually a bottle of 'Eau Sauvage'. Other illustrations were of men freshly showered, wearing towels with shaggy mains of hair- images of such near nudity that they were deemed indecent- leaving audiences outraged, the most controversial being a pair of hairy legs wearing slippers for 'Eau Sauvage'.

Miss Dior Advertisement, 1971. Diormatic Mascara Advertisement, 1969

Eau Savauge, 1978

'A Shared Vision' was devoted to the relationship of Gruau and Dior. We learnt about their shared traits- from their bourgeoisie background to their "strong maternal influences" and their shared passion for flowers and the female form.

The last of the exhibition showing Gruau's work (the very last was work by artists using Gruau as inspiration.) Called 'Line & Silhouette' it "reflected Gruau's belief that line always leads the movement of drawing." We saw women laughing mischievously, their hair whipped up off their face, their scarves blowing in the wind as they strode along. The presence of masks, veils and fans was also seen, and was borrowed from aspects of Kabuki theatre- another inspiration.

As our minds left the world of Gruau to contemplate a very rainy journey home we spotted art prints of some of the illustrations we saw. I bought these two, not only for the image but also for the story behind it. I procured the man in the black chair holding 'Eau Sauvage' mainly because of the controversy it would have caused to have such an image on my wall back in 1966. I really love the humour to it and the hand on the paw is actually Dior's muse Mitzah Bricard's hand, a woman so elegant that she inspired many of Dior's creations and around whom's neck a leopard print scarf frequented. Plus I like the whole 'La Belle et la Bête' reference. Can't wait to add them to my new room. I also bought the book which accompanied the exhibition, and as photographs were not allowed inside I've got some images from there (along with images from the accompanying exhibition guide.)