Manolos? In A Museum?
Carrie Bradshaw would plotz.
Photo via the Wallace Collection.
Manolos have come to the museum. Last Monday, a special exhibit opened at the Wallace Collection, a museum housed in the Hertford House in London entitled: “An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahník at the Wallace Collection.” It brings more than 150 shoes designed by Blahník into the collection, which was accrued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, and opened to the public in 1900.
Blahník, a preeminent shoe designer synonymous with a certain kind of ornate luxury, said that the Wallace Collection—which includes paintings by Fragonard, Rubens, Titian, and Velásquez, as well as furniture, objects and curios—been a “reference point” for him since he first came to London. He co-curated the exhibition with Xavier Bray, the Wallace Collection’s director. And thus we have the shoes, almost all high heels, nestled like Easter eggs throughout the galleries and rooms. The shoes are housed under glass bubbles, in themed pairings: “High Baroque” and “Love and Passion.” Some are obvious matches: tall, thin-heeled boots composed of climbing roses sit next to an atrium filled with plants. Others are more obscure, plays on color and style or theme, and it can feel like a mystery of sorts: why is that shoe there?
The shoes themselves are stupidly pretty, the kind of useless and artful beauty that high heels embody, on feet or off. Blahník is known for his particularly thin heels and sometimes outlandish designs, which leave one wondering if it would be possible to walk. Here, though, they’re simply design objects, plucked from his nearly 50 years of designing shoes—a highlight reel of sorts. There are shoes decorated with shells, with faux pearls, with painstakingly-sewn silk flowers. There are tassels, frills, fringe, lace, ties, and buckles encrusted with jewels. There is color: pops of fuschia and seam foam green and black-on-gold. (Downstairs, there are some whimsical design sketches by Blahník, maybe even more whimsical and fanciful than the shoes themselves.)There are even famous shoes: the candy-pink heels worn in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film “Marie Antoinette,” displayed next to Fragonard’s “The Swing,” a painting of a woman on a swing, her shoe flying off and suspended in midair.
The exhibition has the odd effect of making one consider feet in the collection’s artwork more than one otherwise might. Sometimes, as with the Fragonard, this is clearly intentional, the result of a carefully-curated pairing that elevates the symbolism of the flying pink slipper. Other times it’s accidental: looking at a painting of The Annunciation, I contemplated Jesus’ sandals rather than the scene. Statues’ toes become strangely fascinating, as do ballet slippers peeking out from underneath hoop skirts. This noticing is interesting, sort of, though the feet ultimately remain feet. I wondered, wandering through the rooms and hunting for shoes: what else is the point? What am I supposed to be seeing? Why Manolos, and why are they here?
Cynically, the exhibition could be read as a gimmick to entice visitors into the galleries. It probably will. But this question, the but why of the exhibit, points to something more fundamental about the fancy objects in this fancy house, amongst the paintings and sculpture. Why the jeweled section of a pipe mouthpiece or the lapis lazuli paperweight or the portraits in miniature or the golden snuff boxes? Why are any of these objects on display? They are all things, objects worn or used, with layers of past lives. But they are also part of a collection, which elevates these objects into art pieces of sorts; they sit behind glass or are carefully arranged in the sumptuous rooms of this staged house. They are still things, certainly, but they are things with a certain weight or status. They are things to covet: intricate, ornate, frivolous, expensive.
The Manolos in the galleries are also objects of rich aesthetic pleasure, largely divorced from their potential for use. Most of the shoes aren’t in pairs and, missing their mates, under glass bubbles, they come to look even more like vases or sculpted figurines. The shoes emphasize and play off of the other objects in the collection, their whimsy and frivolity, their pure appeal. We do not need shoes that are decorated with small strawberries or a hot pink high-heeled boot brimming with rainbow feathers. Nor do we need a section of a jeweled pipe mouthpiece. But there is something to the display of the Manolos and a collection like this that can activate a kind of raw consumptive desire.
In one of the galleries, a deep purple velvet boot snaked with gold laces sits between two hefty gold candlebras, atop an eighteenth century writing table trimmed with gilt. The gold accents magnify each other. It’s sort of all too much, though maybe we would like to touch these things, perhaps to try on the shoe. But it’s set apart, elevated, only for looking and coveting.