By Ahmed Abukwaik | | Contributing Writer

The Phillips Museum currently has an exhibition on display titled “Artful Nature: Fashion & Theatricality, 1770-1830” closing December 10th, 2021. The exhibition focuses on the aesthetic debate between nature and art as it changed through theatricality and was reflected in women’s fashion between 1770 and 1830. It argues that when actresses, dancers, painters, or fashionable women replicated classical statues coming to life, they functioned as both the genius artists and living artwork, and manifested a new space for their own artistic expression. The exhibit consists of six sections: an introduction, Neoclassical Dress (Nature & Artifice), Theater of Everyday Life, Women Artists: Pygmalion and Galatea, Dressing Actresses: Mary Anne Clarke, Bodily Movement/Freedom, and Backlash Against Women as Artistic Agents. Each section contains satirical prints of women’s dress from 1770 through 1830. The text included in the exhibit provides the analysis from the curators, and one can learn about the challenges women faced in finding artistic agency through fashion. For example, in the second section “Neoclassical Dress (Nature & Atifice),” there are five different examples of prints satirizing women. The first print showcases the paradox women faced between attempting to be viewed as “Natural” or as “Art.” The problem was the way women were labeled “unfashionable” when choosing “Natural,” and “vain” when choosing “Art.” The final four prints illustrate how even white muslin neoclassical dress, a liberating artistic tool for women, was satirized. 

The curators, professors Laura Engel and Dr. Amelia Rauser, crafted an exhibit that highlights the work done by female actresses, dancers, painters. A moment that should provide lessons and inspiration for contemporary artists and creatives in how to achieve aesthetic triumph. The exhibit’s second major implication is radical and creative thinking as a means to overcome gender discrimination. Thus the audience can leave inspired, and with new knowledge. The exhibit, a collection on loan from Yale, adds value to the Franklin and Marshall community and can be of intellectual interest to students, staff, and faculty. For example, students studying Women’s and Gender studies or history can approach this exhibit and leave with a better understanding of women finding agency in the face of descrimination. However, the exhibit is slightly exclusive. The larger debate in the art history world regarding “Nature” and “Artifice” requires a level of art history knowledge that few students, including myself, are versed in. While viewing the exhibit, it was the socio-political implications that I was most keenly aware of, not the art debate. 

However, not all the socio-political implications are accounted for in the exhibit. There is a clear choice to only include the gendered socio-political implications. The very violent and horrifying history of colonial expansion, which led to the material conditions of Europe and facilitated the artistic agency discussed is omitted. This choice is occurring while museums, and many more institutions, are being questioned about their roles in society. Colleges and universities need to meet this moment, and provide decolonized spaces for students to engage with. One of the curators, Dr. Amelia Rauser of Franklin and Marshall College, has discussed the aspects of colonial history involved in the exhibit in other spaces such as in her book, in a lecture at Yale in the summer of 2020, and during a Franklin and Marshall Common Hour in the spring of 2021. I pose the question: why not in the Phillips museum exhibit? Another approach the exhibit could have used is to showcase how western fashion today continues to live in the legacy of global capitalism and colonial rule. Today, the horrors of fast fashion today are well known. The irony is, many of the regions that were exploited for their manufacturing methods during colonial expansion are the same ones producing the mountains of clothing that get thrown away by western societies today. 

I understand what the exhibit wants to provide to the community, but I believe an opportunity to showcase arguably the more important implications of European fashion was missed. As a student trying to understand the world around them, any opportunity to have a space that does not prioritize western aesthetics and debates, but places it in a more universal context is a massive educational opportunity for me. Especially as our college continues to work through diversity issues, I hope this piece can be a part of pushing a larger discussion of how the college continues to educate and craft intellectual spaces for current and future students.

Senior Ahmed Abukwaik is a Contributing Writer. His email is aabukwai@fandm.edu.

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