We went to the Impressionism exhibition at the Met this afternoon, because we were in the neighborhood and didn’t have other immediate obligations. I’m so glad we went. On the one hand, the dresses can look flat and dull against the lushness of the impressionist portraits. On the other, they give you a depth and better understanding of the fabrics and how far the painters were pushing beyond reality. Some of the dresses are truly stunning, both in the paintings and in real life. Seemingly infused with vitality; tiny black ribbons woven through the sleeves, collars that appear out of no where thanks to some tucks and pleats, asymmetrical swoops and curves of flowers, netting, or lace on the skirts and bodices, and the bustles. Oh the bustles. My friend and I were particularly taken by the sleeves; with one fabric allowed to peek out from beneath the other, tapering into a neat circlet of lace at the wrist – just barely understood from the front, but one can imagine as a woman brings her hand demurely up to her face, all of a sudden a tantalizing flash, not of a wrist but another plush secret. I love the tailored details and the layers of fabric, the free flowing ribbons which add a touch of spontaneity to otherwise tightly tiered gowns. The way the painters captured dynamic light and the character of their models.
I was thinking about how this relates to how I view gardens, in the context of several blog posts I’d read recently. One was about photographing gardens, that you want the landscape views, but also small images that bring texture and contribute to your mood and understanding of the space. The second was a reflection on visiting plants in their native setting and how that informs the gardener how to grow them at home (her example was a hardy cacti that she had always grown in full sun, but in the wild it was always covered in grasses, so she subsequently let hers be overwhelmed a bit more by california poppies). The third was on the value of underplanting. And these underplantings, a wavy mixture of low plants growing in and around more structured pieces, are often what capture my attention for long spans in the spring. More tantalizing because they’re small and you have to angle this way and that to see all the different ways they combine to create vignettes, framed by their overarching tree or by the taller of their companions such as bleeding hearts or virginia bluebells. The way I approach photographing them is similar to the designers’ attention to the sleeves: framed vignettes alone, but also underpinnings of a grand, structured gown. But the paintings offer their own, softer instructions on always looking for new angles (even if they seem unnatural at first) and ways to convey movement, that this is a finite moment in time.
If you have the chance, definitely visit the Met show, and as you consider your spring plantings, take a minute to think about layering your garden (further?). Always easier said than done, especially as gardens can take so long to really grow into themselves, but a worthwhile endeavor nonetheless. I’ll stick to layering my flower arrangements until I get my hands on my own plot. Below is one of my favorite spring mixes from the Conservatory Garden that can also serve as an underplanting (photos from 2011 and 2012).