Museum Tinguely in Basel Opens Armour & Evening Dress Exhibition

Close helm with gorget, 2nd half 16th century (4.09 kg) Landeszeughaus Graz, Landesmuseum Joanneum

The genesis of the “Armour & Gown” exhibition lies in another exhibition. In 1991, an unforgettable, indeed dazzling, tournament was staged at the Hofburg in Vienna under the title of “Gowns as Armour”. Armour from the Hofburg Collection of Arms and Armour, the world’s greatest display of this exquisite form of cultural achievement, though now largely viewed as taboo, jousted with gowns designed by Roberto Capucci, a leading Italian couturier.

The project is intended as homage to this Vienna presentation, but goes beyond it in dramatics and dimension. These exclusive exhibits – more than 60 suits of armour and 12 gowns as well as numerous separate parts such as helmets, breastplates, cuirasses, cuisses and greaves, halberds and lances fill the large hall and the entire gallery and stairs – are celebrated in a museum dedicated to an iron sculptor, which highlights another distantly related subject of the exhibition, namely the working of iron.

Here, Jean Tinguely, kineticist and extraordinarily gifted amateur who conjured with waste materials and scrap metal, a self-proclaimed anarchist and closet militarist, encounters the golden age of this metier, the handicraft of armour-making. “Armourer” was the name for these masters and metal artists, who, from their forges in Augsburg and Nuremberg, Innsbruck and Landeck, Graz, Milan and Brescia, supplied the European armies and courts with suits of armour for war and later for tournaments.

The selection of armour from the world of chivalric culture that stretched from westernmost Europe through Turkey, India and Tibet to Japan may contain only objects from the Habsburg Empire and Switzerland, but it is an adequate reflection of a turbulent epoch of medieval history. Most of the suits of armour on display were made between 1485 and 1570 and come from the last two active medieval armouries in Europe, namely Graz in Styria, which borders on the territories of the Turkish invaders, and Solothurn. Lansquenets, heavy cavalry, “knaves” and hussars from the phenomenal Graz collections are joined by a Solothurn “delegation” to evoke the battles of Morgarten, Sempach and Näfels. The transition from battlefield to tournament after 1500 during the reign of Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519), “The Last Knight”, is illustrated by decorated fluted suits of armour from Graz and, especially, by ten exceptional examples of “tailored”, richly ornamented metal suits for emperors and archdukes, prince electors and landgraves from the armour collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Two displays of jousts from Graz and Vienna highlight the fabulous sculptural qualities and courtly brilliance of the tournaments.

At this point we take up the dialogue with Roberto Capucci’s frequently pleated, silken evening gowns of the 1980s. Born in Rome in 1930, the couturier was famous in the 1950s for creations that clothed beauties such as Esther Williams and Silvana Mangano; for a brief period in the early 1960s he worked with Christian Dior in Paris. Armour was one of his inspirations from an early stage – like these suits, each gown is a celebration of his craft as triumphant, artificial second skin. In these surroundings Eros meets Thanatos – the hollow, faceless bodies enchant while sending shivers down the spine; war and world stage, extinction and elevation parade hand in hand down the catwalk of history, of myths and illusion, of the blood-soaked earth and the wild dreams of fantasy.

As homage to the Vienna exhibition of 1991, Roberto Capucci’s gowns open and conclude the tour. Commentaries by two women artists, Niki de Saint Phalle and Eva Aeppli, elaborate this gloriously coloured, soft world of fabric, critically appraising the mad male world of power, politics and violence through the myth of “Lysistrata” on the one hand and “widows” on the other. Oskar Schlemmer’s figures for his “Triadic Ballet” also act as “mediators” between metal and fabric. On the gallery, groups of works by Tinguely, Luginbühl and Spoerri parody military history in the telling of their own spellbinding phenomena. In particular the legendary “Barbara Shoot” in Berne in 1972 and the film they made together “Un rêve plus long que la nuit” are elements of a larger historical context that continues with Tinguely’s “Hannibal” or “Totentanz” and on into the present with M.S. Bastian’s “Apocalypse” comic.

An excursion through the countless films of knights and examples from Metropolis to Star Wars and from Madonna to Heath Ledger of how the “armoured” body lives on conclude this rediscovery of treasures too long under lock and key or in the isolated safekeeping of specialists and fanatics. The project proposes a form of re-viewing – the rehabilitation of a great craft – and raises questions about human existence in general.

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Published in: on May 14, 2009 at 1:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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