Friday, December 26, 2008

Another entry about Van Gogh

Despite the fact that the MOMA Van Gogh Colors of the Night exhibit has been up since mid-September, I didn't make it there til recently. I actually ended up purchasing a membership, and have gone twice so far (in one week). I plan to go at least once more before the exhibition goes down.

I get such a visceral reaction from seeing his work, and when I stare at his paintings I try to drink it all in -- the colors, the thick brush strokes (I've been trying to figure out how he got the paint so thick on the canvas without it mushing into the layers already on the canvas), and his choices in using heavy lines sometimes and colors at other times to outline shapes. I did a copy of a Van Gogh painting recently, but it would be cool to do a copy from looking at the actual painting as opposed to a photo, since there is such a three-dimensionality and texture to his painting.

Anyway, I have to say that I was kind of disappointed with the exhibition. Part of the reason is that it's always so crowded that it's hard to just stand and look at the work. And you have to wait. They also didn't have as many pieces as I would have liked. There were a bunch, but I think I was hoping for more of the big ones I'd seen at the Musee d'Orsay and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Or maybe I just can't get enough.

But one thing struck me. It was a fact that I already knew, but struck me again. It was this quote:

"Van Gogh did not pursue a career as an artist until 1880, when he was
twenty-seven years old."

I just turned 27, so this time it was more meaningful to me. I often feel like I am so behind in terms of what I want to achieve, but I realized I am at the age when Van Gogh had just embarked on his art career. It reminded me that I still have time to accomplish a lot.

One has to remember that Van Gogh ended his life, and his career, only 10 years later. Granted, he did work as an art dealer and doodled while pursuing other careers, but I always find it so inspiring that he was able to accomplish so much in that short time. That's also what makes his story so tragic -- who knows what other works he could have made if he had just held on?

What I also find inspiring about Van Gogh is that he accomplished what he did mostly through hard work. He didn't have the virtuosic talent that someone like Picasso possessed, which is evident if you look at his early paintings. The colors are kind of murky and if you look at the Potato Eaters painting, considered his first breakthrough, the figures are grotesque and awkward. Even his figures later on are still kind of awkardly drawn. But he kept working (he was incredibly prolific, especially towards the end of his life, and managed to make over 2000 works over his career) and made some of the most beautiful paintings ever made.

Van Gogh's story is a cautionary tale too. Perhaps he wouldn't have become so famous if he hadn't committed suicide (there is a great scene in the movie She's All That where the protagonist, who is an art student, is recommended to commit suicide in order to further her art career by these two mean girls), but I always wonder what would happen if he had chosen to live. Too often people give up on their dreams when they're on the cusp of something big. When you're really seeking a dream, it often feels like you're not really moving forward, and it would be easier to give up and do something safe. But I don't think I could live with myself, wondering what if?

I love you, Vincent Van Gogh.

Haute Couture Patternmaking

In addition to my draping classes, I was taking patternmaking. Our teacher was a friendly Breton man named Dominique Pellen. He was younger than my draping teacher, and was therefore less traditional in his manner of teaching. He quickly realized that my language capabilities were holding me back and would patiently re-explain things when I had a confused or panicked look in my eyes.

We started with the basics. First we learned about the standard measurements (bust, waist, hips, shoulder length, etc). The first pattern we drafted was a short sleeve, and then we worked on variations, like making it a balloon shape. This was accomplished by drawing lines on the original pattern, cutting on those lines, and then fanning the resulting segments out which would create volume when the pattern was sewn.

Next we worked on the "jupe de base" or basic skirt, along with variations. We also did different long sleeves, then a "chemisier" (shirt), and jacket (probably the toughest pattern) before returning to do bonus sleeves -- the raglan and kimono sleeves. We also learned a little about grading, which was probably the trickiest concept. Grading is when you expand (or shrink) the pattern for different sizes. What makes it tricky is that it's not like enlarging or shrinking something on a copy machine; you have to be aware of how the body changes with a change in size, so sometimes in addition to changing the width you also have to shift angles.

I had never taken a patternmaking course before, but from what M. Pellen explained, it sounded like in haute couture patternmaking, you take more measurements than in ready-to-wear, so the patterns are more precise (again, there is an importance placed on fit). When the patternmaking is done right, things should fit like a glove and follow the contours of the body.

At the end of each course, there is a final exam. I think the highest score you could get is a 20, which would be like if you were working in an haute couture atelier. I was proud of myself because while I was nowhere near a 20, I got the highest score in the class -- this despite not always understanding what M. Pellen was saying and having less experience than most of my classmates. After a few months of patternmaking classes, I felt like I could eventually develop patterns for most garments.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne

A couple days after moving to Paris, I started my classes at l'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. The Chambre Syndicale sets the rules for haute couture, and runs the school as well. As our teachers liked to remind us, it's the only school in the world devoted specifically to haute couture, although now they teach ready-to-wear techniques. Initially, I had only planned to take classes there for a few months. Therefore, I enrolled in the Formation Continue, a program designed for professionals with experience in the fashion industry. I enrolled in the patronage (patternmaking), moulage (draping), and dessin (drawing) "stages." However, the drawing course was cancelled due to a lack of students. The classes were 9 to 6 with a one hour "pause" for lunch, and a couple of 15 minute breaks during the day. The draping class was three days a week and the patternmaking was one day a week.

Our draping teacher, Mme. Saget, had worked at a few different couture houses before beginning to teach at the Chambre Syndicale, including Yves Saint Laurent and Courreges. She was very Parisian, which I learned was different from other French people. They are more reserved and proper. We each had a mannequin and she gave us yardages of muslin. She would do a demonstration and then we would work on our own mannequin and try to do the same. She walked around and corrected things that were wrong.

The class was very difficult for me. Unlike most of the others, who were older than me and had had more experience in fashion, I was pretty clueless about draping. Also, the classes were held in French. Although I had taken French all through middle and high school, and had taken a conversational French class in college, understanding what was happening was tough. Firstly, everyone spoke much more quickly than I was used to understanding. Secondly, there was a lot of technical language that I had never learned in my French classes, like "poitrine" (bust) or "taille" (waist). The first few weeks were especially rough. I finally sympathized with my parents, trying to survive in a foreign country, barely speaking the language. I relied on the charity of my classmates, who would glance over at me looking frustrated or confused, and would try to explain to me what was happening.

I was also frustrated with the teacher, who seemed indifferent to my struggles. However, I eventually realized that her style of teaching was different from what I was used to. Although I expected my teacher to come rescue me when I was struggling, she would not approach me until I asked for help. Once I figured this out, things became easier and she was very kind and helpful. The rest of the class found me amusing because I would ask her random questions about her experiences and sometimes more personal things as well.

Draping is a difficult skill, and it's a type of sculpture. We were given sketches and then expected to interpret the sketch. You work with the muslin, cutting it and pinning it to shape it. As much as possible, you want to keep the grainlines running parallel to the "droit fils" or straight lines that demarcate the body from head to toe, so that the fabric drapes nicely. There are many rules to be learned, which differ based on different fabric details, like seam placement and sleeve shapes.