Dancer with a Double Bass, ca. 1879
Pastel, black chalk, and ink wash on paper
This fan-tastic exhibit, which opened at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens earlier this summer, will be running all this month, through October 9th. It celebrates an exciting period in French art history, when the hand fan, which is to say the handheld fan, became an aesthetic phenomenon in that country. “Fans as art: unfolding beauty.” That’s a heading in the informative catalogue by Richard R. Brettell and Robert Flynn Johnson, and to me, this expresses best what this wonderful show is all about.
Of course, handheld fans were nothing new in nineteenth-century, pre-air-conditioning France; the use of fans, both the folding and rigid varieties, dates back to ancient Greece, if not earlier. Throughout the years they have been utilitarian objects to wave gently on a summer’s night, fashion accessories, symbols of social status, and, not surprisingly, props for flirtatious ladies to hide behind.
What was new in fin-de-siecle France between 1875 and 1900 was that artists, in addition to their more traditional mediums, began using this hand-fan format as a vehicle for their art. And with some of the period’s most prominent figures painting them, a decorative new art form was created.
Edgar Degas is generally considered the first Impressionist to paint fans, but he was quickly joined by contemporaries like Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and particularly Henri-Charles Guérard, whose work is the focus of the present exhibition. The most prolific of the fan Impressionists, he in a sense made this art form “his own.”
Henri-Charles Guérard was born in Paris in 1846 and was an engraver best known for his etchings and lithographs, although his true genius is revealed through his inventive, joyous and often irreverent fans. A total of 43 fans and preparatory studies for fans, by Guérard and his contemporaries, are on display in the current Dixon exhibition, drawn from the museum’s own collection and from other public and private sources.
Before its opening, I sat down with Kevin Sharp, Dixon director, and Julie Pierotti, the Martha R. Robinson endowed curator of the Dixon, to talk about the exhibit. According to Sharp, its genesis goes back to John Buchanan, the late, internationally respected former Dixon director and his wife, Lucy. The Buchanans were fascinated with decorative fans, and as a result had a major hand, so to speak, in putting together the Dixon’s collection as well as their own.
Five of the fans in the Dixon’s permanent collection on display now are by Jean-Louis Forain, an artist championed by Buchanan (see Memphis magazine, June 2011), and a number of the exhibit’s fans are on loan from the Buchanans’ personal collection.
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Dancer with a Rose, 1885-90
Watercolor on linen
Collection of Dixon Gallery and Gardens
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Dancer in a Colored Tutu, ca. 1890
Chalk, pastel, and gouache on paper
Collection of Dixon Gallery and Gardens
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Azor with Bells and Whistles, Preparatory Study for a Fan, n.d.
Gouache on silk
Collection of John and Lucy Buchanan
It is difficult to comprehend, explains Sharp, just how ubiquitous decorative fans were in France during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a vibrant time in both industry and the arts in that country. Literally millions of fans were manufactured or imported into Paris, and Parisian painters capitalized upon the ready availability of these mini-canvases. Fans were of course useful in the summer heat, but they quickly became must-haves for all women to carry, oftentimes for strictly decorative purposes. They were small, easy to make and sell, and ideal vehicles to help artists supplement their incomes. Among women of fashion, the pervasiveness of these particular accessories became a phenomenon not unlike today’s often-decorated iPhones.
The fans at the Dixon present a wide range of subject matter, from beautiful flowers, landscapes, and scenes of the ballet (a Degas specialty, of course), to grotesques including bats, demon heads, and dragons. One fascinating aspect of the French fan boom of this era was that it coincided with the cultural fad sweeping across Europe for all things Japanese, a stylistic movement that is still called “Japonism” among decorative arts historian. Can you imagine a traditional geisha without her fan?
Speaking personally, I have a hand-painted French fan from a later era — the 1920s art deco period — which has long graced my entrance hall in my homes and is one of my most precious possessions. You could honestly say, then, that I am a fan of fans! You’ll feel the same if you stop by the Dixon and see for yourself what the, er, fanfare is all about.