A Review of Manolo Blahnik: An Enquiring Mind at The Wallace Collection, London
When I first heard about An Enquiring Mind, curated by The Wallace Collection's director, Dr Xavier Bray and legendary luxury shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, I was equal parts intrigued and apprehensive. Slyly written between the lines of the romantic promotional poster was the age-old question: What is Art? Art meaning the cerebral and moving rather than the merely ‘decorative’ or the distastefully frivolous? By showcasing Blahnik’s exquisitely crafted shoes alongside esteemed works by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and François Boucher (1703-1770), the exhibition establishes a dynamic that is designed to perplex. On the one hand, the intention to delight visitors is clear, while the other aim, of challenging the often unconscious relegation of material culture and l'objet d’art below the ‘high-brow’ mediums of painting and sculpture, is far more discrete.
Immediately the exhibition is framed by the opulence of its location, that being the dreamy Hertford House, an enchanting 18th-century townhouse and the former home of the Seymour Family (Marquesses of Hertford) nestled in Manchester Square, Marylebone. Without the inclusion of Manolo Blahnik’s creations, the townhouse and its enormous collection of art (The Wallace Collection) are already overwhelming and mystifying; entirely impossible to digest in a single visit.
Surprisingly, the injection of the fairytale shoes did not add clutter to the rooms, as I had feared, but neatly took the place of other objects as not to oversaturate the space beyond its normal state of grandeur. Where priceless porphyry vases and bronze miniatures had once perched atop the enchanting tables of André Charles Boulle (1642-1732), one was now greeted with often several of the Blahnik’s ingenious concepts proudly occupying that sacred space. How the shoes were displayed, however; was where the pure genius of the curation became evident.
Rather than standing the shoes alone in square glass cases, as one would imagine, Dr Bray and Blahnik chose to place the delicate creations inside glass cylinders with rounded tops; akin to domed bell jars often used as floral display cases. More specifically, the crystal sheaths brought about wistful memories of the famous ‘enchanted rose’ from the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast and the shape of its glittering container. Elevating the wonder was how the shoes were presented, staggered at different heights on display platforms that seemed to grow from a single silver stem. These curatorial decisions seamlessly resulted in the displays reading like fantastical candelabras that emerged straight out of a richly imagined reality like Alice in Wonderland.
Whether intentional or not, the cases and their construction sectioned the shoes into distinct groupings which eliminated their individual charm and caused them to be absorbed into the general aesthetic of the assortment into which they were placed. The uniqueness of each shoe seemed less important than the impact it had when grouped with others that satisfied the curators desired colour scheme. The impermissible tradeoff between the acknowledgement of each distinct shoe and the continuity of exhibition as a whole, likely resulted in the peculiar and often disjointed format outlined in the pamphlet visitors were given upon arrival. According to the pamphlet, each room was labeled by its function within the grand home and the theme assigned to it:
The Hall: From Sketches to Shoes
The Small Drawing Room: Commedia dell’Arte
Large Drawing Room: Connoisseurs and Collectors
Oval Drawing Room: Love and Passion
Study: Avant-Garde fashion
Boudoir Cabinet: Opulence
Boudoir: A Return to Simplicity
West Room: A British Interpretation
Great Gallery: Masterpieces
East Drawing Room: High Baroque
While the intention of each room having its own aesthetic seems reasonable enough, the curators appear to have missed the mark when it comes to anticipating how much an audience can realistically absorb. As I mentioned earlier, The Wallace Collection itself is vast and overwhelming, so much so that seasoned art historians often take two to three days to process the entire space. As such, the dense justification for how each room was curated (provided in the pamphlet) hinted at a self-conscious tone which betrayed that at least one person involved in the conception of the exhibition knew that its composition was esoteric.
While I was not a fan of the overall dense curation, there were moments where the shoes melted seamlessly into the aura of the room and sparked magic. Specifically, the Boudoir Cabinet, a low-lit corridor where sumptuous silk wallpaper engulfs the viewer in a sea of teal, was the most breathtaking of all the spaces. Women I had previously observed promptly circling the displays and then methodically moving on to the next room were crowded, with phones down and voices lowered in the inherently hypnotic space. Amongst the golden trinket boxes adorned painstakingly with diamonds and enamel that were reverently displayed against the shimmering teal expanse, were glittering shoes you knew would belong to only the most bewitching of women. These were shoes you ran to your lover in, shoes you danced with your beloved in, and shoes you rediscovered yourself in.
Visions of Carrie Bradshaw, at the end of the Sex and the City film, opening the doors of her palatial closet only to find Mr Big staring longingly at the beautiful pair of blue satin Manolo Blahnik’s she had left behind, danced lazily in my mind. How the music had swelled, how she had thrown herself into his arms, and how he had proposed using one of her Manolo’s in place of a ring, all played on a deliciously romantic loop as I lost myself in the intoxicating femininity of the space. Here, Blahnik’s shoes were transformed from being cold inanimate objects synonymous with wealth and status to vibrating treasures alive with the promise of the woman you could become if you were simply brave enough to slip one on.
Alongside these treasures of daily life, the trinket boxes and hand mirrors, the shoes reminded the women who stood transfixed at my side and me that these were not mere l'objet d’art, but the evidence that women existed. With that realisation, the exhibition crystallised in real-time into a testament to women past, present and future. After all, it was displayed in a home, a traditionally feminine space, with only women’s shoes highlighted, and the crowd within which I found myself on my four subsequent visits was always predominantly female. Even the promotional image, which features Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (1767), has a dynamic and vibrant woman as its focal point. Moreover, displayed directly under the painting itself within the Oval Drawing Room, true Manolo Blahnik connoisseurs can find the bubble-gum pink mule heels designed for Sophia Coppola’s critically acclaimed 2006 film, Marie Antoinette. While we know the real Marie Antoinette met a less than pleasant fate, she is still emblematic of femininity, opulence, and audacity - characteristics that that permeate both Blahnik’s designs and The Swing.
Overall, I would propose that the most significant outcome of the exhibition is the crowds that it brings to The Wallace Collection. Women from all walks of life, many of whom may not be terribly interested in eighteenth-century paintings, take the time from their busy lives to enjoy beautiful things. How often do most people do that? Everyone needs fantasy and play in their lives, something that the exhibition elicits from its visitors effortlessly. That level of indulgence alone is nourishing for the soul and in my humble opinion justifies attendance. However, the potential added benefit that the exhibition sparks an interest in any number of the other artists whose works proudly bedeck the labyrinth of rooms, is more than any curator could hope to achieve. Greater still, is the impact such a female-oriented exhibition can offer mothers and daughters, of whom I saw plenty. A bonding experience built on shoes and art, can anything be more magical? Simply put, Manolo Blahnik is a fabulous draw for a wider net of people who would not usually elect to see ‘fine art’ let alone l'objet d’art- but the familiarity of Blahnik expertly makes the intimidating accessible.
Written by Maya Asha, Editorial Assistant and Contributor to Arteviste