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Un-Modern Art: Roland Mouret Curates the Classic Photos of Norman Parkinson


Roland Mouret was reflecting the other day on his motivation for curating a show of photographs to mark the centenary of the birth of the late Norman Parkinson. “I think it’s great at my moment in life to be able to talk about the people who influenced me when I was a young person,” the designer said. “You can see how much I was shaped by those images.” Yes indeedy, that’s true enough when you compare and contrast the precision and cut of a Mouret dress with the couture-esque elegance of a classic Parkinson photo. And yet, I suggested, there was something resolutely un-modern about such an image.

“They’re not modern at all,” Mouret agreed instantly. “They’re set in their time. But I don’t think modernity is the right word. What’s relevant is their legacy. It’s important that these pictures were set in the time they were done, against war and hard times. That’s what I loved when I was in my twenties. Now you have a laptop and you see the photos right away, and the emotions are so different.”

Given all that, it’s no wonder that Mouret’s curation focuses on Parkinson’s work in the forties and fifties, even though the photographer went on to produce peerless images in the sixties and seventies. (Jerry Hall in Communist Russia? Once seen, never forgotten.) Mouret has called the show Mouvements de Femme (it’s on exhibit till May 12, in The Octagon in Bath), and the reason why was made obvious when he talked about the first Parky shot that impacted him, a 1939 photo featuring models golfing at Le Touquet in the north of France. “I couldn’t understand the sense of movement,” Mouret mused. “It was so close to reality. Everything was a contradiction in that picture.” He was particularly mesmerized by the way the waistline of a model’s jacket lined up with the underside of the cumulus in the sky, a coincidental effect that today would be reliant on Photoshop.

The chiaroscuro of a classic Parkinson image also riveted Mouret. Granted full access to the Norman Parkinson Archive, he found an unpublished hat shoot the photographer did in 1948, appropriately in Bath (top). “It’s like Hitchcock, shadowy, never enough light.”

There may be a Parkinson moment kicking in right now. The Chris Beetles Gallery in London also has a show up and running. But Mouret and Parkinson’s mutual appreciation of the women in their world offers a bond more durably intimate than mere flavor of the month. “Think of his contemporaries—a photographer like Beaton, a designer like Dior. They were trying to control a woman’s movement and turn her into a trophy. Parkinson did the opposite. He and his models shared a life. And it was that life I wanted to celebrate in the photos I chose.” And now that he’s been bitten by the curatorial bug, Mouret can’t wait to tip his cap to another of his inspirations, the lost genius George Platt Lynes. Mouvements d’Homme, perhaps? Show spaces of the world, this man awaits your call.

Photos: Copyright Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

Dept. of Culture