Monday, November 11, 2013

"Gigi" as Sargent's infamous "Madame X"

Besides pleasing scores of wealthy clients, Sargent's brush managed to capture some fairly objective views of the upper class at the turn of the century. To anyone vaguely familiar with his work, Sargent's paintings are the benchmark of what the late 19th century looked like. His are iconic images, recalling the viewer to his times, and thus, when such evocative pictures serve as inspiration, we are brought back, almost by magic, to the magic of his times. Of course, period films hold the same potential for "magic." Of course, there's no law saying that one can't influence the other, and indeed, I believe that to be the case in many instances. Through film, we are influenced by the trickles of art that inspires such movies.

Interestingly enough, I discovered a publicity still from Gigi (1958) that has led me to believe that Gigi was inspired by, at least in some way, by Sargent's work. Gigi is one of my favorite movie musicals: visually stunning in its wonderful Technicolor, an incredible score by Lerner and Loewe, and a talented cast, led by Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, and Louis Jordan. Thank heaven for Gigi, it provides a lovely and idealized view of the lives of the upper class during la Belle Epoque, the term used to describe turn-of-the-century life in Paris during the time of Maxim's and the Folies Bergere. 
Gigi is, in its most basic form, a multi-part love story. Mainly it concerns Gigi's change from a girl to a woman and her desire to be loved, not as a courtesan, but as a woman. But it's also a love story about prewar Paris and the beauty that once was.  It's nostalgia in its most beautiful and musical form, and rather pleasant. 
The ever-dapper Maurice Chevalier
Gigi (1958)
Anyhow, there is this one scene, when Gigi decides that she's going to be a courtesan to Gaston, and she's revealed wearing this absolutely gorgeous, elegant white dress. It's in this moment that Gaston realizes that she is no longer a girl, but is a grown, and quite attractive, woman. At first, he's disgusted by her change, but later realizes that he cares greatly for her, and returns to her. There are a few more ups and downs, but I'm not going to spoil the happy ending.
Gigi (1958)
Maybe its my fledgling interest in film costume design, but when I was looking up stills of Gigi in that stunning white dress I came across and incredible publicity still from Gigi which was obviously a copy of Sargent's Madame X. (You can see it above of the post) And thus, we finally arrive at the inspiration of my post.
Gigi (1958)
I've always been fascinated by Sargent's most famous painting, Portrait of Madame X. As a little back story, Sargent was always fascinated by the subject, a most singular lady named Virginie Gautreau. After many studies (which I'll shortly return to), he finally came to the painting we know and adore so much... almost. When he first showed the painting in 1884, Madame X (named so to protect her identity) was wearing one shoulder strap off her shoulder in a very provocative and sensual manner. People were outraged, there was scandal, Sargent repainted the strap and then went on to England and America where he would meet most of his success. But he always considered Madame X his finest piece, his magnum opus, and I'm inclined to agree with him. I'm so drawn in by her stunning beauty but also her aloof manner which Sargent so aptly is able to paint. I consider it as one of the greatest portraits ever painted.
Portrait of Madame X
John Singer Sargent (1884)
While Sargent's Madame X scandal played out a few years before the fictional Gigi is set, no doubt you recognize similarities- not only between Sargent's works and Madame X in particular, but also between Madame X and that Gigi publicity still. Gigi appears as Madame X is white. The details are almost exact, down to the stance and the crescent moon crown, a symbol of Diana, goddess of the hunt.

While I do not believe that the similarities are coincidental, I did find another Gigi publicity still bearing striking resemblance to one of Sargent's studies of Gautreau. In it, she lounges on a couch, beautifully at ease with the world. While I think that this fairly common situation was certainly not intended to copy Sargent, I firmly believe that, in attempting to create a feeling of 19th century Paris, the filmmakers turned to one of the greatest artists of the time documenting the elegant people that would populate Gigi. And who can blame them?

Sargent's study for Madame X
Gigi Publicity still
As a quick aside- I'm swamped with schoolwork lately, so I may not be able to get as many posts out in November as I'm usually able to. I still have a few more Sargent posts that I want to release and then I'll probably celebrate my 100th post and do something special for Christmas to finish off the year. Keep reading my faithful followers!
"Thank heaven for the Art of Film." 

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