René Gruau: Past Meets Present in Art and Fashion

From Klimt to Murakami, the influence of artists on fashion is undeniable, especially today. It is no secret that the innovative designs of 20th century fashion illustrator René Gruau helped to portray the sartorial terrain he occupied and inspire the future of fashion, including our present.

Before Mario Testino, Richard Avedon and Steven Meisel defined the contemporary fashion aesthetic with their photography, a number of notable illustrators were portraying the fashion scene through their iconic artistry. Certain artists, such as Christian Bérard, George Lepape and the seminal and prolific Erté (who designed more than 200 Harper’s Bazaar covers), were responsible for illustrating the iconic images of early 20th century fashion, which graced a range of publications, from Vogue to Vanity Fair.

Among this elite circle of fashion illustrators was a French man by the name of René Gruau. Who was René Gruau? Simply put, he was the “fashion illustrator’s illustrator.” On a much larger scale, “Gruau created a new ideal of feminine beauty, one that looked to the past and was at the same time inescapably modern” according to David Downton. Born in Italy in 1910 to a Parisian-bred mother, Gruau quickly gave up his architectural path and considered becoming an illustrator, getting published for the first time at age 15. Upon moving to Paris in the early 1930’s, Gruau met with Christian Dior, a relationship that would later serve as a necessary milestone towards establishing himself as a creator and illustrator of post-WW2 fashion that signalled the “end of haute couture as well as the termination of the undisputed monopoly of fashion claimed by Paris”.

Following in the footsteps of Toulouse-Loutrec, Gruau was recognised by his “mature style…with it’s flat planes of color, daring use of negative space and signature sweeping black line”, often identified with post-impressionism and the art nouveau as the proclaimed genesis to his style. According to post-war film critic Frieda Grafe, the “art world regards fashion disapprovingly because it recognizes the blatant connection [it] has with the business world”, it is delicately noted that Gruau’s work, which was comprised of “more than 80,000 illustrations”, stimulated a refined awareness of French fashion following the malign effects of the Second World War. In the midst of an economic and social decline, Gruau’s work signaled an optimistic return to opulence, particularly so for those of the higher classes, who were able to retain their capital throughout the duration of the war.

René Gruau was attentive to contemporary concerns and it showed through his sublime vision of the “French way of life,” where his love of luxury radiates and works to empower women through the emphasis of their sensuality. Naturally, it is not surprising that Gruau was one of the leading artists to have introduced commercial work, such as fashion illustration, into the surrealism movement of the twentieth century. Officially founded in 1924 by Andre Breton, Le Manifeste du Surrealisme defined the term as “the actual functioning of thought” and the “psychic automatism in its pure state”, which further proposed that “artists should seek access to their unconscious mind in order to make art inspired by this realm”.

By acquiring inspiration from the outside world, Gruau developed a “different form of expression that both interprets and defines” and subsequently, sought to illustrate fashion as the “silent commentary of the times”. Though Surrealists shared much of the anti-rationalism ideals of the Dadaists, their core interests often exposed “the complex and repressed inner worlds of sexuality, desire and violence” with the latter transgressing aggressive behaviour.

Gruau’s work primarily fostered visions of sensuality and desire through his illustrations of “dream imagery and archetypal symbols” to establish the ‘New Woman’, fueled by her aesthetic forms of grace and elegance, through depictions of imagery garnered by popular culture. Rather, it was Gruau’s work that cultivated interest and popularity for the models with “narrow waists, wide skirts, elevated bustles, their diverted glances, prominent cheekbones and arrogant mouths” that helped proliferate the success and vogue of iconic commercial symbols, such as Balmain, Dior and Givenchy, among others.

According to Gruau, his intentions were not fashioned towards securing his own publicity, but rather, it became about depicting luxury, elegance and feminine beauty in a time of heightened euphoria. Immediately following the Second World War, Gruau apprehended “an awakening of vital forces after five years, of heavy, tragic sleep” and utilized this refined sense of optimism as an effective means to extracting new lines of the sublime. In the words of Frieda Grafe, “fashion is never ahead of its time, it is always ‘in time’. It is ephemeral – that is its fate.”

While Gruau defined an awakening for fashion and design in the 1930’s, the collaboration between art and fashion continue, and the intersection is even more prevalent, as well as, complementary. Founder and director of art and design shop, East of Mayfair, Janina Joffe, expands on recent examples of intersections between art and fashion, including that of Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami, who designed one of the most recognisable bags of all time for Louis Vuitton. Joffe notes that Francois Pinault not only owns Christie’s, the biggest art business in the world, but additionally the fashion conglomerate Gucci Group. Most consistent is art’s domination of catwalk events: according to Joffe, “no Fashion Week or major Art Fair passes without a show or event that involves a collaboration between a gallery, museum, designer, starchitect, celebrity, model, artist, magazine editor and a major fashion brand, supported, of course, by the appropriate luxury liquor brand.” Evidently the intersecting threads of creative mastery are woven throughout art and design, respectively a reliance that will carry on in the future.

On the runway, present design ideas for current and upcoming seasonal collections are catalyzed by the ephemeral influence of Gustav Klimt. For instance, creative director of Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton, gushes on her interest in Klimt’s work, and admits she has relied upon Klimt’s work for her London studio mood board, and used it for inspiration in the upcoming men’s and women’s early spring collection. She adds that a past exhibit on Klimt at the Tate Liverpool museum in 2008 was her first impression, and later, inspiration. Details Burton will include in the coming McQueen collection include “the overt embellishment, geometric and organic as well, with heads and bodies appearing out of flat surfaces”.

Additionally, Dolce & Gabbana’s autumn collection in 2012 boasted intense golden embroideries, noted on thick fabrics as well as delicate lace, derived from the same period as Klimt himself. Whether the designers had intended to allude to Klimt as the guiding light behind the finished product, the details reveal another message. Heavy decoration is no taboo in fashion, as noted by the New York Times, but having an artistic foundation legitimizes the mastery behind the handwork and the art masters will continue to show face in present circles of fashion.

Works Cited & Further Reading

Antliff, Mark. Avant-garde Fascism: the Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in 
 France, 1909-1939. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

“The Art Story: Surrealism Movement.” The Art Story: Modern Art Movements, Artists, 
 Ideas and Topics. The Art Story Foundation. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.


Fashion Illustration Gallery. Rene Gruau Exhibit. Cover Art – International Textiles 
 Magazine. London: Fashion Illustration Gallery (FIG), 2010. Print.


Gruau, René, Frieda Grafe, and Joëlle Chariau. René Gruau / Interview with René 
 Gruau by Joëlle Chariau. New York: Rizzoli, 1984. Print.


Nissen, Sylvie. Rene Gruau. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

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