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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Barbie Art

Art of Barbie Exhibition poster, 1999
Want to feel old? Try contemplating this. Barbie is fifty-four. Barbie who? Barbie Mattel of course, or at least I presume that's her last name. No one in my family was ever a big fan of the young lady so I'm really not sure. My sister had one, and a little suitcase full of clothes, but by today's standards, that could be deemed a mere tokenism. Today, a collection of less than forty is considered "all things in moderation." Collections numbering upwards to a hundred are not too uncommon. What with Ken and Muffy or Buffy, or whatever the hell her way-too-many friends are called, the proper preteen today needs an entire clique of them just to look her friends in the eye and hold her head up with the rest of them. Although Barbie is largely passe in terms of "political correctness" these days, there was a time when ardent feminists would "see red" at the mere mention of her name. At any rate, after more than fifty years, there's little doubt she's become an American Icon.

Probably not what Mattel had in mind.
What would Leonardo say?
When Barbie turned forty back in 1999,  Mattel sponsored a "Art of Barbie" exhibit (above). Talk about asking for trouble. That's akin to pasting a "kick me" note on the back of each showcase box. Given the fact that her figure is already little short of obscene...or at least highly suggestive...the possibilities boggle the mind. Mattel pulled from the exhibit a piece by British sculptor, Marc Quinn, reputedly featuring a decapitated Barbie smeared with bloody paint (as the British might say). Quinn reportedly created the piece in jest (given the fact that his previous works include his own blood). I'm not sure if British law has the equivalent of our First Amendment, but if previous U.S. lawsuits are any indication, Mattel is not known to have a sense of humor where its precious family of female flesh and polyvinyl is concerned.

Picasso would love her.
The show opened at London's Natural History Museum.  Natural history? And why not in the U.S.? Given the outrageous streak of offensive creativity the upstart pack of male British artists were into at the time, the show, was literally in their backyard. It seemed designed as bait to attract media attention more than a serious attempt to explore the legend of Barbie as a social phenomena from a creative point of view. Ostensibly, the doll makers hoped to attract the world's top artists and designers to explore "modern interpretations of the world's most famous doll." Rachel Whiteread entombed Barbie in a concrete block for the exhibit while fashion designer, Alexander McQueen cast our beloved American preteen sex symbol as Joan of Arc.  Mattel made the exhibit a charity function by auctioning off the various pieces with the proceeds going to AIDS victims and their families. 
Venus di Milo Barbie
Andy Warhol: Why didn't I think of that!
Whether or not Barbie and gang belonged in a natural history museum (at forty or fifty, she's well into middle-age, but hardly in the same league as dinosaurs), there's no doubt she's been a cultural icon, and as such, certainly fair game for artists bent on mocking, distorting, or even destroying such iconography. Perhaps most interesting is the number of artists who have married the Barbie icon to the work of iconographic artists such as Leonardo, Vermeer, Warhol, and Picasso. There's even a Venus di Milo Barbie.
Mariel Clayton's lovely Barbie a la Vermeer.

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