One of my current obsessions is with the fashion illustrations of Rene Gruau. The French artist is most famous for his advertisements for the perfumes and fashions of the House of Dior. He was the quintessential mid-century artist in that his illustrations are sparse and stylized but perfectly convey the subject. His drawings had a depth and soul to them that transcended mere commercial art. Dior was a major innovator of fashion after World War II, and Gruau was the artistic equivalent. They complemented each other perfectly.
Gruau’s most iconic work is from the Forties and Fifties, but his artistic collaboration with the House of Dior continued through the 1980s. His work from the Seventies maintains his distinctive illustrative style, but the sophisticated gowns and elaborate hairstyles that epitomized Fifties glamor have been replaced by long hair and (gasp!) trousers for women. In a decade where commercial photography overtook illustration in beauty and fashion ads, Gruau’s work during that era is a reassuring and perhaps wistful holdout of a more innocent time.
Gruau passed away in 2004 at the ripe old age of 95. Somerset House in London recently recognized Gruau’s place in the world of commercial illustration with an exhbition, Dior Illustrated: Rene Gruau and the Line of Beauty.” Today, the fine art of commercial illustration has taken a back seat to digital photography and manipulation. Whereas once upon a time illustrations could create what photographs could not, such as surreal or fantastic scenarios, today Photoshop can recreate almost anything. Thus, the need for illustrations is not as urgent as it perhaps once was. Which is a pity, because illustration in vintage advertisements is an art form in itself, one that is increasingly becoming lost in today’s digital world.