The Victoria & Albert Museum’s present blockbuster considers the determine of the diva – probably the most glamorous and sometimes most outrageous performers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How do the ornamental and visible arts embellish particular person expertise and create icons that come to characterize the tradition and society of a interval?
The etymology of the phrase ‘diva’ is from the Latin ‘goddess’, a theme that’s taken up within the alcoves of the Trend Galleries. Stunning celestial projections, by video designer Tal Rosner, glitter and slowly change, create astronomical diagrams with divas resembling Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Prince, RuPaul at their centre – stars, galaxies and constellations of the gods and goddesses of contemporary Western tradition. Whereas the diva is in some methods a timeless determine, it’s a determine with a historical past and the exhibition has a roughly chronological construction, organized in two sections that fall into three acts. Act One begins within the second half of the nineteenth century with the performers of opera, theatre and music corridor. The unique divas, the exhibition argues, used their superstar to turn out to be highly effective and rich entrepreneurs; all through, we discover divas utilizing fame to advertise explicit social, racial and sexual identities. Ladies resembling Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti and Sarah Bernhardt are represented in engraving, pictures, sculpture, costume, jewelry and recordings of their voices. This can be a multidisciplinary and multi-media present: guests are given particular person headsets that reply to sensors in order that the soundscape modifications as you progress via the shows; later, movie clips are used extensively and to nice impact.
Act One continues with the celebrities of early and classical Hollywood cinema and operatic divas. The voices and pictures of Maria Callas, Jessye Norman, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and plenty of others seduce and entice. A poster for All About Eve (1950) offers a background for the fur-trimmed night costume Bette Davis wears to play the ageing actress Margo Channing. A superbly synchronised clip reveals her within the costume and delivering the memorable line: ‘Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy evening.’
The musical soundtrack ought to be relished and saved for future use! The route from the ground-floor gallery to the primary flooring is accompanied by Petula Clark’s anthem ‘You Don’t Personal Me’ (1964), an excellent introduction to the themes of the second part, which covers the Nineteen Sixties onwards and the way performers have used their fame and fandom to withstand mainstream tradition, suggest radical political opinions and ‘queer’ gender, sexuality and what constitutes glamour. Elaborate costumes for performers resembling Tina Turner and Cher distinction with the extra on a regular basis types of singers resembling Janis Joplin. Though the diva doesn’t essentially must be extreme, outlandish and spectacular, it helps to perpetuate their divinity and the concept that they’re totally different from and extra wonderful than strange individuals. The picture of the diva depends upon many arts: costume design, make-up, lighting, choreography, set design, sound and far more. Maybe one of many excellent contributors to this course of is the costume designer Bob Mackie, who designed the well-known ‘flame costume’, worn by performers resembling Tina Turner and Cher (once more) and, extra just lately, RuPaul. The costume transforms the wearer into a hearth hen, or phoenix, rising from the flames as they strut their divinity in entrance of their admirers.
The diva has at all times been a shape-shifting assemble and by no means extra so than in current a long time when performers resembling Girl Gaga and Madonna have continually performed with their photographs and when non-binary performers have assumed the mantle of the divine. It’s no coincidence that one of many world’s main LGBTQ+ journal is known as Diva. Prior to now, ‘diva’ was a derogatory time period (and will be nonetheless). Act Two of the exhibition reveals how the time period has been reclaimed and reworked by performers for a variety of social, private and political agendas. (Act Three are projections in alcoves in what the exhibition calls the ‘diva-valhalla’).
The exhibition is pure ‘V&A’: a presentation of the utilized and performing arts that is stuffed with beautiful objects and pictures and primarily based on sound scholarship. There are arguments right here however, as befits their topic, they’re worn frivolously and with aplomb.
‘DIVA’ is on the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, till 7 April 2024.