Dr Joanne Anderson, lecturer in art history at the School of Advanced Study’s Warburg Institute and convener of the MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture, says Selfridges’ Christmas ‘journey to the stars’ resonates with the institute. The 12 windows of the Oxford Street department store have been transformed into a planetary system, each represented by a zodiac sign.
Christmas windows are a real highlight in London. Our famous emporia pull out the stops to delight, entertain, and impress us with their creativity. Temptation, well that comes as standard, even if some of the goods on display are beyond the reach of us mere mortals.
And it is all about humanity’s place in the world, beneath a star-studded vault. The Christmas story is about a baby, a new life, who would be the dawn of a new era. His bright star guided travellers from afar to meet in a humble stable bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For Selfridges, the luminary of Oxford Street, this guiding of our fate has gone interstellar.
In ‘journey to the stars’, the store’s 12 windows are transformed into a planetary system, each represented by a zodiac sign. The mannequins dance, run, float, swim, wander, confront and embrace, with their clothes rather than the familiar symbols personifying the values of their ruling gods. Household goods give texture and tone to the installations, interacting with the light (and tons of glitter): be it saturated reds, blingy gold or cold, crystalline white.
Designers whose ethos, style and textiles compliment the expressionless gods, are listed on the window panes, along with a title, epithet and diagram of astrological position; handles to identification and interpretation. Are you as ‘free as a bird’ like Sagittarius or a cosmic purist à la Virgo? Maybe you’re the salt of the earth with Capricorn. Moving from left to right, the timeline begins with Pisces, my birth sign. A watery world of mermaids (ladies of the lake) whose designers include JW Anderson! I couldn’t resist a photo and I wasn’t alone. In a flurry of ‘selfies’ and more traditional shots of excited couples, families and children, the windows transport us to the stars.
For The Warburg Institute in the heart of Bloomsbury, this display resonates. Aby Warburg, the founder of our travelling library, spent his life studying the survival of antiquity in the Renaissance. He was especially interested in how artworks, in whatever shape or form, could keep ideas alive through time and space through cultural memory.
Aby Warburg gave a lecture on the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara (Rome, 1912), recently the subject of Ali Smith’s novel, How to Be Both. In this suburban villa, Borso d’Este, the duke of Ferrara, commissioned a fresco cycle of months from a group of talented painters – designers of their day – to decorate the main hall. Like the windows of Selfridges, each month gets its own compartment. It’s a giant cosmic calendar, with the planetary gods ruling from above. They arrive in festooned chariots surrounded by their heavenly courts. The gods steer but also sanction the good rule of Borso, who is depicted in the lower register pursuing activities suitable to the month and season, like hunting or banqueting; they’re closest to the people who stood in the room and would have enjoyed looking at their painted selves. Schifanoia means escape from boredom.
Between heaven and earth is the astral realm, home of the Decans: three personifications for each of the zodiac signs (the fixed stars), some in rather snappy outfits. Aby Warburg claimed that these figures harked back to an ancient formula, and so the painted programme represented a survival of the pagan gods from eastern Mediterranean cultures; a transitional type between the middle ages and Italian Renaissance that spoke to a world of magical belief. We might say another reawakening has happened on Oxford Street, with the Christmas story entirely absent from this showcasing of the Planetkinder.
Selfridges worked with the Royal Greenwich Observatory to create this dazzling spectacle, which is drawing the crowds in the final days before Christmas. And who wouldn’t be tempted to check out their horoscope in such a visual way, a falling in line with the stars? Superstition it may but like past times and in great art, we can all enjoy a prediction … at least for our sartorial fate and fortune.
Dr Joanne Anderson joined The Warburg Institute in the summer as lecturer in art history and convener of the MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture, having previously taught at Birkbeck, University of London and the Universities of Sussex and Warwick. Her research interests include the imagery of Mary Magdalen of northern Italy and the Alps, primarily in the parish church context, and its development in a cross-cultural territory. Among other projects, Dr Anderson is currently preparing a book based on her PhD thesis.
All images courtesy of Dr Joanne Anderson. Featured image: ‘The power of two’