DIVA ★★★★ Victoria & Albert Museum | Jun 24, 2023 - Apr 7, 2024

Who doesn't love a diva? Everyone has their favourite. This unique exhibition at the V&A looks at the concept of the diva and how it has changed and developed since its original association with the great opera singers of the 19th century. The term, which comes to refer to the great female gods of all the arts, takes on different and quite contradictory connotations over time. Not surprisingly in a patriarchal society, as the women associated with the descriptor begin to celebrate their empowerment, the word also becomes a synonym for caprice, wantonness and temperament. In fact, attitudes toward the diva, now a gender neutral appellation, really reflect the complex response society has towards "the other." Fascination and fear, desire and denigration all become part of the powerful mix. For us, the most interesting part of the show is the look at the earlier bearers of the banner. It is lovely to see objects associated with such luminaries as Adelina Patti, Jenny Lind, Ellen Terry and Isadora Duncan. The glimpses into the lives of Theda Bara, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland are also quite delightful. However, one of the drawbacks of this exhibition might be the very breadth of its topic. The attempt to be comprehensive sometimes seems to reduce the show to a catalogue of all of the people to whom the designation has been applied. It is probably best to view the exhibition as an introduction to a constellation of stars all of whom are worthy of further investigation. The second act on the upper floor looks at many of the contemporary entertainment figures who fascinate the public. The extravagant fashion of Cher, Madonna and Lady Gaga stand in stark contrast to the makeup kit and little black dress of Édith Piaf but they all qualify as divas. This is an intriguing exhibition that examines a complex concept, reflecting much about our society, its attitudes to women and their empowerment and the ascendancy of celebrity culture.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Image: Photographic negative, Billie Holiday at the Albert Hall. England, 1954. Photo: Harry Hammond © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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