Still Missing

The real Princess Di is just a faint presence at the Museum of Art show

Is it too late to juice up the Museum of Art's underwhelming show "Diana, A Celebration," which opened Sunday? We could bring in the tabloid boys to try to cut the stifling atmosphere of reverence for a glamour icon. Give us, say, some of those hot love letters she sent to would-be sexual partners or the lurid clips from the Sun and the National Enquirer. And maybe, for balance, throw in Prince Charles' famous Tampax statement to Camilla Parker Bowles.

Princess Di was a complex woman with undeniable sexual desires and elaborate familial complications -- that, of course, was why she kept things bubbling so furiously around her. But, except for a video clip in which she's laughing so uninhibitedly on an amusement park flume ride that she seems close to bursting a blood vessel, there's scant acknowledgment of the sensuous woman trapped inside the royal system.

On the other hand, maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to bring attention to the earthier side of Diana and the royals. That would be pandering. It wouldn't be art. Fort Lauderdale's most prestigious art institution wouldn't want to trifle with anything that didn't stick with the nobler traditions of fine art, would it?

The Dress: Drowning in taffeta and tulle.
The Dress: Drowning in taffeta and tulle.
Little Di's froggy
Little Di's froggy

In fact, "Diana, A Celebration" is even more lacking in the high-toned stuff than last year's Vatican show at MoA, which gave us almost an entire floor of the museum devoted to papal vestments but at least offered a couple of Michelangelo drawings and some Bernini sculptures. Here, we get battered childhood toys, a few dozen of Diana's steppin'-out gowns, photographs of the Spencer family estate, a looped tape of Elton John singing "A Candle in the Wind," a very valuable-looking tiara (the impression of value reinforced by the presence of two edgy guards hovering next to it), and the Wedding Dress.

Ah, the Dress. The hype has been growing for weeks now, and I couldn't wait for an up-close look. This is, museum Executive Director Irvin Lippman said in remarks before the media opening, "the most famous wedding gown in the world." (John Norman, president of Arts and Exhibitions International, the show's organizer, went him one better, calling it "the most famous dress in the world," which puts it in direct competition with, among a lot of others, that slinky white number whose skirts get blown up on Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch.)

Well, the Dress is big, all right. There are 25 yards of silk taffeta in it, 100 yards of tulle crinoline, and 150 yards of veil netting (the dressmaker must have been secretly supplying the Miami quinceañera industry with the leftovers). It's mounted here on a faceless mannequin in a 30-foot-long glass case; every inch of its 25-foot train is on full display. But somehow, it doesn't live up to the hype. Those blousy sleeves, the beaded bodice, the lacy collar, the little bows, the embroidered hemline -- they all add up to one clunker of a gown. This was before Diana discovered herself as a public figure, of course, and you're left with the impression that the royal matriarchs, Queen E. and the Queen Mum, have her tightly in their clutches. (We'll teach her a thing or two, eh, duckie? More crinolines, girls! More tuuulle!) The dress must have been suffocating to wear. Pictures of Diana in it somehow bring back a long-forgotten impulse to rescue her -- to leap into that vast froth of fabric and drag her coughing and gasping back to shore.

According to the exhibit's press notes, a tiny horseshoe in 18-carat gold studded with white diamonds was sewn into the dress' embroidery. So much for good-luck talismans.

An adjoining room gives you 28 of Diana's other gowns. Here's more evidence of the declining influence of the palace biddies. The earliest ones -- like a hideous, high-waisted blue number with pink polka dots from 1983 -- are in the old red-faced English style, studiedly deglamourized, as if the nation were still socking away every bit of extra material for the war effort. But by the early 1990s, Diana had gone shopping in Paris a few times and discovered Chanel and Versace, and the gowns were form-fitting and womanly (though I still don't get her attachment to those big Easter hats with broad bands and wide brims).

The exhibition is separated into different aspects of Diana's life, with separate galleries for each. There's a room devoted to Diana's charities, like the fight against AIDS and the effort to eliminate land mines in former war zones. There's a "tribute" room, with a series of gauzy scenes from Diana's life and a trough full of rose petals as Sir Elton sings on. There are scenes from Althorp, the Spencer estate, complete with one of those famous, old English halls whose walls are lined with portraits of Spencer ancestors.

Oddly, the most compelling part of the show -- Susan May Tell's photographs of stunned British mourners outside Althorp in the days after Diana's death -- are stuck at the end, with almost no relation to the rest of the show.

Clearly, this is an exhibit for Diana fanatics -- and they are legion. The comparison to last year's Vatican show -- "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes" -- is fitting. It's a moneymaker. It's a show with a built-in audience, ready to fork out a hefty $19.50 for a ticket ($16.50 for seniors, $7.50 for children under 12). It's an audience for whom it doesn't matter what you trot out, as long as it has that Diana aura, as long as it evokes the sad, lost princess whose public life turned into a weapon against her. For the rest of us, the show leaves us scratching our heads. What's it all about, Di?

If you don't get the idea, stop off in the gift shop at the end, where there are Diana artifacts for sale, from an $11 packet of postcards to a $225 Limoges rose egg. A modest 10 percent of the take goes to Diana's favorite charities.

On one wall, old home movies are screened continuously, showing Diana from the day she came home as a baby to some balmy summer days in the estate's voluminous yard when she was a feisty elementary schooler. In one shot, her mother lies on her back and lifts the 8- or 9-year-old Diana on outstretched feet. Then, in a shocking maneuver that had people doing double takes, the mother quickly released the daughter backward, flinging her headfirst into the grass. The scene quickly switches to another day. Was Diana hurt? Not clear. But the scene makes you wonder. Was it through rough acrobatic tricks that the family tried to prepare Diana for rocky times ahead?

Somehow, I was most touched by the gallery that depicts her childhood. There are cases here displaying some of her toys, such as a Rolls-Royce pedal car, a stuffed gingham frog, and some ceramic animals, including a Lewis Carroll rabbit with a broken ear. There are drawings of the pre-adolescent Diana, with long blond hair, looking like the Breck girl, and a picture of her cat Marmalade. There's even a 1966 letter from Diana to her parents, who were away on a trip, in which the girl reports, in the distinctive circular handwriting that she kept until she died, that "we had a power out on Monday and I went to bed with a candle in my room." There's nothing like words written in childhood to highlight a looming tragedy.

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