Bravo to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for mounting a heroically comprehensive homage to Alexander McQueen to coincide with Paris Fashion Week 2015, which includes the profoundly memorable Savage Beauty. I was among the lucky to view its closing night at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In my opinion, Savage Beauty references culture, art, media, multi-media, performance art, technology, art + engineering, memory, identity, gender, and of course, fashion, in astounding and, as yet, unparalleled ways. Its use of screens, projections, TV monitors, soundscape, and the inclusion of its haunting hologram, affected me deeply and lastingly.
In the words of Klaus Biesenbach, Director, MoMA PS1 & Chief Curator “art can be beautiful” but “good art…has a disturbing quality, it makes you stop…and examine what is real in your life”. This was indeed my experience in attending Savage Beauty on its closing night. Both the exhibition as a whole and seeing the Kate Moss hologram are experiences I’m still processing on many levels–experiences that have forced me to confront “reality”, perception and meaning in culture, art, media, fashion, narrative, design, beauty, violence, nature, death, curating, and genius.
Closing night of the Met’s exhibition was a “happening” in and of itself. I can personally vouch for this. As I wound my way serpentine waiting on line chatting with a German director most known for his Pantene shampoo commercials, both outside and then through the entire museum, the line was buzzing with anticipatory energy. I myself had a close encounter with Anna Wintour, Chief Editor of Vogue, who smirked at my outfit while bypassing me in line, startling me as this a compliment of sorts, coming from her. Having stood in line for 3 hours, I finally entered at 11:00pm (The Met kept the museum open for 24 hours, to accommodate as many final visitors as possible.) Finally inside its confines, I became fuzzy on museum policy and took photos to capture what I was immersed in, until I was reprimanded by a guard. The rooms were packed and warm with body heat, the crowding was scary.
Here is the Met’s curator Andrew Bolton on Savage Beauty:
The curator’s video illustrates how powerful this exhibition was to see in person. I can speak to this power. In the crush, I became obsessed with the “McQueen Tartan” pant suit upon first sight (it appears on the far left of the screen at 3:38 in the Romantic Nationalism room) a rare phenomenon I’ve only felt toward fashion a few times prior. I had the simultaneous, visceral feelings upon viewing it that “I would kill for it and wear it every Christmas for the rest of my life”. The divergence in these radical urges that came up in me from viewing a garment, is a testament to the art of seduction and the “dark arts” magic of McQueen. This exhibition is clearly not pretty dresses on mannequins. This is the work of a master tailor at war within himself, subverting his craft, and fashioning (all pun) art from this deep internal conflict.
An example of such inner struggle is the display of Dress No. 13 from McQueen’s 1999 No. 13 Collection. In the finale of this collection’s showing, it was worn by a model/ trained ballerina teetering on a rotating platform while being attacked, i.e. “shot” with paint by two robots, built by Fiat, that took one week to program. The concept was inspired by an installation of the artist Rebecca Horn, and the result, I can assure you, is much more than mere “Pollock couture” (my phrase). I have to think the artists Billy Kluver & Tinguely would have appreciated the “man vs. machine” engineering concept and de-construction of the formerly pristine dress. Have a look:
As is widely known and mourned, the darkness and tension of the runway ultimately peaked in real life with McQueen’s suicide by hanging himself in a wardrobe, in February 2010 at the age of 40, on the eve of his mother’s funeral. Even his death was self-orchestrated performance art complete with metaphor, one could say, though too painful and shocking for the industry he worked within and those close to him, to presume this. His untimely death, a year before the Met show mounted but already well within the planning and curatorial process, then became a ghostly presence in the final exhibition, like a modern-day Macbeth.
McQueen remains one of the rare exceptions in fashion with his work being described in art terms. Both a conceptualist and a formalist, narrative was of the utmost importance to him in his collections, putting him on a par with contemporary artists of note, in my opinion. Also an obsessive blogger, McQueen was ever examining his work and seeking ways to engage the public in his work, as many contemporary and DIY artists do. In 2010, he live-streamed his collection “Plato’s Atlantis” an outlandish array of monumental designs, that left me stunned upon seeing those selected for display at Savage Beauty.
In a tortured irony, with his own surname acting as pun, the House of McQueen posthumously dressed the bride Kate Middleton for the British royal wedding in April 2011, just one month before the opening of Savage Beauty, in which McQueen holds the English to account for their Scottish genocide, through his highly controversial 1995 Highland Rape collection, shown within the exhibition. A maddening dichotomy, befitting a queen, indeed.
Written by Carolyn A. McDonough, April 2014 for the Museum of Modern Art’s online course Catalysts taught by multi-media artist Randall Packer. Revised by the author on March 14, 2015 upon the opening of Savage Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
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References and Related Links:
Conversations: McQueen’s Savage Beauty [Andrew Bolton on McQueen’s creative producers]
Designer as Dramatist and the Tales He Left Behind
Alexander McQueen in All His Dark Glory