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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 1, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    The savage beauty of the art/fashion world

    Laurence Mackin

    Here is a piece I wrote recently for the Magazine in The Irish Times. It’s a little tricky to find on the website so, being an arrogant sort, I thought I would reproduce it here with a few images. There are rumours that the McQueen show is coming to the UK – here’s hoping.

    Clothes shouldn’t intimidate a person – but if the clothes in question are those designed by the late Alexander McQueen, then chances are they will intimidate, thrill, confuse and intrigue in equal measure.

    McQueen’s work is the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the show’s catalogue has been packaged together with a preface by curator Andrew Bolton, an introduction by journalist Susannah Frankel, and an interview with Sarah Burton, now creative director of the house of McQueen. The show and book, Savage Beauty, offer plenty of ammunition to the charge that the fashion and art world will never see the like of Alexander McQueen again.

    McQueen’s work inhabits a space somewhere between fashion and art. He frequently said that he wanted people to have a visceral reaction to his pieces, in much the same way as a great piece of art should immediately provoke a strong reaction – horror, joy, delight or despair. In his preface, Andrew Bolton quotes McQueen on his attitude to fashion shows: “I don’t want to do a cocktail party, I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions.” And what shows: in one, a model spun on a revolving disc, marionette-like, while two robots, borrowed from a car factory, spattered her white dress with paint; in another, Kate Moss appeared as a hologram, floating spectrally above the crowd; then there was the imaginary chess match between the US and Japan, with the models taking their places on an oversized board.

    The level of detail in McQueen’s pieces is overwhelming. He was a superb tailor, who worked with speed and absolute conviction. In the book, Frankel describes a collaboration between McQueen and prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem for Eonnagata, a lavish dance show. She quotes Guillem as saying: “Alexander was doing a costume for [choreographer] Russell [Maliphant], and Alexander said: ‘It’s not sinister enough . . . Give me some fabric, give me some scissors,’ and right in front of our eyes, he cut another costume. It took about three minutes. It was just so fast – and so completely right.”

    Many of McQueen’s quotes in this book (which is about the size of a laptop and twice as heavy) are technical observations: “[I design from the side], that way I get the worst angle of the body. You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum.” His more general statements could as easily refer to visual art as fashion; what comes across is that his pieces aren’t items of clothing; they are fragments of an overriding narrative, characters within story arcs. McQueen wasn’t satisfied with rewriting the rules of fashion; he was also intent on making aggressive statements. His collection Highland Rape, for example, established him as a force to be reckoned with and he was appalled by simplistic readings of it, insisting it was a patriotic response to England’s historical treatment of his Scottish homeland.

    In the end, writes Susannah Frankel, McQueen became “less open to the outside world, both personally and professionally”. In February 2010 he killed himself, nine days after the death of his mother. He had completed 80 per cent of a new collection, which was shown in an 18th-century Parisian hôtel particulier to audiences of no more than 10 at a time.

    McQueen’s work, as illustrated in this book, asks as many questions as it answers, and that seems to be the mark of great art. In decades to come, perhaps historians will still be arguing about the meaning of McQueen’s work, in much the same way they discuss Rothko or Picasso.

    Savage Beauty is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until July 31st. The book is published by Yale Books, £30

    • Cat says:

      I would love it to come to the UK. Or indeed Ireland, but the Uk would be ok too.
      I’m fascinated by McQueen – his work, his relationship with Isabella Blow (amongst others). I’d love to get a chance to see this.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Cat – I’ve heard rumours that it is coming to the UK, though no confirmed dates as yet. The book is well worth getting. The price is high but it’s a lot of glossy paper for the money, and the cover has the coolest hologram (or is that holograph? We’re arguing about it in the office.) A few more interviews and essays would have been nice, mind.

    • Cbr says:

      Alexander McQueen’s creations, in my opinion, give a fascinating insight into the sometimes bizarre and often fraught relationship between “the homosexual” and “the mother””……….Practitioners of Psychoanalysis — Kristevan psychoanalysis, in particular (after Julia Kristeva) – would have a field day analysing even just those two images above, I can well imagine – especially that dark, exquisite, yet very threatening image on the right. How he must have suffered for his art – especially, I would say, as a very small child during what Kristeva describes magnificently in her book, “Powers of Horror” (c 1982) as the pre-Oedipal mother-child dyadic relationship of Primary Narcissism. Very sad – ending his own life just nine days after the death of his mother. Fascinating stuff.
      Great post btw…………but I grow tired of the “N” word (narrative)…it’s being flogged to death at the moment…

    • Leah says:

      Excited to see this show. I live in Brooklyn and am very lucky to be able to see it at the Met. Although I’m a toy designer, I am inspired and amazed by McQueen’s work. I played dress up the other day with one of my characters in one of his coats for fun. Can wait to see the Dante Coat in person!

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Leah – Let us know how it is when you go.

      CBR – Reading this book leads to an awful lot of head scratching. More questions than answers. On narrative I take your point, but it does exactly what it says on the tin. Any alternative suggestions?

      Slightly off the point, but there is a great bit in Harold Evans’s book Essential English where he rails against people changing words just for the sake of them. For example, interviewers seem to be allergic to using the words “says” – it’s all “states”, “answers”, “explains” and so on. Just use “says” – I’m with Evans on this one.

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