Monday, July 13, 2015

Savage Beauty and Wanderlust

The cultural phenomenon that has been Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty exhibition is extraordinary. Over 800,000 people saw it at the Met in New York and now it is breaking all records at the V&A. To cope with demand, the museum is even planning to keep it open 48 hours on its last weekend in early August. I saw it today and it lives up to the hype. In some ways it’s less an exhibition about fashion and more about McQueen’s wild imagination which somehow manifested itself as fabricated creations (‘clothes’ is too small a word) which he applied to the (largely) female form. He made women look strong, vulnerable, beautiful, ugly, romantic, scary, from another age (past and future), mysterious, and above all never boring. 
His collections were all about the runway; each year they were an Event, making statements as powerful as anything Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney could come up with. Somehow the ideas percolated down to the ready-to-wear clothes you could actually buy and wear to the office but arguably, when you got down to that level, there wasn’t that much difference between him and Galliano or Westwood. To my mind, he was/is the fashion equivalent of Bjork: uber-creative and challenging, utterly unique and occasionally pretentious. In fact Bjork sang at his funeral, wearing one of his creations. They’d have made an interesting couple.

In contrast to this, I then popped into the Royal Academy to see their Joseph Cornell exhibition, Wanderlust. I’ve loved Cornell’s magical, wistful ‘box art’ for years. Victorian doll’s house meets an exotic medical cabinet, partly romanticism, partly knowing surrealism. Because he looked backwards rather than forwards, didn’t make paintings or sculpture (20th century’s accepted forms of artistic practice) and didn’t fit into the abstract expressionist or modernist movements of the time, he remains a relatively unknown artist. The title of the exhibition is ironic in some ways in that he rarely ever left New York and never went abroad, but at the same time his work evokes the exoticism of fin-de-siecle European travel. It is this wistfulness that I love.

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