© Sølve Sundsbø – ‘The Girl from Atlantis’ – Vogue Nippon May 2010

Aspects of Artists

A work of art, by definition, is irreducible to other discourses—psychoanalytic, historical, sociological—that may illuminate it. The same goes, of course, for the artist him/herself.  Here, then, far from any reductionism, I offer my reflections on aspects of artists that move me.

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 1

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 2

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 3

All fashion photos, here as elsewhere on this post, courtesy of Vogue.

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN: FEMININE, FEMININITY, FEMINIST

Alexander McQueen, when asked by an interviewer  how designing for men is different from designing for women, replied: ‘You can’t really push a man so far [as a woman], a man will never … wear a skirt’. The interviewer, pointing at his suit, says: ‘Yes, it will always be some variation of this’. McQueen confirms, saying: ‘Yeah, it won’t move [from that], it will just be proportion and colour and shape [that you can play with]’. In other words, McQueen finds that in designing for women there is more scope for discovery, for genuine creation, whereas in designing for men, the outcome—some variation of a suit—is generally known.

A woman, then, offers the designer an open journey rather than a fixed destination, a flow of becoming in which paradox and contradiction are not resolved but held in suspension: the very conditions of art. Other creators confirm this. In cinema, for example, Lars von Trier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pedro Almodóvar are just three of the many auteurs who prefer women as their lead characters (with Fassbinder going as far, in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to transmuting via the feminine the ferment of male biography into the sublime of art). The notions of the feminine, femininity and feminist, then, will inform my discussion of McQueen’s work. Finally, beyond the truism that every male artist, by definition, cultivates his feminine dimension (in this light, the fact that three of the four artists I’ve mentioned are homosexual is merely incidental), I will only note here that beyond sexuality, McQueen’s art expresses a queer sensibility.

The artist is driven by desire and fascination. He—I’m speaking of male artists—senses the feminine lurking beneath a woman’s femininity, and he knows that however much it escapes him, it also escapes her. It is this complexity of feminine identity that feeds the artist’s obsession, this inexhaustible riddle of what a woman wants. She may not be aware of it, but in exhibiting her femininity, in armouring herself with it, she is erecting a defence against not only her own anxieties, but the man’s as well. This undertow of complicity animates many a flirtation. Now, those of you versed in psychoanalysis will say, ‘classic Freud’. Indeed. So tell me, for each sex, in the interplay of alterity and identity, who is the Other? ‘Woman is the Other for both men and women’. Okay, so you know your Lacan too, but we need to have another taste of his teasers before we move on. All right. ‘Women’s jouissance is of the order of the infinite; they may experience it, but they know nothing about it.’ Another? Yes. ‘Women do not lend themselves to generalization: there is no such thing as Woman’. One more? Okay. ‘A woman is a symptom of a man: she can only ever enter the psychic economy of men as a fantasy objet (a), the cause of their desire’. All right, so you’ve flashed a light on feminine and femininity, but what about feminism? Feminism is about a woman’s self-invention, being author and actor of her life, playing with convention when she can’t opt out of it. That sounds just like queerness. Indeed. A feminist understands the queerness of femininity; through play she explores the feminine within and the wider world without. In a word, she spins her own web, whether erotic, intellectual, affective or sensual. Fine. Now can we move on to fashion?  You bet! I’m going to focus on three of McQueen’s runway shows: Plato’s Atlantis (S-S 2010), Voss (S-S 2001) and The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (A-W 2008-09). Just click/tap on the image below the title to view a video of the show. All right, excellent. And, when you’ve gotten to the bottom of this post, should you wish to see more, you’ll find a table of clickable images to an additional thirty shows in full video. Fantastic! Now let’s go!

© Sølve Sundsbø – ‘The Girl from Atlantis’ – Vogue Nippon May 2010

© Sølve Sundsbø – ‘The Girl from Atlantis’ – Vogue Nippon May 2010

All Alexander McQueen’s shows are about the staging of aesthetic emotion, the mise-en-scène of beauty in order to destabilize intellectual, spiritual and bodily certainties. Wielding his scissors, he cuts into the closure of convention and, beyond subversion, opens up possibilities for invention.  Never reductive, he assumes duplicity; in a seductive movement of story and concept he uses fantasy to confront us with reality. In a word, he is an artist. Consider his last runway show, Plato’s Atlantis (Paris, 6 October 2009; Spring-Summer 2010 collection).

Plato’s Atlantis | S-S 2010

Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, Paris; 6 Oct 2009

Video of the show

On a screen backdrop a woman writhes on desert sand as serpents slither across her naked body: the serpent is as fine a vehicle as any to express McQueen’s overarching theme: the generative power of paradox-held-in-suspension, of unresolved tension. Indeed, throughout his work, we see the interplay of spirit and nature, soul and libido, instinct and reason, that characterizes the serpent, all subsumed under the reptile’s alliance of life’s motive power with the drive toward death.

The serpents morph into a filigree of electric blue arabesques, and then the spotlights pick out two robotic arms on parallel rails, a camera where their hand should be. On the screen we see the audience they survey, a typical McQueen touch in which the unfettered gaze, through a mirror effect (see VOSS, S-S 2001), becomes uncomfortably fettered to itself. Call this a feminist gesture, a sabotaging of the objectifying male gaze.

And then they come, McQueen’s creatures, in stunning ‘armadillo’ boots and breath-taking prints, their sculpted hair evoking dorsal fins. What are they? The fruit of some ancient Greek coupling of animal and human? Of the mating of man and machine? Or simply mutants emerging post-apocalypse? Over the course of their fifteen-minute parade we decipher a pattern of reverse evolution: humans returning, via an amphibious state, from land to sea. And thus into fashion’s eternal now McQueen introduces time, a time that traces a possible future and gives us a space to reflect. And thus it is that McQueen’s aliens humanize us: one more paradox, one more feminine refusal to freeze fluidity.

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 4

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 5

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 6

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 7

“Whatever the contradictions inherent in McQueen’s persona, what was indisputable was his extraordinary artistry in rendering fabric—and a diversity of other materials—in a completely original way. From the slashed and distressed fabrics of his early years, to the luxurious jacquards, delicate chiffons and fine Italian suiting of his later collections, fabric, scissors, chalk and thread were the agents of his trade.”

Claire Wilcox, in Alexander McQueen, ed. Claire Wilcox (London: V&A Publishing, 2015, p. 25)

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 8

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 9

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 10

Alexander McQueen, Plato’s Atlantis 11

Voss | S-S 2001

Gatliff Road Warehouse, London; 26 September 2000

Video of the show

To begin, a poem and two citations:

 

Emily Dickinson

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur, – you’re straightaway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

 

Emily Dickinson, from Fascile 29 of Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, ed. Cristanne Miller (Harvard University Press, 2016) p. 304

Hélène Cixous

The hysteric is a divine spirit that is always at the edge, the turning point, of making. She is one who does not make herself… she does not make herself but she does make the other. It is said that the hysteric […] plays, makes up, makes-believe: she makes-believe she is a woman, unmakes-believe too […] She’s the unorganizable feminine construct, whose power of producing the other is a power that never returns to her. She is really a wellspring nourishing the other for eternity, yet not drawing back from the other … not recognizing herself in the images the other may or may not give her. She is given images that don’t belong to her, and she forces herself, as we’ve all done, to resemble them.

Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” tr. Annette Kuhn. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn, 1981), p. 47

Nitza Yarom

Another major issue is the relationship between recourse to the body and femininity. From its beginning hysteria was associated with women and femininity. In the psychopathology of sexuality, we find that women tend to resort to hysteria more than men, and men tend to utilize perversion. The recourse of women to the body and of men to transgression of the law is also found in addictions. Here too, men resort more to addictions of drugs and alcohol, while women turn to anorexia and bulimia. It is quite possible that we are dealing with sociocultural values, which shape the outlets of men and women, and that with time more women will break the law and more men will turn to their bodies. Nevertheless, the fact that biology forces women to deal with their bodies and the bodies of others more often than men is one conceivable reason why the body may remain a major channel for the communication of the feminine.

Nitza Yarom, Matrix of Hysteria: Psychoanalysis of the Struggle between the Sexes as Enacted in the Body  (London: Routledge, 2005) p. 37

Alexander McQueen, Voss 1

Alexander McQueen, Voss 2

Alexander McQueen, Voss 3

Alexander McQueen, Voss 4

Out of the attic and into the asylum, the madwoman furnishes McQueen with another vehicle for showing he’s ‘on the side that’s always lost against the side of heaven, the side of snake-eyes tossed against the side of seven’ (Leonard Cohen, ‘The Captain’; Various Positions, Columbia Records, 1984). Far from lauding the ethics of losing, however, far from glorifying victimhood, McQueen’s women always, at the very least, actively resist. Nevertheless, in Voss, only a reading that accords the women a complicity in revealing—liberating?—the moth-swarmed masked odalisque (a tableau vivant of Joel Peter Witkin’s photograph ‘Sanitarium’) or in reversing the asylum’s one-way mirrors (the audience had no choice but to stare at themselves while waiting for the show to start) could construe these inmates’ resistance as active. It is left to the spectacle in all its dimensions, then, to convey the artist’s vision of a beauty that lies beyond fashion’s traditional tenets. In achieving this vision, McQueen and his team honour the women who ‘demur’, the women who are ‘handled with a chain’. Once more, then, he proves himself a feminist: once more through his artistry, he breaks chains.

Alexander McQueen, Voss | The Sanctum in the Asylum 1

Alexander McQueen, Voss | The Sanctum in the Asylum 2

Alexander McQueen, Voss | The Sanctum in the Asylum 3

Alexander McQueen, Voss | The Sanctum in the Asylum 4

The Girl Who Lived in the Tree | A-W 2008

Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, Paris; 29 February 2008

Video of the show

Once upon a time, in the village of Fairlight, on the grounds of his cottage overlooking the sea, Alexander McQueen contemplated a tree. Six-hundred years old it was, a real immemorial elm. Suddenly a vision occurred to him: A girl, a wild creature, lives up there, sheltered in the darkness. Letting his imagination run, he saw her descending; as soon as she touched the earth, she was transformed into a princess.

And thus it was that a weekend away from the hurly-burly of London allowed McQueen to produce a collection that celebrated light, a collection in which he no longer showed any need to slash the vestments of would-be princesses. Like any  genuine artist, however, he could not help but be true to himself: The first half of The Girl Who Lived in the Tree was governed by the colours of night, but a night in whose womb day was already gestating.

My breath was taken away by the beauty of his night creations, whether in the glossy black that mirrors shining white or in the dusky tones of a world shielded from sunlight (the abode of the girl in the tree). Indeed, I much prefer the feral to the regal—but that’s beside the point: What I want to show here is how McQueen, via his utterly simple story of darkness to light, wild child to princess, remains true to his vision of celebrating women.

Hark! I hear, from across the Atlantic (I write this from France), the cries of outraged feminists. Is not the princess, they rhetorically ask, the central figure in the script of femininity that subjugates women to patriarchy? Is not the princess the vehicle by which girls learn it’s better to be passive and patient then to act and venture forth? Yes, yes, I say. They calm down. And then I say: Dear feminists from the land of plenty, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Now they turn their backs on me and refuse to give me a hearing. No matter. This is what I have to say. Listen.

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 1

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 2

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 3

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 4

McQueen begins with the wild child, the girl who lives in a tree. Now why do girls become wild, why do they go and live in a tree? For the same reason that the nymph Daphne turns herself into a laurel tree: to escape a man’s (in this case, a god’s, Apollo’s) advances. Indeed, every nubile girl is beautiful, and beauty is a synonym of desire: Herein lies the source of all the girl’s troubles. Sexuality threatens to overwhelm her. Vaguely she senses that husband, house and baby are but a conspiracy to tame her ‘animal instincts’, and yet that trinity is attractive because, were ‘everything in order’ (socially), her emotional turbulence would surely subside. Vaguely she may be aware that it’s better to do than to merely be (beautiful), and yet, since the dress makes the princess, why not go the easy route?

Ambivalence and ambiguity characterize the nubile girl, and this is reflected in McQueen’s story. By living in a tree, the girl renounces the social effects of her beauty; she cultivates her affinity with the non-human—the animal, the vegetal—and, moreover, may deliberately dirty herself, make herself ugly. McQueen makes the point with subtle economy: The hairstyle of the ‘girl in darkness’ suffices to convey it. The girl in the tree, then, the little savage who prefers the woods, is simply the negative image of the figure of princess: as night to day, as black to white, as darkness to light.

Once again, then, McQueen proves himself finely attuned to the potentialities of the feminine, and more broadly, to the dynamics of desire. In this, he is a feminist, affirming women.

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 5

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 6

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 7

Alexander McQueen, Girl Lived Tree 8

Alexander McQueen – Fashion Shows 1994 – 2010

Click on the image to view the full video of the show, courtesy of Gainsbury and Whiting (except for A-W 2002-03)

S-S 2010

A-W 2009-10

S-S 2009

A-W 2008-09

S-S 2008

A-W 2007-08

S-S 2007

 A-W 2006-07

S-S 2006

A-W 2005-06

S-S 2005

A-W 2004-05

S-S 2004

A-W 2003-04

S-S 2003

A-W 2002-03

S-S 2002

A-W 2001-02

S-S 2001

A-W 2000-01

 S-S 2000

A-W 1999-00

S-S 1999

A-W 1998-99

S-S 1998

A-W 1997-98

S-S 1997

A-W 1996-97

S-S 1996

A-W 1995-96

S-S 1995

A-W 1994-95

S-S 1994

Clickable image links: A print interview, an article and a documentary

Alexander McQueen interviewed by his mother, Joyce

The Guardian, 20 April 2004

Alexander McQueen ‘Cutting Up Rough’

The Works’ (BBC documentary), 1997

Dressed To Thrill: Alexander McQueen at the Met

Judith Thurman, the New Yorker, 16 May 2011

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2017 | All rights reserved

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