Joseph Beuys A language of Drawing

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

ARTIST ROOMS:  Joseph Beuys A Language of Drawing, 30 July – 23 October

Richard Demarco & Joseph Beuys/ A Unique Partnership, 30- July – 16 October

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), an enigmatic figure in the history of twentieth century art whose concept of “Social Sculpture” feels urgently relevant.  Beyond the historical context of post war Germany; his belief in the ability of each human being to use their innate creativity to build a better society remains aspirational and politically charged. Parallel exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) provide the opportunity to explore and re-evaluate Beuys’s work, legacy and his relationship with Scotland as part of a wider sphere of European culture. Joint ARTIST ROOMS holdings from the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate have been brought together for the first time in Joseph Beuys- A Language of Drawing, featuring over 100 works from 1945 to 1984. Complimenting this significant survey of Beuys’s drawings is Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys: A Unique partnership; an exhibition of objects, photography, film, posters, recordings and original correspondence exploring the collaboration between Beuys, Edinburgh gallerist Richard Demarco and the impact of Scotland on the artist’s practice. Beuys’s choice of media and raw elements are invested with intentionality and his delight in playing with language.  He utilised his drawings as “reservoirs” of ideas, often preceding what he described as “actions” in performance, teaching and political activism. Using a wide variety of materials; graphite, ink, industrial “Braunkreuz” oil paint, watercolour, newsprint, leaves, bone, hare’s blood, felt, fat, stone dust, clay, zinc, lime, copper and iron oxides applied to paper, card, metal and wood, Beuys’s drawings are a wonderful window into the endlessly fertile ground of the thematic obsessions, concerns and beliefs that define his art.

It feels very timely to go back to the Beuysian origins of the phrase; “everyone is an artist”; to extrapolate the real aspiration behind it from what it has become in the popular imagination. In the 21st century access to technology has given many the capacity to create and perform online to an increasingly global audience. In this environment seemingly anyone with a platform is an artist. But having access to new tools to express and project your own desires doesn’t constitute “cultural democracy “(or progressive civilization) on its own. Having the purchasing power to buy the latest upgrade is a profit making trajectory that doesn’t necessarily equate to the growth of awareness and conscience needed to actually use it. Joseph Beuys declared that “the creativity of people is the real capital. Art=capital” and he was right, however the word capital in the 21st century has been reduced to only one meaning; monetary wealth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary art world aligned with the language of advertising. In looking at Beuys you have to re-examine how we define art and culture and completely re-evaluate the role of the artist as compliant agent or resistant activist as part of the wider question: “what is Art and what is it for?” The striding Western Hero in La rivoluzione siamo Noi [We are the Revolution] (1972 (phototype on polyester sheet, with hand written text, stamped (based on a photograph by Giancarlo Pancaldi), GMA 4563, SNGMA) cast Beuys resoundingly as the resistant activist. Although the cowboy swagger is arguably part of the artist’s mythical persona, within his statement that “everyone is an artist” there is also the assertion, commitment and intentionality of building a better society. Significantly there is a sense of collective responsibility underneath that iconic hat.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Beuys understood the power of mythology which is why, in the story of him being rescued by a group of nomadic Tartars, he rolls himself in insulating fat and felt; an act of psychological survival after being shot down in the Crimea during WWII whilst serving in the Luftwaffe. Although criticised for the lie of being rescued by a tribal culture, the truth still resides in the myth. Shamanic is a word that gets used a lot around Beuys, however he is iconic not for the cloaked mystery of his artistic persona or for the celebrity treatment of becoming a Warhol multiple, but for his actions; “My art is my teaching” was how he described his own work and his art expands way beyond gallery walls. He was a passionate advocate of the capacity of art to heal individual and societal wounds and like other German Artists of his generation, used his language of drawing as a way of coming to terms with the atrocities of Nazism and human complicity, including his own. From the end of WWII he was actively reclaiming the language of his homeland; the idea of the gesamkunstwerk; the total work of art, which had been misappropriated in Wagnerian proportions during the Nazi era. For Beuys this was an ideal within and without, a synthesis between different disciplines, a total work of art as bound to human life, manifest in the concept of “Social Sculpture”. Psychologically he was his own gesamtkunstwerk;

“I outlined a new biography in drawings. I had already conceived the idea of a social work of art upon which I am still working”. (Joseph Beuys, 1980).

The idea that people can use their creativity to bring about positive cultural, political, economic, ecological and social change is an eternally hopeful premise for reconstruction. The imperative then was a world visibly in ruin in the aftermath of industrial scale warfare, genocide and the age of the atom bomb. The imperative now is displaced humanity, global corporate rule and impending ecological disaster.

In the poignant drawing Dove, Food, Rainbow (1949, Graphite and watercolour on card, AR00095 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Beuys uses simple linear graphite and white washes of watercolour on a raw, textured ground of found card, to create a feeling of profound lassitude and hope. The bowed head of the dove linked to the promise of a rainbow which has not yet burst into colour and the mountainous horizon is both a statement of loss and aspiration. When I think of Beuys I think of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs and belief in the motivational capacity of human beings for self-actualisation and self-transcendence.  As a follower of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings, there are elements of ethical individualism and spiritual science that become integrated Beuys’s in the trajectory of his drawings.

Beuys can be seen as shamanic in his depth of awareness; of the nature of mythology, culture and the universal tribe of humankind. It’s what makes the simplicity of Acer Platanoides (1945, Leaf on paper, AR00630, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) so revelatory; a fallen leaf on paper, felling the then blackened mythology of the German forest to the ground.  Out of the fascist cry of “blood and soil”, Beuys leads the viewer back to the possibility of survival and growth through creativity.  Nature in Beuys’s work is very much in the German Romantic tradition of Friedrich– we are always aware of a human mind beholding it. Beuys’s drawing The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains (1953, Graphite on paper, 3 parts. ARTIST ROOMS, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Lent by Anthony d’Offay, 2010. AL00196) acknowledges and crystallises that dynamism. There is a human presence in all his drawings, whether they are figurative or not. A fluid horizon of hare’s blood, fat transformed by human warmth, a symbolic battery of positive and negative forces, the flow between masculine and feminine, reason and intuition, present meanings sensed and felt in the action, rather than seen. If you go looking for the artifice of beauty in this artist’s work then you are destined never to find it. The beauty in Beuys lies in belief and aspiration. His connection with Scotland and interest in Celtic mythology shares a kinship with the bardic tradition of creativity as a source of transformation and renewal. His drawings are the process, sometimes unrealised actions, part of the trajectory of a life and linked with many others. This clearly presents a problem for some art critics and viewers hunting for explanatory meanings, traditional linear narratives or illustration. There are many works in the exhibition that document actions where the artist’s presence was vital and equally many drawings and objects that stand apart from the myth of the artist, transcending their maker. Beuys challenges traditional/ art historical classifications, his art was as much about founding the green party, lecturing, teaching, performance and the energy of raw materials as it was about the fine art practices of drawing, sculpture and installation.

In Richard Demarco’s essay Ex Cathedra; he refers to performance art as: “ essentially a form of drawing through what Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist called La Poetique de L’Espace. Performance art reveals 20th century man’s need for ritual. The artist’s work through performance art can be linked to that of the ritualist, alchemist, priest and master of ceremonies and guide and explorer, of all the secret places normally hidden from view, which we need to know to truly inhabit a living space, both interior and exterior.” (A Unique partnership-Richard Demarco / Joseph Beuys, P70 Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh2016)

Tails (1962, Oil paint[Braunkreuz], graphite and felt AR00654 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) is a very potent expression of the artist, ritualist, alchemist, priest/ shaman and explorer, half human half animal, in the process of transformation, rendered in bloody, earthen pigment. The elongated scale of the figure gives it a monumental presence and the gestural marks have the feel of an act of worship written and illuminated on ancient cave walls. The oil based Braunkreuz paint Beuys often used in his drawings was in industrial/ domestic use in Germany at the time, it is also a play on words- translated as “brown cross” anchoring the earth bound pigment to faith, the floors/ foundations of people’s homes and to the world of the everyday. It is a powerful material anchor to what may seem a highly fantastical image. Another fibrous layer in this drawing is a sewn hole of felt heralding ritual rebirth which the figure appears to bow before. The Shaman’s Two Bags (1977, Graphite, crayon and ink on paper, AR00129, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.)  is another example of the artist’s preoccupation with humankind’s interior and exterior life, above and below, uterine in form and crowned with antler.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Beuys’s treatment of the feminine in his work is extremely interesting as a manifestation of creative and destructive potential. In Witches Spitting Fire, (1959, Graphite and oil paint (Braunkreuz) on paper, AR00109, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) the squatting armless figures engulf the ground of the drawing in a frenzied dabbing of reddish, brown marks in stark contrast to their lithe, dellineated bodies. The energy of the drawing is intensely visceral; channelling a deeply instinctual and uncontainable drive. The female figures consume the space they inhabit with the associative pigmentation of blood, soil and excrement. The mystery of the female body is amplified by the male artist’s gaze in Pregnant Woman with Swan (1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper AR00114, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Here the swollen female figure in silhouette contains the ghostly masculine form of the child/ swan. The head is bowed limply in a Freudian twist; vulnerability held within the body of the Great Mother. The form echoes stone age Venus figures, the earliest depictions of fertile human body and imagination in clay.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

A drawing such as this has universal resonances regardless of what has been written alongside it. There is a perception of Beuys, reflected in James Fox’s most recent programme; Who’s afraid of conceptual Art? screened earlier this week on BBC4, of being bafflingly abstract or (through the eyes of art historian Fox) allegorical. However I would argue that Beuys’s work is neither too obtuse to be accessible without written explanation, nor does it operate on a level of representation discernible only to scholars. Actions like 7000 Oaks (1982), where Beuys initiated the planting of 7000 oaks, each paired with a basalt stone in the city of Kassel, has spread to other cities around the world; a collective creative act of live sculptural installation, green politics and urban renewal. I think what Beuys was about expands exponentially when seen outside a typical gallery space. This was very much the intention behind Beuys’s first exhibition in the English speaking world; Strategy: Get Arts hosted by Richard Demarco at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970.

The underpinning conceit of Fox’s documentary was that audiences require explanation in order to understand conceptual art, or rather the ideas behind it. As I made my way through the ARTIST ROOMS exhibition a group of young art students came in; “You can draw anything as long as you explain what you’re doing!”, declared one of them, laughing and pointing to the text label beside one of Beuys’s drawings. The student and his three giggling companions exited quickly, their laughter following them down the stairs.  On one level I understand their response. For a group of immature, white middle class art students the urgency of having civilization as they knew it destroyed before their eyes wasn’t part of their life experience  and nor is it mine. Thankfully we have not been faced with the physical and psychological necessity of rebuilding life as we know it. In such a context Art isn’t a subject to be studied, it becomes an imperative; because in truth it is our only means of human reflection and survival, an idea that is articulated beautifully in Schitten (Sled) 1969 (Wooden sled, fat,, felt, belts, torch, No 47 in an edition of 50) . This piece derived from Beuys’s larger installation- The Pack (1969); a Volkswagen with 24 sledges flowing from the back of it like a team of huskies, each with a felt blanket, a lump of fat and a torch, has a curiously powerful human presence. Beuys commented; “In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.” Seeing this singular, editioned object of endurance and exploration displayed in a glass case has the effect of relegating it as a dead historical artefact, when in imaginative terms it is the creative key to human survival for the journey ahead; the sled to move across the wasteland we find ourselves in, the protective insulation of felt, the sustenance of fat, a torch to illuminate the path ahead and human warmth to transform the world around us. Although both exhibitions are text heavy there are other ways of presenting Beuys, as part of a wider discussion of where we’re all heading. The artist’s interests and concerns were wide ranging; art, mythology, anthropology, history, science, ecology, alchemy, Nature and all of these are combined in the gesamkunstwerk of his life’s work.

Beuys’s Pyramidales Bild (1979, Oil paint on printed paper, AR00687, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008) encapsulates his philosophy in its synthesis of ideas, beliefs and materials.  The pyramid is a multifaceted form in relation to Christianity, Theosophy and Steiner, but what is so interesting in this drawing is Beuys’s use of newspaper print and the way that the halo of fat bled into the paper defines and transforms our reading of the more rigid structure within. In this vertical diptych the geometric forms are almost architectural and the fold of the newsprint holds a sun-like apex of fat. These drawings resemble a built structure/ environment but also the human body. The feeling held in this drawing is the softened rigidity of form and feeling. There’s an emotive sense of spirituality and hope grounded in a real world of possibility. This is communicated not by an illustrative, narrative imagery, but by the combination of thought and raw, found, everyday materials which are reconfigured, crafted in an apex of human aspiration, continually striving towards light.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/artist-rooms-joseph-beuys-a-language-of-drawing

Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty

Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 14 March – 2 August 2015.

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Alexander McQueen, Duck Feather Dress, The Horn of Plenty, AW 2009. Image: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you never dreamt were possible. Alexander McQueen.

True to his word, the work of artist, fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen is utterly dazzling, emotionally overwhelming and deeply subversive.  Walking into this exhibition is like stumbling into the labyrinth of McQueen’s mind and creative process; extraordinarily rich and fatalistically dark from start to finish.

Savage Beauty at the V&A presents 240 of McQueen’s ensembles over ten rooms in the only major European retrospective of his work. Curated by Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Professor in Fashion Curation, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London, the exhibition is a homecoming; to the city McQueen loved, to the V&A’s collections which inspired him and to the creative territory of the UK as a place of exhilarated anarchy. It is entirely apt that an exhibition which originated at the Costume Institute at the Museum of Modern Art in New York should find its way home, edited and expanded to include 66 additional garments and accessories loaned from private individuals and collectors; Katy England, Annabelle Neilson, the Isabella Blow Collection and the House of Givenchy.

Whilst the exhibition resoundingly celebrates McQueen’s creative brilliance and extraordinary talent, pushing the boundaries of what Fashion and Couture can be, it is also inescapably a memorial to a life extinguished by its own intensity; embracing the weight of history, emotional extremities of human behaviour and “our unrelenting desire for perfection.”  Part of the strength of this exhibition is that like the conception/ construction of each garment, it reflects the contradictions of McQueen’s Art; bringing together elements of Design, Display, Installation, Cinema, Theatre and Performance to present multi-layered narrative strands and conflicting forces of Nature, including our own.

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Installation view Romantic Exoticism Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

On a primal level sound is a significant element moving through each room of the show, creating a sense of McQueen as “a state of mind” and bringing emotional gravitas to each evolving collection of work. Our sense of “shock”, “wonder” and the “sublime” is heightened in the use of recorded memories/ testimonials,  tribal drumming connected to the human heart beat, lush string arrangements, stately orchestrated processionals, pounding Techno and the natural sounds of birds, insects and elements like water to explore recurrent themes in the artist’s work. Ideas of Romantic Exoticism, Naturalism, Primitivism, Nationalism and High Gothic are examined and interrogated throughout the exhibition, revealing the complexity and contradictions that are an intrinsic part of human identity.  McQueen’s fashion shows were never just that, but provocative events/ Performance Art challenging the passivity of parading models of taste and incorporating live elements like fire, thunder and rain. Gainsbury and Whiting the production company that collaborated with McQueen in staging his catwalk shows have worked with the V&A on the exhibition, recreating some of the moments in his career where all of the artist’s understanding, ideas and technique are brought together.

Throughout McQueen’s work there is tension between forces of release and constraint, openly expressed in the sadomasochistic aesthetic of his accessories. The cage- like aluminium and black leather inverted armoury of Spine corset (Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen, Untitled Spring/ Summer 1998) which psychologically fuses human form with animal instinct, the greatly exaggerated 30.5 cm heels of McQueen’s Armadillo Boot ( Spring/ Summer 2010) which contort the silhouette and constrict the foot in a naturally engineered predatory coil of python skin and the recurrent use of leather masks in relation to the primary garment, which psychologically and sexually transform the wearer/ model into a mute submissive, contradicting  the wearer’s tailored empowerment are all potent examples. Invested in this dominant/ submissive, top/ bottom BDSM tribal language is the silent power of the submissive over the dominant. This ambiguous dynamic of unbridled restraint can also be seen in performance elements of McQueen’s fashion shows represented on film in the exhibition; a model hobbled within a metal frame walking on water or the painfully contorted movement of a model rotating like a captive music box doll, her double belted dress of pristine white cotton assaulted by robotic spray paint to create a unique Haute Couture gown.

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Installation view Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Violence in McQueen’s work is part of his creative dynamism; I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things. And force us to look he certainly does, from his 1992 Central St Martins postgraduate collection to his final Autumn/ Winter collection 2010, completed after his death. In many ways McQueen turns the extravagance and excess of the fashion world establishment back on itself, literally and metaphorically holding up a mirror to the audience. In a global context the luxury, extravagance and excess of Haute Couture is grotesque, however the hand crafting of garments, attention to detail and visual/ historical literacy invested in each work is undeniably vital as an expression of human creativity. There is an overwhelming sense of McQueen as outsider in the exhibition; driven to deconstruction of clothing, history and of himself. The well-heeled world of High Fashion was not one he was economically, socially or culturally born into; its language, etiquette and conventions had to be learned and exploded as part of his creative trajectory.

McQueen’s training as an apprentice at Anderson & Sheppard in Saville Row, Gieves & Hawkes, Saville Row and as a pattern cutter for Berman and Nathan’s, creating costumes for London theatre shows, London based Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno and Italian Designer Romeo Gigli in Milan, enabled the artist to learn the language of tailoring and couture in order to become “the purveyor of a certain silhouette.” The strength of McQueen’s Art is that his silhouette or brand is innately fluid, often contradictory and politically/ socially charged.  His Jumpsuit ( La Poupée Spring/ Summer 1997) is a statement of iconoclastic precision and arresting Beauty; transforming the social order of a wool suit to create a seamless all in one skin for the body. (Albeit a certain type of female body) A flowing asymmetrical detail of curvaceous fabric extending from the sharply defined lapel subverts an established pattern and is a sublime example of McQueen’s command of tailoring. As an artist he understood that; “you’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but keep the tradition” . There are many more examples throughout the show of the artist’s elevation of visual language into the realms of the poetic.

McQueen’s Hawthorn Print Frock Coat with dark human hair hidden beneath the white silk lining is alive with predatory, historic and mythic associations.  Here he takes a design popularised in the Victorian era by Prince Albert, worn at formal occasions such as funerals or for business and fuses it with associative raw materials of violent Nature and instinctual human drives. As part of his graduate collection Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (1992) it is a dualistic garment of savage violence cloaked in respectability and manners. The concealed presence of human hair, a symbol of sexuality since biblical times, the thorny black pattern of hawthorn akin to barbed wire; invoking the negative lore of the tree and red stained silk implies the business attire of sexualised violence and murder. The multiple narratives within this one garment are beyond simply adorning the body, establishing the social credentials, wealth or good taste of the wearer. The tailoring in this collection is deadly in its heightened precision; a reflection of one of the great legends of London and of barbarity in civilization.  The human condition and mortality is ever present in McQueen’s work, reminding us that however cultivated we may believe ourselves to be, “there’s blood beneath each layer of skin”.

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Installation view of Romantic Gothic Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Equally McQueens work can be divinely aspirational, a dress designed for the Autumn/ Winter collection 2010 in flowing silk organza combines the sublime and the sensual in a revelatory way. The fabric is printed with religious iconography from The Virgin of the Annunciation, the 1475 Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes. The austere yet gentle monochrome tonality accentuates the female body and its divine attributes. The symmetry of virginal heads and their shadows bring definition and linear grace to the neckline, doves create a natural crease between the arm and the shoulder, hands cup the breasts as givers of life and folds of the painting enhance those of the gown, creating an ethereal vision of femininity and perfection.

McQueen’s perception and presentation of the female body is one of the most fascinating and contradictory aspects of his work. Throughout the show the dimensions of his mannequins and catwalk models are uniformly sculptured, yet what he projects onto the body in his garments and accessories works against type. An ensemble from McQueen’s 2nd collection for Givenchy, Eclect Dissect Autumn/ Winter 1997-98, introduces the idea of metamorphosis; of “a fictional surgeon dismembering women and reassembling them as hybrids.”  The artist creates a commanding image of femininity and power in a dress of black leather, red pheasant feather collar, with resin vulture skulls on the shoulders and the black leather gloves of a falconer, skilled in art of handling birds of prey. The studded shoes, accent of red plumage, bound / angular bodice and fishtail leather skirt heighten the element of danger. This is power dressing which replaces the shoulder pads of the 1940’s and 1980’s with the infinite hollows of eye sockets from carrion birds.

An ensemble from the Horn of Plenty Autumn/ Winter Collection 2009 consisting of a black dress of dyed duck feathers, boots (leather and feathers) with a cap/lace mask is another example of the way that the artist simultaneously contains and emancipates the female form. Here McQueen creates two sets of wings which accentuate the shoulders and hips, elongating the classic hourglass shape with a diamond form bodice at the centre of the couture composition. Like a dark angel or mythological creature the silhouette is imposing and self-possessed, with glossy movement of light on feathers animating the display. The vision here isn’t passive but wilfully ironic. It isn’t a classic hourglass in the pin-up/ popular culture sense; displaying or revealing the sexualised female body (i.e. breasts and hips) for a traditional male gaze. What McQueen presents is arguably more complex and part of an internalised iconography of power and identity, along with his own preference for the base of the spine/ elongated back as the most erotic part of the human body, male or female.

Being a woman in her 40’s of distinctly non-supermodel proportions McQueen’s statement; I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress followed me through the exhibition. Although I can only identify with the perfected dimensions of his models/ mannequins in terms of a critical yardstick to beat myself up with, the idea of metamorphosis and evolution through imagination/ creativity is a powerful and empowering element in the artist’s work, irrespective of gender.  His use of raw materials from the natural world; feathers, horn, bone, shell, hair and skin, together with hand-crafted/ man-made materials; cut Swarovski crystals, forged metal, intricate lace, layers of silk tulle, the exposure of netting and woven tartan reflect his hybridisation of human and animal base matter, forms and movement; pack, clan and tribe.

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Installation view Romantic Naturalism Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria & Albert Museum.

Some of the most exquisite gowns in the Romantic Naturalism room of the exhibition illustrate the universality of human experience beautifully, acknowledging our frailty and vulnerability in relation to natural cycles of growth and decay. The combined use of silk and real flowers as Memento Mori in McQueen’s Sarabande Spring/ Summer Collection 2007 which scattered and fell as the models moved around the runway , the corseted female figure with pastel shaded multi-coloured blooms bursting from within the sculpted confinement of her dress, or the brittle human carapace of the Razor Clam Dress are all potent examples of a wider, emotive field of human experience, sensed and felt in the concept of the garment, its raw materials and elevated, fragile glass cabinet displays.

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Alexander McQueen, Razor Clam Shell Dress, Voss, SS 2001. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Perhaps the most powerful expression of this individual and collective self-reflexivity can be seen in the finale of his Spring /Summer 2001 show Voss, also known as The Asylum Show. McQueen deliberately kept his audience waiting, confronting them with a vast two way mirrored box in which to see themselves. Once the show began the models were visibly trapped inside a clinical padded space, unable to see out and repeatedly pressing their hands on the glass. The show culminated in the destruction of an inner chamber which collapsed and shattered, releasing live butterflies and revealing a reclining female model of shockingly normal proportions. (Fetish Writer Michelle Olley)  The presence of this “real” female body, her face masked by latex, attached to a respirator and connected to a monkey, feels very much like an acknowledgement of retrograde evolution with our concept of Beauty under the microscope. Framed in this way, the vital sound of “Her” breath is confined within a liberated space of shattered expectations and taboos.

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Installation view of Voss, Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Although McQueen is publicly embraced and celebrated as a uniquely British Artist, the questions he raises in connection with his own heritage and ancestry are still as pertinent as ever. In his Highland Rape Collection Autumn/ Winter 1995, he drew attention to what he saw as “England’s rape of Scotland”. The marketing of Scottish Culture “the world over as Haggis and Bagpipes” does little to acknowledge or celebrate the creative dynamism of the country. The tartan and shortbread picturesque is intrinsically bound up with an age of Empire and Romanticism, reflecting the dominance of one “civilizing” culture over another. In McQueen’s Widows of Culloden  Autumn/ Winter Collection 2006  his use of tartan patriotically and proudly displays an aspect of his identity, coupled with jet beads of mourning and loss; a fusion of historical costume and contemporary drama.

PARIS fashion week march 2006 READY TO WEAR FALL WINTER 2006/07 ALEXANDER Mc QUEEN

Alexander McQueen, Tulle and Lace Dress with Antlers, Widows of Culloden, AW 2006. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

What truly inspires in this exhibition is McQueen’s ability as an artist to consistently question the establishment, the audience and himself, renewing his practice through experimentation, a commitment to craftsmanship and detailed knowledge of historical cultural production. His ability to create juxtapositions of conflicting elements that interweave and clash define the unique cut of his silhouette in life and in death. The presentation of McQueen’s remarkable work in synergy with his creative process has created an overwhelming, emotive and dazzling exhibition, exemplified by The Cabinet of Curiosities display. At double gallery height it is an expansive representation of the recesses and imaginings of a creative mind made tangibly real. Every object, garment, and accessory in this sensational exhibition has multiple stories to tell, therein lays its Beauty.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-alexander-mcqueen-savage-beauty/