Savage Beauty

 Posted by on July 18, 2011 at 5:28 am  Other Culture
Jul 182011

Alexander McQueen flower dressYesterday, Roberta, Arthur, and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit, “Savage Beauty.” I feel like seeing this has changed me.

By the first few dresses, I knew that I didn’t know fashion at all.

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Like most of us, I know fashion because I see it on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet. All of these are textureless, two-dimensional, flattened media. They are facsimiles. Fashion isn’t that. McQueen’s collection of stunning, beautiful, startling, repulsive, romantic, fascinating, frightening, inspiring garmets and accessories is real. It is textured, layered, physical, and present. Silk tulle under a red McQueen tartan dress with a heavy leather belt and delicately beaded sleeves: It’s tactile, it has immense earthiness.

I’ve joked that I like fashion shows better than cooking shows because I can see what the fashion looks like, but I can’t taste the food. But I’m wrong. Savage Beauty was fashion I could taste.

Fashion, I learned today, is real. It is meant to be worn by a person, and therefore meant to be seen close up, as close as the person wearing it is standing to you. All we see is a representation.

I began to think about art and what is real. As if McQueen wasn’t present enough, we walked out of the exhibit, thinking only to decide our next move, slam bang into the European painters section, and there we were among Monets and Rousseaus and Picassos, Klimts and Van Goghs and Renoirs and Seurrats. We were floored. These were real. Many were so familiar, seen in a thousand print shops and hung from a thousand walls. You know people with these prints. So do I. But these were the real brush strokes, painted by the hands that held the real brushes. I saw, in one painting, that you couldn’t actually see the whole sunflowers until you stepped back a bit, so I knew that Van Gogh leaned in, stepped back, leaned in, stepped back. I could feel it.

Van Gogh: Two Sunflowers

Art is real. Real paint on real canvas, real terra cotta reliefs, real lace sewn onto real tulle. Like nature, it is there in the being.

We live in a world of facsimile and simulation. The digital representation of an imagined setting “based on a true story.” We live on the Internet. We consume digital media. We know representations and imitations better than we know originals. People think that Mad Men is the 1960s. It’s not. It’s a simulation of the ’60s so that stories can be told today. People think The Sopranos is about the mafia. It’s not. Those aren’t mafioso, they’re actors, simulating the mafia, and the mafioso they’re portraying are also simulating the mafia–that’s why they’re always quoting from The Godfather. I have a tattoo that is based on a photograph of a piece of holzuhren jewelry. That is, an artist made a piece of jewelry, and a photographer (another artist), reproduced it, and then another artist drew it, and then transferred it to my skin, taking it through four art forms; four layers of interpretation before becoming a part of me.

I want this experience to change me. I want, at least for a day, to experience the real and not the imitation. I want to experience art that is art, not an homage to an imitation of a memory of a real thing.

It starts with the understanding that we have the capacity to be touched so much more deeply than we are normally touched, and to reach for artistic, personal, and natural experiences that give us that.

The Met’s Savage Beauty exhibit ends on August 7. Please, if you’re anywhere near New York, don’t miss it!

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  6 Responses to “Savage Beauty”

  1. That sounds like an amazing day. 🙂

    I honestly don’t “get” fashion in the haute couture sense, but I had a similar experience back when the Lord of the Rings exhibit was on tour. It’s one thing to watch the DVD features about the costume department. It’s something else entirely to see the actual costumes up close and even be able to touch a sample of handmade chain mail.

    What’s the difference between runway fashion and movie costumes for me? Context. The costumes have more resonance because they were worn by people (albeit fictional people) that I care about.

  2. What a great day! I love clothing and costume exhibits, very tactile indeed. Of course, you can’t touch them, but I bet you want to! Wish I could see it, too bad it doesn’t last til the end of August, then I might have been able to come. And I’d like to see the jewelry your tat is based on.

    I loved what you wrote here:
    “I want this experience to change me. I want, at least for a day, to experience the real and not the imitation. I want to experience art that is art, not an homage to an imitation of a memory of a real thing.”

    That’s just how I feel when I see a great work of art or artifact, it is singularly breath taking to see the real thing. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. I’ve never seen the real piece of jewelry. There was an article on art deco jewelry in the NY Times and I saw the photo.

  4. The show is amazing; so much more than a costume or fashion show–performance art, in toto. The experience you describe is what I experienced–heightened sensibility, almost overwhelming at times while in the exhibition. And I use the word “in” purposefully–this is an all-encompassing, all-senses show. When I exited the show, everything was more real, more textural, more, more, more. (Sorry, but it is just a mind-blowing show and I cannot do the experience justice.)

    “Savage Beauty” is the perfect title for the show, too.

    A week after seeing it, I still feel under its thrall… Go see the show, if you can!

  5. I so wish this show would tour. I would trek to Chicago to see it at the Art Institute. Or wherever.

    Love your essay.

  6. Great post Deborah! Here on the West Coast (San Francisco) we recently went to two shows–the Isabelle de Borchgrave exhibit and the Post-Impressionist show.
    de Borchgrave creates full-scale replicas of Renaissance, Elizabethean, and modern costumes ENTIRELY OUT OF PAPER! It was so amazingly tactile…I would say to google pics of her stuff, but like you say, 2 dimensions don’t do it justice.
    For our holiday gift to our employees, we closed the store one day and took them all to the De Young for the Impressionist show, and then dinner. It’s funny you talk about Van Gogh’s sunflower; all of his paintings are like that. They were exhibiting (one of) his Starry Nights…viewing that painting was one of the most…sensual…tactile…visceral…impactful pieces of art that I have EVER seen. I turned to Margaret and said that this was one painting I would never buy a copy of; nothing could ever come close to the real thing.

    And it wasn’t just me. From my employee that stood in front of it for literally 45 minutes, to the 6-year-old commenting to her mommy about how sad his portrait of his room was, it was obvious that the energy in that room spoke to people.

    I’ve seen a lot of art that I’ve admired for the technical aspects, or for the artistry and complexity, but art that reaches in where you can feel it in your kishkas is few and far between. When it happens, it’s a moment to be savored and to grow on.

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