Archive for the ‘ Art Theory ’ Category

On Alexander McQueen’s Beautiful Monsters

In my opinion, good art transcends criteria for beauty and ugliness established by social norms. If you’ve read my first post about the subject  you know how I feel about the relationship between art and fashion creations. In the light of the  media storm created by the death of the celebrated designer Lee Alexander McQueen, I thought I should write about him sooner rather than latter. (I won’t use the word “genius” to describe him and if anyone’s curious about why I refrain from ever using the term, please consult Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why have there been no great female artist?” as she explains the issue a thousand times better than I can.)

McQueen’s unorthodox use of the mediums made available to him by the fashion industry is what made him a creative force to be reckoned with and an artist in his own way. He orchestrated every aspect of a collection and it’s presentation to create fashion shows that were a spectacle. He was a master of the mise-en-scene, using technology of lighting and sound as well as multimedia to create an art total production.

The first McQueen show that had me completely enthralled was the Spring 2005 collection which was presented as a giant chess game. I thought that if I were to become a fashion designer, I would want to also be an entertainer and have my work featured in a fashion show that would be on par with an Opera production. Not only were the clothes beautiful, but the presentation was dramatic in itself.

The only one who can top McQueen is McQueen himself, and this spring’s collection entitled Plato’s Atlantis was again an example of art total. An eerie atmosphere was created by Knight’s opening video of Raquel Zimmermann, lying on sand, naked, with snakes writhing across her body and the presence of two sinister movie cameras sliding and rearing on the runway on gigantic black booms ( before the models started walking, looking like hybrids between reptiles and humans.

It’s not his mastery of the mise-en-scene that awes me the most. I think what was most fascinating about McQueen’s work is that he was able to defy traditional expectations of what beauty should look like. One of the spring 2010 shoes are reminiscent of a spine, twisting and writhing in a most unnatural way and another reminds us of an insect’s carapace . How does an object so reminiscent of the sordid become revered as amazing fashion? How does something essentially so ugly become admirable in our eyes? 

The McQueen paradox is strengthened by the fact that the fashion industry is obsessed with beauty and perfection and he has more than once surprised the world by sending down the runway creations that were not only out of the ordinary, but completely conflicted with traditional definition for the beautiful. In fact, these past seasons, McQueen has been sending more and more “ugliness” down the runway while still being credited for being an astounding designer. Who could forget the grotesque “blow-up doll” faces painted on his models for fall 2009.

Perhaps McQueen felt the need to expose fashion’s dark underbelly. Afterall, his Atlantis show was far from an allegory to female beauty and elegance. The models were transformed into supernatural creatures by insect and reptilian like structured dresses and engineered prints. The shoes grotesque hooves, conflicting with the natural shape of the body and transforming a elegant gait into an aggressive stomp. He mutated some of the most beautiful women in the world into eerie monstrous creatures far from our ideal of what beauty should look like.

His ingenious designs, entertaining fashion shows and superior craftsmanship  are all things that made him a fascinating actor in the fashion industry. But what made him an artist in my eyes was his capacity to completely defy our expectations of what fashion and beauty should be by delivering us objects reminiscent of the gruesome and distasteful all while conserving an aura of undeniable fierceness and mystery around them. In McQueen’s world, even the ugliest of subject matters became a thing of beauty to be envied.


Vivienne Westwood Red Label Fall 2010 London Fashion Week

Times change and veteran punk designer Vivienne Westwood addapts, all while remaining true to herself. Her Red Label collection was a mix of prim and proper pieces layered with textures and prints, amongst which the designer’s signature tartans were stratigically placed. As expected, the designer incorporated a rebellious element by having the models proclaim their “Loyalty to Gaia”, a message printed on some pieces.

What better way is there to represent mother nature in all her glory than to pull inspiration from Renaissance painterly traditions? After all, artists from the period were inspired to better and develop modes of representation with the sole purpose of representing more accurately the beauty of nature. Vivienne Westwood is known for being inspired by subversive cultural movements, but she has also over the years proven to be sensitive to past artistic movements as well. I couldn’t help but feel that this time, she was channeling not only her love for Mother Earth and supporting today’s ecologists but was also inspired by Renaissance painting. 

The clothes were slightly reminiscent of the Renaissance silouhette as strong shoulders and  diverse styles of sleeves were featured. The wealth of an individual all throughout the Renaissance was often shown off by wearing excentric and artfully executed sleeves. The predominant colors were rich browns and shades of reds like burgundy and crimson, typical of a fall collection but also revered as the more elegant dies during the Renaissance. I also couldn’t help but think of characters of the Comedia del’Arte, as the mix of argiles and plaids as well as a strtegically placed mask on a headress were reminscent of harlequins and pierrots. Carnival in Venice was lived at it’s fullest during the Renaissance years, when society was tightly regulated by  social decorum and sumptuary laws.

However, what prompts me to say that Dame Vivienne Westwood was inspired by Renaissance Art isn’t because of the clothes per-se, but rather because of the show’s styling. The subject-matter itself isn’t so typical of the period, but the visual language used to represent it is very much so. The assymetrical cuts, oversized pieces and abundant layering gave the outfits an air of constant movement, as did the hair which was artfully back-combed and teased into whimsical swirls over the model’s heads. The main actors of the Renaissance were fascinated by classical aesthetics, hence the enthusiasm for ample draping and textiles movement in many of the period’s masterpieces. Fueled by the desire to accurately represent nature they payed more attention to perspective, texture, and of course the human form and it’s movement.

In both the clothing design and the styling of the collection, there is a frequent contrasting between saturated colors and shades which could be seen as a contrast between shadow and light or chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is a technique of representation said to have originated during the Renaissance that implies a use of contrast between shadow and light to create volume and three-dimensionality, especially when dealing with the human body as subject-matter. It was frequently used when representing scenes of divine interventions, where light was considered holy and the contrast between shadow and light added a dramatic visual effect to the scene. The make-up used on the model’s faces were very much inspired by this dramatic lighting effect, as they emulated the effect that a candle or a flash-light would have on someone’s face in a dark setting. The model’s features were not transformed or enhanced by cosmetics but rather highlighted and put into relief by an artificia lighting effect created by the make-up artists.

Carravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew’s 1599-1600 oil on canvas (left). Tintoretto’s Pieta (descent from the cross) 1559 (right).

Chiaroscuro is a term now used in both cinema and photography analysis, so why not apply it to the study of fashion design and styling? Dame Vivienne Westwood’s fall 2010 fashion show proves again that some techniques of representation are just too good to ever get old and that the Renaissance left an important legacy that will continue to condition all fields in visual culture, art and design.

All Runway images from

Art + Fashion: Viktor And Rolf Spring 2010.

Rihanna, Katie Perry and a few other adventurous celebrities were catapulted to the top of innumerable “worst dressed” lists and criticized by thousands of fashionista bloggers after they wore creations from Viktor and Rolf’s Spring 2010 Collection. And while I can’t disagree with some of the criticism (really, who could concentrate on Katie’s MTV Europe awards performance when wondering why her dress looked like a chunk of swiss cheese?), I thought the entire collection was kind of fantastic.

 I deeply admire Victor and Rolf’s creativity and absolutely LOVE the fact that they sent these ludicrous creations down the runway. There are many reasons why I believe that these creations have crossed the fine line between fashion and art, and have their  place in a museum or gallery next to contemporary artist’s works. And I’m not talking about them belonging in one of those fashion exhibits, but real hard-core conceptual art that makes the commoners yell “WHAT the FUCK is that???”.

One can’t disassociate the art production from the social context. When asked about the Swiss Emmental dress (sorry I can’t help myself) the designers stated that “With the credit crunch and everybody cutting back, we decided to cut tulle ball gowns,” ( I thought it was clever of them to comment on people’s “cutting back”. Because let’s face it, if people are going to be cutting back on something, it’s going to be luxuries like couture fashion. I love a hint of Irony.

My claim that these creations are art is based on more than just this astute commentary about the current social and economical climate and consumer attitude. I simply love an artist that challenges the very nature of a medium, and that’s what happened here. One usually associates spring/summer collections with soft, feminine silhouettes and fluid materials. And while part of the collection embodies these ideals, the most noticeable pieces were the ones that completely ruptured with these expectations. The models came stomping down the runway wearing what appeared to be solid masses made out of net-tulle ruffles. This unconventional use of the material gave us a taste of the unusual and completely challenges our expectations of what fabrics should look like when they are worn.

I believe Viktor and Rolf were able to create pieces that challenged one’s perception of the space that clothes are supposed to create around the body. We expect clothes to unite with the body, compliment it, move with it and create a unified space around it. Here, the masses refuse to surrender to the body’s shape or movements, conflicting with it in every way.

The designers pushed the envelope even further with they’re “credit crunch” dresses. Clothes have been naturalized by society as being part or a continuation of the human body and that’s why these dresses create such an unsettling optical illusion, they seem unnatural.

In my esteem, these pieces are artworks because they explore alternate possibilities that a traditional medium can offer as well as challenging the viewer’s expectations of what clothes should do around the human body. And they did so all while being part of an absolutely breathtaking fashion show.

Before I end this post I would like to point out that the color palette in this collection is beautiful and that it’s time to remember how flattering pastels can be! I would wear some of the lingerie inspired pieces in a heartbeat! But I’ll let you discover those by watching the entire show on the Viktor and Rolf website….

Is Fashion Art?


Imagine someone buying a blouse because it “makes them think”, and then imagine someone appreciating a piece of art because it makes they’re hips look slimmer… ok those are silly examples. Still though, I don’t want my blouse to be intelectually stimulating, I just want girls to be jealous and boys to check me out. And I won’t buy an artwork because it brings out the color of my eyes, I just want to appreciate it because I don’t just see it, I’m looking at it and it’s stirring some kind of reaction in me that’s more than “Omg, I love it! I need to have this like now!”.

 The difference between good art and good fashion comes down to more than consumer attitude. Very different criteria is used to evaluate the worth of one and the other.

As someone who has studied Art History and Art Theory, I have learned to be cautious with the term “Art”. The term is too vague and too often redefined to be thrown around casually. I usually argue that Fashion is not Art, to the great dismay of my fashion-loving friends, colleagues and classmates. The reasons are simple enough. Fashion exists within a completely different market as Art and responds to a consumer demand. Art is progressive and challenges norms, whereas fashion usually caters to society and is (sadly) rather regressive in its tendency to imitate and recycle past movements.

“Great Artworks” usually posses qualities that make them transcend time, whereas Fashion has a life span of about six months. Of course, there are the occasional iconic fashion creations that survive the test of time, and become part of society’s cultural baggage. However, these icons remain creations that were meant for immediate use and consumption. A socialist Art History defines the Artwork as a cultural productions that exists within an economical structure. Art is also meant for consumption and artists could not have survived without wealthy patrons ready to financially support them and an institutional structure to protect them. Nevertheless, modern artists and art movements have revolutionized the purpose of artistic creation and have redefined it as something more than aesthetically pleasing. Contemporary artists have further pushed the envelope and Art’s value is now determined by its conceptual rather than aesthetic qualities.

I would describe a successful fashion designer as a great creative mind, a skillful craftsmen and a cultural practitioner with an acute cultural and aesthetic sensibility. Insofar as the criteria for “good art” that modern and contemporary art movements and art theory  have established in the past 100 years are considered, I wouldn’t describe the successful fashion designer as a “great artist”.  A simple way of putting things is that Art today has to be “food for thought”, a quality that fashion creations seldom possess. 

That is not to say that some designers haven’t transgressed the boundaries between Fashion and Art, and I will be posting about these exceptions and explaining why in my opinion, certain fashion creations have made “the cut” (no pun intended) and can be considered artworks. My point here is not to categorically declare that “Fashion is Not Art”, but simply to denounce the statement that “Fashion is Art” as too general and not justifiable by a few exceptions that exist in teh broadness of the fashion industry.

Otto Dix’s Art: Real Shock Value

On Otto Dix’s “New Objectivity”.

Most interesting Art movements are born in troubled times when society has been severely affected by significant events and changes. I wonder if my lack of enthusiasm for contemporary Art movements is due to the fact that there seems to have been no event violent enough to shake an artistic community to produce anything I find as interesting as post WWI modern artist’s works.

I’ve loved Otto Dix’s works from the moment I discovered him when studying Art History during my Lycée years. I was so happy when I was able to use him as a subject of study in one of my University essays, for a Modern Art and Theory class.

Perhaps contemporary artists lack the raw honesty that Dix possessed, too often hiding behind a mask of intellectual concepts that no one except people trained in intellectual snobbery will understand. Dix’s works possess pure shock value that transcends time. I took clippings of my university essay I hope will show why I think Otto Dix is such a great artist.

Even though Otto Dix’s works share many themes and aesthetic traits with his contemporaries, he was unique in his artistic productions. Otto Dix (1981-1969) enrolled in the German army and fought from 1915 to 1917. After fighting for Germany in War World I, many young men were left physically maimed and shell-shocked from the horrors they had witnessed. Otto Dix (1981-1969), rather than join in the Dada’s movement of chaotic expressions of post-war trauma, chose to create images that would impose on his viewer a direct confrontation with the horrors of war and modern society.


Center Panel from The War Tryptich


The Triptych The War 1921 (later destroyed by the Nazis) perfectly exemplifies Dix’s twisted style. The imagery is one of an allegory gone wrong, the central panel of 104x104cm, is a solemn image composed of elements of putrescence and decay as debris mix with wounded flesh. An ominous corpse is suspended over the scenes of horror, ceremoniously pointing down to the earth, mocking the traditional glorious war personifications that usually brandish flags in triumph in the midst of a battle. He uses one of the most traditionally revered art genres, the Historical Painting, as a grotesque and impartial representation of horror of ugliness.

What fascinates me most in Dix’s paintings is his treatment of the human body. He depicts it as disposable, as his subjects are often cripples with distorted, detached limbs or artificial ones. One of his most famous paintings, The Skat Players, 1920, oil on canvas and collage, is even more grotesque, as the limbs of the war veterans are artificial distorted, or subtracted so that they either reassemble wounds, machines or useless stumps. The war cripples are cruelly parodied as one holds his cards with his mouth, and the other with his artificial leg.

In Street of Prague, 101x81cm oil on canvas and collage he produced in 1920 (figure 1)A distorted female mannequin model in what appears to be braces and a crutch in an unsettling sexual pose. The dismembered mannequin in a store window denounces the fact that in the horrors of war the human body to a point where body parts are for sale.

Dix often depicted the women’s body as being a marketable object in modern society. In his triptych The Big City 1928, mixed technique on wood 181×402, the woman as object of desire and a product to be consumed is more obvious. (sorry, I wasn’t abble to find an image of this painting, and I no longer have home access to Art Stor through the MgGill Art Stor!) In the central panel, people dance to a Charleston band while enjoying luxuries that are shown off by the central female character. The right panel shows high end prostitutes, cheaply imitating high-class looks and disdainfully passing by a war-cripple while the left panel shows the most available prostitutes and two war veterans, one crippled and the other one possibly homeless as he is lying down underneath a bridge. This work shows the body as reduced to a display of flesh, the war veterans bearing signs of physical decay and the women as being objects of luxuries or cheap pleasure, unavailable in even its cheapest forms to the invalids.

Otto Dix observed and painted society with an indifference that suggested that such horrific scenes were mundane and part of everyday scenery. I believe that Dix’s works still have a strong impact today because he represents horrors with a nihilistic humor and paints with a cold, cruel savagery. His raw honesty gives his works real shock-value that transcends time and place and provokes the same human emotion in any viewer. This kind of raw objectivity is a universally understood language, that doesn’t require any pretence to some higher knowledge of Art to be understood. 

Eva Karcher, Otto Dix, 1891-1969, Sa vie, son oeuvre, ed. Benedikt Taschen, 1989.
Hal Foster, et al., Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernis,, Postmodernism vol.1, 1900-1944, 135-141.
Hartley, K., Otto Dix, exhib. cat. 1991 (London, Tate