A number of us recently visited the Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty, at the V&A. The exhibition is divided into several rooms featuring collections related to McQueen’s influences: 18th Century Romanticism, 19th Century Victorian Gothic, Romantic Primitivism, Romantic Nationalism, Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Naturalism and Man vs Machine.
Some rooms re-enacted the spectacle associated with McQueen’s fashion shows, while other rooms, dedicated to specific collections, brought couture garments to life as the spaces seemed designed to augment each theme.
One overarching theme seemed to be McQueen’s reference to the Sublime. In aesthetic theory, 18th Century British philosophers began referencing the Sublime in context with their relationship to beauty. The philosophers’ treks through the Swiss Alps were at once beautiful in the classical sense, but at the same time horrific and intense. The Sublime came to be attributed to images such as the atom bomb mushroom cloud- something that is at once beautiful in its form and magnitude, but horrible in what it represents.
Unlike classical beauty, the Sublime incorporates ugliness as an aesthetic quality, evoking intense emotion and ultimately creating a pleasurable experience.
[Herein McQueen re-enacts Joel Peter Witkin’s photo Sanitorium in his fashion show, VOSS.]
Alexander McQueen evokes the sublime in his practice by synthesising elegance and obscenity, the horrific and the fantastic, repulsion and attraction.
He further instantiates the grandeur and intensity associated with the sublime in his execution – via unexpected gestures, exquisite detail and dramatic theatrical presentation.
Although McQueen’s work might seem unconventional it has been influential within pop culture. Upon further research, I discovered his collaborations with Bjork and Lady Gaga (fashion and music video direction).
McQueen’s legacy reaches beyond fashion – finding inspiration between 18th Century Romanticism and Futurism. He inspires artists and designers to be unafraid of being subversive.
Images © V&A and Alexander McQueen