Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty


of an Exhibition

by Eric Siegel

Published on June 19, 2011, Modified on June 30, 2011

  • Description:

    I went with my wife and college-aged daughter to this extremely popular exhibition on a Sunday afternoon. There was an hour long wait to get in, with a line threading through the 19th century galleries. The audience was diverse in age and nationality, thought there was a predictable tendency to euro-chic-ness. I don’t think one person in 100 looked at the rodins or anything else in the galleries the line passed through. They were definitely here to see McQueen. We were fortunate that a guard saw my daughter, who uses a walker because she has CP, and whisked us into the exhibition.

    It was a dark and stormy exhibition, with generous representations of sadomasochism, leather, chains, particularly at the beginning, and very very low light levels. It was not at all clear whether the exhibition was ordered chronologically, though I had a sense that the designer was being parsed into “periods.” I am not a fashion person, I buy my clothes at the ny discount chain Sym’s or if I’m feeling flush, at Banana Republic. So I found the claims of artistic profundity on the panel essays pretty fatuous, with heavy handed references to post-neo-romantic blah blah blah.

    But within a few minutes, I found myself immersed in the strange beauty of McQueen’s designs. His materials are completely distinctive ranging from tight leather bodices shaped to the form of the wearer like armor; to beautiful razor clam shells and abalone; to delicately carved wood; feathers (including an amazing dress of pheasant feathers with thousands of “eyes;”) all kinds of lacy, light, frothy, swirly stuff that I couldn’t begin to identify. And perhaps my favorite dress was made of burlap with silk woven into it. Just a stunningly beautiful object. One thing that struck me is that his work doesn’t feel as misogynistic as so much fashion has to me, demanding emaciated bodies and contorted postures (though many of the shoes in the show are indeed cruel.)

    The exhibition design was dramatic and in some ways quite intrusive, in a good way. The design heightened the drama and focus on the objects. The designers used pretty much every non-digital trick in the book. Gorgeous projections lent a very potent atmosphere to the exhibition, videos of some of McQueen’s runway shows were discreetly placed around the opening galleries. Dramatic music and soundscapes emanate from hidden speakers. A Peppers Ghost Hologram (their phrase) of Kate Moss that was apparently featured in one of McQueen’s shows was just about the swirliest, little-girls-fantasy-of-a-party-dress, thing I have ever seen, really mesmerizing. The materials throughout the exhibition—like room height tarnished mirrors with gilt frames— were dramatic and supported the sense of kind of post-punk-neo-romantic sensibility that seems to pervade McQueen’s work (ok, I’ll say it..oevre).

    No question about it, after the exhibition, I was shaking my head and saying “the guy has a vision, and an amazing ability to express himself.” I guess that would mean that what he was making was…art. The fact that it exists in the commercial context, in this case of fashion, puts it in the good company of much of what is shown in an encyclopedic museum like the Met.

    I find myself thinking of the objects in this exhibition and wanting to go back to revisit them. There is a good website with dozens of images, but of course these don’t capture the texture of the materials or the drama of the exhibition design.

    As most of the reviews in exhibitfiles are about science related topics, and the majority are about interactive exhibits, its worth pointing out that the Savage Beauty exhibit has a lot to teach science exhibit developers. The value of a star name, the edginess of his designs, the darkness and drama of the galleries, and the clear expression of a curatorial passion (and no trace of formative, summative, let alone remedial evaluation) reminds us that there are lots of ways to create great exhibitions. The science center formula of big ideas, tested components, pedagogical clarity frankly pale against the pure drama and sexiness of this exhibition. It would be great to find a way to synthesize the drama of a wonderful art exhibition with the clarity of an excellent science exhibition.

    Maybe if we can do that, we’ll have one hour lines to get in 7 days a week too. BTW, if you do get a chance to go, go with a friend and take turns visiting the wonderful, and entirely different, richard serra drawings exhibition right next to the McQueen exhibition.

Latest Comments (4)

Room for elegant exhibitions?

by Gretchen Jennings - June 24, 2011

Hi, Eric, I’m jealous as I have really been wanting to see this exhibition, and haven’t made it yet. Your review is great, and its nice to have the viewpoint of a practiced eye. I agree that there should be a wider range of possibilities for great exhibitions. For example, there was a lot of talk at the recent AAM Conference about an exhibition of Arctic artifacts at the Menil Collection in Houston. It was a very traditional exhibition in one sense – glass cases of artifacts with very little explanatory text – but the installation was amazing. The walls, ceiling, and floor were white (visitors had to slip paper booties over their shoes). You stepped into an Arctic world, and there were very faint sounds of gulls, creaking sounds – perhaps a boat listing or ice cracking – that provided an enveloping atmosphere as you viewed exquisite objects and masks. The masks provided the only color. Perhaps you saw it? It broke most of the rules of current ways to “engage” visitors but did so all the same. Gretchen

Activate curiosity

by Michael Flynn - June 24, 2011

Thanks for the review Eric.
I think that all a science museum has to do is to activate natural human curiosity- as curiosity is the most powerful and authentic motivation for learning. Artistic spectacle is a compelling hook into curiosity and learning!

Arctic Exhibition

by Eric Siegel - June 24, 2011

Hi Gretchen: I really made a mistake at AAM by not staying til tuesday, so I missed the deMenil museum and the art museum entirely.

Michael, the exhibition certainly sparked my curiousity!

Paul, I wish we could get kapoor or eliason to do a science museum exhibition. their stuff is so beautiful and attractive

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