Friday, June 10, 2011

I discussed Holland Cotter's review of the Alexander McQueen Show here, and McQueen in relation to the Bellini installation at the Frick (also Bronzino). Now Cotter has written a review of the Bellini, and it's interesting to compare them.
On McQueen:
In galleries that combine the look of baronial halls and meat lockers, clothes come at you like electrical zaps: a blouse threaded with worms, a coat sprouting horns, shoes that devour feet. A pert little jacket is printed with a crucifixion scene; the hair on a full-length hair shirt is carefully waved and combed; a corset has a cast-metal animal spine curling out from behind.

And everywhere there are arresting delicacies. The yellow-green beadwork is so fine it looks as soft as moss. Floral-patterned lace has been cut up, flower by flower, then stitched together again, but only partially, to give a dress the illusion of having being torn.
On Bellini, more specifically on St. Francis:
He was, in life, exceptional: a spiritual power generator, a social lightning rod, and a charmer. He was born in the Umbrian hill town of Assisi around 1181, the son of a rich cloth merchant. He had poetic tastes and immersed himself in romantic tales of chivalry. By temperament he was ardent, wired, prone to emotional extremes.

...He could be impossibly self-depriving; people had to persuade him to eat, wear shoes. But he was correspondingly self-giving. You needed a bandage, a pep-talk, a prayer, a kiss? Francis was your man. If he found a hurt bird he nursed it back to health; if he met a wolf with a mean streak, he’d say, “Watch your mouth,” and give it a pat.

Some people thought he’s a lunatic, this guy who suddenly bursts into song, in the middle of nowhere, for no reason, as if he was plugged into an iPod:

“Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, Especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom You give us light.”

And he’d go on and on this way, about Sister Moon, and Brother Wind, and Sister Water — “very useful and humble and precious and chaste” — and Brother Fire, and Sister Death.

Maybe it was all a performance, a theatrical method of preaching and teaching. But he approached life in a genuinely countercultural way. On the verge of the great age of Humanism, he was an un-Humanist, in the sense that he didn’t hold Man up as the crown of creation. He considered all beings, from bees to bears to people, equally reverence worthy. He was like the Buddha in this. Or maybe the Buddha was Francis in an earlier life.
Though I didn't say anything specific, in the earlier posts I didn't give Cotter the credit he deserves. I read the decadence and anti-Humanism (post-humanism to what Cotter refers to as "un-Humanism" of St. Francis) but missed the commentary in his closing paragraphs on McQueen. have to ask critical questions. The chief problem with the fashion-as-art fad of the 1990s was precisely that it didn’t ask them.

To take two examples, for its 1997 exhibition “The Warhol Look: Glamour Style Fashion,” the Whitney Museum did little more than fill a floor with Warhol paintings, back issues of Interview and a Diana Vreeland tape and basically said: Let’s celebrate.

Two years later the Guggenheim — though it denies this — effectively rented its Manhattan premises to Giorgio Armani for his retrospective. (Such deals are now the norm, and the Met is forthright about stating that most of the money for the McQueen retrospective comes from the fashion house called Alexander McQueen.) My point is: If you’re going to deal with fashion as art, treat it as art, bring to it the distanced evaluative thinking, including social and political thinking, that scholars routinely apply to art.

Such an approach is standard in exhibition catalogs that accompany most Met shows, but not in the McQueen catalog, which, beautiful though it is, is heavy on pictures, skimpy on text.

To be fair, the show and the book were both assembled in record time during the year following Mr. McQueen’s shockingly sudden death. Suffice it to say that future researchers will want to take him out of the all-purpose tent of Romanticism and place him firmly in the cultural milieu he shared with artists like Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney and Leigh Bowery, not to mention Lady Gaga, with her cutlet couture.

And why not compare him, as a politically minded designer, with one from an earlier generation, Rudi Gernreich. They make an instructive pair. Mr. McQueen deserves this detailed accounting.
McQueen belongs with Hirst and Bowery. How long any of them will be remembered is another question.

That a critic should associate Humanism more with the Enlightenment than the Renaissance documents the fine arts' self-reported relation to philosophy as opposed to history, and that's part and parcel with the mannerism his writing describes: from pre-Humanism to post-Humanism, the young saint like the fashion designer, "ardent, wired, prone to emotional extremes."

The Enlightenment Cotter would call Humanist derived its rhetorical force from the sciences, and was anti-historical. High art (and expensive craft) derived authority from the ideal Church and the Monarchy, and their defenders if they could made the logical switch to the idealism of science, philosophy, and/or revolution. Couturiers had fewer options. The complexity of 19th century art, and of 'fine' art up to the present is the complexity of forms torn between their aristocratic heritage and bourgeois reality. McQueen, Cotter, the curators at the Frick and at the the Met all understand this, without thinking, as does Michael Kimmelman, writing about Manet. It would be better if they all thought about it a little more.

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