There’s blood beneath every layer of skin
Alexander McQueen, what can I say about you that hasn’t already been said? It’s been a year and a half since Lee Alexander McQueen, just Lee to his friends, committed suicide, and I haven’t addressed it or his work. When McQueen died, I was very sad. This is not about me, but it was a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced. Most of my favorite artists are long dead. To be alive for the death of someone whose art was so dear to me was something I’d never known. It’s not like the other artists I love weren’t troubled, or didn’t also kill themselves, but I just wasn’t there for that. In art history, we enter our studies accepting that the body of work from a particular artist is all there is. It’s another thing entirely to adore an artist, wait with bated breath to see what they create next, and see the tragic halting of that creation.
Fashion has a reputation, sometimes earned but often wrongly assigned, as being rather stupid and (well this part is more true) teeming with sycophants. You never have to look far to hear or read something about how important fashion is. So in way it was unsurprising that a lot of people were sad when Alexander McQueen died. But I’m less concerned with the importance of fashion in the Vogue magazine sense than the importance of any medium of art, and the passing of a truly great artist. That’s what McQueen was. He was an utter genius and a brilliant, dark soul. He had the technical mastery AND the imagination. He was a Caravaggio. In many ways he better than a Caravaggio.
Over the weekend I had the privilege of seeing Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition was the best I have ever seen. Seriously. So first I want to commend and send my sincerest thanks to Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, the Alexander McQueen studio, and everyone who helped make this very worthy tribute possible.
Alexander McQueen was a quintessential tortured artist. He was famously weird and rather shy in the public. He was a high school drop out who worked his way through Savile Row to earn his merits as a tailor, the skill that was the foundation of all his subsequent achievements. Instead of just a master, though, McQueen was an expert tailor with one of the strangest and most beautiful minds the fashion world has ever seen. He was concerned with the visceral emotionality of art. This is in essence what sets him apart from even the best designers. McQueen expressed once that he would rather people leave his shows with negative reactions than just design beautiful, but merely fashionable clothes. He said of his shows:
I’m about what goes through people’s minds, the stuff that people don’t want to admit or face up to. The shows are about what’s buried in people’s psyches.
I could fill this post with actual McQueen quotes, because there are hoards of them and they all say, very succinctly, why love, death, ugliness, sex, politics, and a million other things are essential to art and life. One thing that constantly knocks me over about McQueen as an artist is that it is truly rare not only for art this good to exist, but for it to express all those dark, globular things swimming on the surfaces of our minds, AND for the artist to actually be able to put words to it?
The exhibition itself is grounded in the idea that McQueen’s dedication to emotionalism is similar to the Romantic movement in art, so the items are broken up thematically into “studies” like Romantic Naturalism, Romantic Gothic, Romantic Exoticism, etc. Austere lighting and wood provide a backdrop for McQueen’s early work: his famous “bumsters” and meticulously tailored jackets. Classical music wafts through a room flanked by tartan dresses from 2006’s Widows of Culloden show and 2008’s The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, both collections inspired by Scottish and British history. The following room shows pieces from Highland Rape, a relatively early show about the “rape” of Scotland by England. It’s a jarring juxtaposition of regency and brutality. Videos from the runway shows were expertly incorporated. The final, Joel-Peter Witkin inspired tableau from 2001’s VOSS was replayed on a large scale.
Romantic Gothic was where I lost it, and it was only the second full room. To see these pieces up close is an honor I’ll never forget. They are more lovely, more disturbing, and contain more skill that you can imagine just by seeing pictures. I’ve never cried so much in a museum. It was too much to handle, this beauty, this grotesqueness. The exhibition is always stuffed to the gills with visitors, so I knew it was something when the artwork as well as the curatorial design transcended the masses of clamoring, loud people.
Behind the blood and bone raw emotionality in McQueen’s work is breathtaking intelligence, and this also came through in the show. He was able to weave politics, examinations of race, and little “screw you’s” to various groups in his art while never compromising astounding beauty and craftsmanship. What a gorgeous mind and gorgeous soul! And so I really just sobbed. It’s such a strange and perhaps cruel tension that art like this probably couldn’t exist outside of such an unquiet mind, but in the end it is still amazing that McQueen cited love as his biggest inspiration while being able to understand the darkest, most secret sides of life and the human mind.
He saw beauty better than anyone. This ability to see will tear you apart, though. Maybe I’m projecting too much. Maybe Alexander McQueen was not a deeply sad man. The reasons people take their own lives are, of course, too private for anyone else to ever understand. It’s heartbreaking, but then we have this art. I’m so thankful we have this art. I’ve perhaps been too emotional in this post, but what can I do? More than any artist in history, Alexander McQueen touches me and and reaffirms the vital need for art in this grand cosmic drama we’re all stuck in.
It is important to look at death because it is a part of life. It is a sad thing, melancholic but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle – everything has to end. The cycle of life is positive because it gives room for new things.