This giant multi-media installation — the 'Cabinet of Curiosities' gallery — was the blockbuster part of a blockbuster show, and people sat and stood entranced examining individual objects and videos of the shows in which they appeared.


hroughout much of the eighteenth century “Savage Beauty” would have been an oxymoron, since "savage," which implied the grotesque, intense, and strange, was understood to be diametrically opposed to beauty. The beautiful, everyone knew, exemplified the classical ideals of order and calm. Then, in the latter part of the eighteenth century and throughout much of the nineteenth, “Savage Beauty” would have been a misnomer, the kind of phrase only the uncultured would utter, since clearly "sublime," not beauty, was the proper word to join to “savage”. By the close of Victoria's reign and increasingly throughout the next century and into this one, the Romantic aesthetic of originality, strangeness, ego-centricity, and, above all, intensity, have replaced traditional notions of beauty. “Savage Beauty” as a claim, a description, or a category now hardly makes one's head turn. It's business as usual. Particularly in the fashion business. I make this somewhat pedantic observation about linguistic change and aesthetic fashion because the show at the Victoria & Albert Museum (a resurrection of the 2011 show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art) strikes me as very time-bound, very much an instance of a Neovictorian revival of the techniques that characterize the Decadents (and would-be Decadents) of the late nineteenth century.

My son, who was with me on my second visit to Savage Beauty, remarked as we passed through the second room of the show, “McQueen is aesthetically, not morally, decadent," and I think he is here right on target, for although many of his works might have moral or political implications, one suspects the designer was either unaware of them or misunderstood them. Certainly, the occasional claims of political meaning seem ignorant or puerile at best. John McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird makes clear how absurdly ignorant it was for McQueen's Highland Rape series that began the show to blame England for the for the actions of the Scottish lairds, who betrayed their followers, throwing families off land they had worked for generations because they could make more money raising sheep. But of course truth here, political or otherwise, is not the point; effect is, and that is at the heart of any Decadent aesthetic.

Three pieces showing the variety of the work of McQueen and those who worked with him. Left: Shaun Leane's Tahitian pearl and silver neckpiece. Middle: The featured piece in the Widows of Culloden gallery. Right: It's a Jungle out there.

A fundamentally anti-natural attitude lies at the center of all the important effects we see here, for McQueen’s anti-romantic romanticism takes a stand against nature because, in the manner of both Medieval and Decadent thinkers, it takes Nature, the natural, to be fallen, flawed, less than human. Therefore, like the Balinese who painfully file their teeth flat to make themselves look unnatural — because to have unfiled, uneven teeth is to be animalike and therefore sub-human — McQueen and the decadents of half a century before see clothing and accompanying ornament as means of raising oneself above fallen, debased nature and society.

Left: Butterfly headdress. Right: White tulle dress with antler headdress.

McQueen, who thus follows the late-nineteenth-century Decadents in idealizing the unnatural, also turns to those instances of nature that appear especially alien or foreign. The poetry and visual art of the aesthetes and decadents featured especially transient natural phenomena, such as the butterfly or the orchid, in part because they reveal (as Wallace Stevens following Plato puts it) that death is the mother of beauty. Take for example the many works in Savage Beauty that emphasize transient nature, artifice, and confinement, such as the white dress with veil and antlers from the Widows of Culloden series. It strikes the viewer as an oxymoronic collision of traditional fashion (that not-so-unusual long white dress) with something that embodies aggressive maleness and transience — an antler of the kind that deer shed annually. Savage Beauty also makes great use of those kinds of artifice — dance, puppetry, chess, enveloping headpieces, and inflexible chest coverings which obviously constrain and control that aspect of the natural closest to us — the human body, our physical selves.

A still from perhaps the most fascinating video of the show, "It's only a Game," showed McQueen's bevy of models arranged like figures on a chessboard.

McQueen pushes confining of the natural to absurdist extremes, one of the most obvious examples of which appeared on a film loop that repeatedly showed a long-limbed model of African descent clothed by, trapped by, a gathering of metal rods that formed a cube attached to her arms and legs. As she made her way awkwardly and painfully down steps on a watery area that served as the show's catwalk, she first seemed the embodiment of confined African womanhood, but then she began to move her hands in dancelike movements, demonstrating, much like a sonnet does in poetry, that severe imitation can allow or even produce beauty. Clearly, much of what McQueen did had far more in common with sculpture and performance art than with displaying utilitarian clothing.

And Savage Beauty is certainly very successful performance art, if one measures success by its very large number of vistors (or rather audience members). A companion who had seen the 2011 show in New York thought it had received more vistors than any in the museum's history, and the groups of people flocking to the V&A suggest it has been equally popular in London. (Note added on 3 September 2015: The V&A announced that in fact it was “the V&A’s most visited exhibition with 493,043 people seeing it in total during its 21-week run.”) Several factors might explain the exhibition's great success with the public, the first of which might be the sheer abundance of the quirky, interesting materials on display. Compared to the sparsely filled rooms at the Tate Britain's recent sculpture show, those at Savage Beauty appeared packed to overflowing with things to see, so much so that visitors felt multiple visits were in order. Of course, one factor that created this sense of generous abundance was the well-chosen music piped into each room. (Now that I think of it, the room at the Tate's Sculpture Victorious containing material on Queen Victoria’s jubilee could certain have used a bit of Sir Edward Elgar pumped in at high volume.) The effective use of moving images, particularly the video projected at enormous size in one of the first rooms a visitor encountered and the many smaller examples in “The Cabinet of Curiosities” room, also meant that there was always something to watch. Whether entertaining, puzzling, or off-putting, the videos sent one to the individual objects on display.

Certainly, then, Savage Beauty was brilliantly designed and mounted, but that alone cannot account entirely for its popularity. One possibility might be that for all its visual daring, Savage Beauty provides a very safe, politically insulated exoticism. Perhaps it does so because the world of fashion, despite its enormous economic importance, is seen by many who attended the show as a kind of pastoral world, an insulated alternate reality, in which anything goes. Compared to What is Luxury?, a small exhibition running concurrently at the V&A, Savage Beauty seems to wear a Tolkien ring of political invisibility. That other show begins with a few obvious luxury objects, such as expensive watches, quickly moves to pieces of conceptual art, and then shows us several fascinating films about the political, economic, and ecological cost of virtually everything technological we use. Responsibility and guilt are at issue there, but not in Savage Beauty. No comments here about exploiting, confining, and abusing the the female body!

Left: The installation, which displayed this spray-painted dress on a platform in the middle of the 'Cabinet of Curiosities,' showed a video loop of the two robots spraying paint on the white dress. Cool, perhaps, except that the paint hit the model's face as well as the dress. But perhaps that was the point. Right: This disconcerting photograph was used on the posters for the show and can be taken many ways — from artful reconstruction of the human face to downright misogyny.

Created 28 April 2015

Last modified 10 September 2015