Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Entering the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at London’s V&A Museum on the afternoon of 29th June, our group of Ertegun scholars were met with a large, moving portrait of the designer himself. McQueen’s bleak, serious face slowly dissolved into the image of a skull mask, oscillating there and back again, accompanied by a mechanical jungle soundscape. This projection, onto the wall of the dark opening chamber, set the tone for much of the following retrospective. The walls—mostly black—were littered with 19th-century buzzwords: ‘Romantic’, ‘sublime’, ‘Gothic’, ‘nationalism’, ‘naturalism’, ‘exoticism’, and so on. The aim? To proclaim McQueen as tragic genius.

In many ways, it is difficult to consider the designer as anything less than ‘great’ when surrounded by such a vast array of his life’s work. Though the copious use of Romanticized language may border on the realms of cliché, the exhibition is a triumph, offering an exhilarating, multimodal voyage through the mind and oeuvre of McQueen. Originally held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, just a year after the designer’s suicide, viewers are immediately drawn into the difficult psychology of McQueen via well-chosen quotations that deliver a strong flavour of his artistic candour: ‘I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil.’ The effect is quite terrifying, especially when reading such statements in darkened chambers that are lined with murky mirrors, accompanied by mannequins wearing leather masks, glass horns protruding from their faces where mouths should be. They appear posthuman, fiercely complementing the ruthless, imaginative clothes that adorn them. Perhaps most striking are the shoes that support them: McQueen’s so-called ‘armadillo’ heels are so tall and claw-like that they appear almost impossible to wear. Sometime during the exhibition, we are reminded that the designer himself once declared his aim to go beyond the limits placed on fashion that force it to be regarded as the simple act of wearing clothes. McQueen’s is ‘high fashion’ in its most daring form, and the gallery’s curation is similarly powerful and sensational.

I was struck by the intelligent use of space throughout the exhibition. Each gallery appeared different in mood and atmosphere, effected by an ingenious fusion of visual and auditory elements throughout. The sound designers mixed dark orchestral music with EDM, Björk with birdsong; each space overlapped slightly with the next, but there were clear divisions nonetheless. The use of film throughout was also captivating, reaching its climax at the installation of McQueen’s famous Kate Moss hologram, which originally closed his 2006 Widows of Culloden show in Paris. Whilst I am as yet unconvinced by the designer’s decision to use the theme from Schindler’s List (1993) as its backing track, I was entranced by Moss’s disappearance into a plasmatic, distant ball of light, which twisted and turned until eventually transforming into a miniature cosmological explosion. There is such detail, such beauty, such talent in McQueen’s work, and Savage Beauty enables it to be displayed with due care. I would happily revisit this exhibition several times.

Jake Downs