Savage Beauty – Alexander McQueen at the V&A

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see this incredible show at the V&A this weekend, and have come away feeling it was the best exhibition I have ever seen to date. Rather than it being just about the costume, it was a wholly immersive theatrical experience that endeavoured to recreate the wonder of a McQueen fashion show.

Despite having already researched his work and read Watt’s 2012 biography of him1 in preparation for this project, it still felt unfamiliar and new. The staging of each room together with mood-setting music and lighting with elaborate sets made the exhibition feel like a permanent museum that took you on a journey. We were initially upset at not being allowed to sketch in the exhibition, but once we got in there I was glad as we were able to enjoy the experience in a holistic way, focussing in and out on detail with fluidity. I bought the book accompanying the exhibition2 to have a record of things such as materials used in each dress, but also because it features a lot about McQueen’s influences and sources for each piece. I always find it interesting and helpful to look at another artists’ way of working to inform my own practice.

The exhibition started in a stark white room, displaying pieces from his MA project Jack the Ripper and His Victims, Dante and an incredible piece of tailoring from It’s a Jungle Out There. From here we moved onto a dimly lit room with ceiling-high antiqued mirrors with large gothic gold frames and a huge ornate glass cabinet housing a selection of five pieces of mainly white and gold, whilst the rest of the pieces on display were black romantic gothic in style, some covered in jet beads, evocative of Whitby and Dracula. As I am focussing more on the individual pieces in my paper presentation, I will not repeat myself here.

We moved through one room with walls of moulded bones and skulls to look like an ancient mausoleum, and a domed screen in the low ceiling with a video of a model swimming in a McQueen dress. Part ossuary, part aquarium, the pieces on display were from It’s a Jungle Out There, a collection featuring taxidermy crocodile heads, hair, fur and leather. It made me think how things have changed since numerous supermodels would rather go naked…

One room entitled Cabinet of Curiosities was just that, floor to ceiling cabinets with open fronts on every wall with a selection of costume pieces, accessories and video playbacks of catwalk shows. In the centre of the room was the finale piece Look 79 from his show No 13, a cotton, synthetic tulle dress with a high leather belt around the upper chest on a wooden turntable. The dress had been sprayed in black and yellow paint by robots as it rotated, modelled in the show by Shalom Harlow, 1999. Eerie music played along with the click-clacking of a typewriter, whilst the dress rotated as if in a jewellery box. For me, some of these cabinets were too high to be able to appreciate the pieces properly, and it was frustrating to not be able to see details. I noted that in the Metropolitan show in New York, the cabinets were not stacked so high, and I presume that the dimensions of the rooms in the V&A forced this arrangement.

I bought a postcard of this central sprayed dress, the photo having been taken during the catwalk performance.  You can actually see some members the audience gasping, and I can imagine McQueen considering how precious people are about fashion. As he had said in interviews in the past “…at the end of the day they’re just clothes…they’re not going to cure cancer or AIDS…”.3 It’s not the only time that he had shown irreverence to his pieces on stage, his Bellmer La Poupée 1997 collection having been walked through a flooded runway, soaking the hems.

I was excited to see the actual set and performance of Kate Moss’s hologram ‘ghost’ that was the finale for The Widows of Culloden in 2006. Using Victorian techniques with mirrors and projectors, a three dimensional hologram of Kate Moss dancing was projected into the centre of the catwalk. We were also able to see a number of the collections together with the original video backdrops used in the shows. The final room was a stark bright futuristic setting, with a massive video used in his final completed show prior to his death ‘Plato’s Atlantis’. This was the most aesthetically challenging collection for me, which is strange as it has so much in common with pieces by one of my other chosen designer/artists Mary Katrantzou. In many ways, it feels as if her work has almost continued on where this collection left off, with her use of digital printing and architectural forms.

This show was as much a show case of Philip Treacy’s work. His hats and accessories were every bit as incredible as the main costumes and integral to the final looks. There was so much in this show to talk about and explore. I haven’t even touched on talking about the innovative use of materials ranging from shells, wood, latex, spray-on fabrics, or the combination of traditional oriental embroidery with the experimental in It’s Only a Game. I went to this exhibition with the intention of coming away with a clear idea of a piece to select for analytical focus, but it is going to be a challenge to select any one item apart from its collection, let alone apart from the whole body of work.

 

References:

 

  1. Watt J 2012 Alexander McQueen: Fashion Visionary London: Goodman
  2. Wilcox C (ed) 2015 Alexander McQueen London: V&A publishing
  3. https://www.youtube.com/ FT: The Incredible Life and Tragic Death of Alexander McQueen PREVIEW

 

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Dorset Art Weeks

We currently have Dorset Arts Weeks underway locally, and I have been getting to as many exhibitions and speaking to as many artists as I can. I am aiming to put on my own exhibition in 2015 and have looking particularly at how work is displayed, marketed and priced. In my journeys I have also picked up a lot of practical printing tips from printmakers such as Liz Somerville, who produces large hand painted linoprints with a final print layer over the top. We had a long chat about creating depth in landscapes, and her influences which include Eastern European woodcuts. I also got advice on landscapes and creating depth from oil painter Caz Scott, as this is something I struggle with. I have met and had specific advice on collagraphs and monoprints from Sarah Ross-Thompson, Genevieve Lavers, and Robin Moorcroft.  One huge thing that I think will improve my work greatly is seeing how monoprinting techniques can be used in inking up a plate, be it a collagraph or lino cut. I will definitely keep this all in mind when reworking my representational collagraph.

As part of art weeks, Hugh Dunford Wood has opened his home for an exhibition including other big names such as Karina Gill, who is often seen in the pages of Craft magazine. Hugh trained at Ruskin School of Art in the 1970’s, was artist in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Globe Theatre, and has exhibited internationally. He currently has a number of strings to his artistic bow, painting portraits, producing home furnishings from linocuts including cushions and wallpapers, and most excitingly for me – collages including linocut prints. He calls these prints Collino prints. These are prints on scraps of various papers, combined with ink rolled directly onto the base paper, and some lino prints directly onto the base paper. There is a narrative element to the images, but rather than a linear storyline, they represent more of a poem, a moment. I haven’t reproduced an example here, so as to avoid any copyright problems, but I have provided a link to his work above.

I am thinking of incorporating the idea of collino prints into my butterfly theme for my final project.

Paul Klee – Making Visible

This weekend we also visited this wonderful exhibition at the Tate Modern. Having studied Klee’s colour work and visited the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican during my last OCA module, it was a great follow-on in my education of this inspiring movement. The first thing that struck me was the size of the majority of the works on show. We have been living with large scale prints of Klee’s work at home for more than a decade, and it was disorientating at first to realise how small they were in life. The exhibition was extensive, covering all periods of his life and work, from his beginnings in Nazi Germany, forced relocation to Switzerland, conscription to fight in the war and later illness and premature death from systemic sclerosis. It also, of course gave a broad coverage of work done and classes taught whilst part of the Bauhaus foundation.

This was perhaps the most technical exhibition I have ever visited, with most of my reflections and notes being about use of mixed media and many, many sketchbook ideas. My partner entered the exhibition very fond of Klee’s work, but as a non-artist was somewhat fatigued by the scale of the exhibition, with a huge number of pieces exploring colour and media in abstract compositions.

I was inspired by the use of ink, watercolour and oils together, and the different ways in which each medium was employed. His early work mainly consisted of abstract watercolour compositions exploring how tonal shifts and contrasting or complementary colours can sit together with dynamic effect. His later watercolour works included a number of paintings of built up layers of the same colour watercolour which I felt could be replicated in the form of a reduction linocut. There was evident humour in some of his works, and I particularly enjoyed a series of paintings of an aquarium, with fish depicted with big bulging eyes.

One area of special interest in terms of printmaking practice were his monoprints. He produced a huge number of backdrawn monoprints, to which watercolour was applied. These varied in subject, but his marks in conjunction with the crackled line achieved by backdrawing and loose application of colour created hugely atmospheric, and engaging images. Some of these painting were then cut apart and collaged before overpainting, allowing alteration of the composition and adding an extra layer of complexity to the final piece.

His work takes on a more sculptural feel in places, with use of collage and varying methods of priming and preparation that had interesting effects on the painting. He used a variety of base materials throughout the exhibition – paper, cardboard, plywood, burlap, calico. One of my favourite pieces was ‘Bewitched-Petrified’ 1934, watercolour on plywood. It looked like the plywood had been scratched into before painting to create strong lines of shading. Another interesting and inspiring painting was ‘Structural II’, 1924. Chalk-primed canvas was painted with gouache and watercolour in blocks of colour, and cream tempura, red tempura, and black ink lines were overdrawn, using varying levels of contrast between line and base colour throughout. The tempura is not quite opaque, and the resulting painting is a densely rich patchwork. Similar line designs are explored in his ‘Rhythms’ series in 1927, using techniques including scratching through a semi-translucent layer of pale oil paint. This method of scratching drawing through wet paint is employed again in “Walpurgis night’ 1935, in which the mark making was reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

There are many other areas of exploration in his work, including a room of pointillist pieces, which, to be honest I was no so keen on, and another series that looked very much like abstract precursors to Keith Haring’s work. He was truly an artist ahead of his time who pushed his materials to the limits throughout his life.

Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol

This weekend, I visited this exhibition at Zandra Rhodes’ Fashion and Textiles Museum in London. The exhibition is accompanied by the book “Textile Design: Artist Textiles 1940-1976” by Geoff Rayner et al (Antique Collectors Ltd, 2012).

The exhibition begins by presenting collaborations between artists such as Matisse and Henry Moore and textiles companies in the 1940’s as part of a strategy to revive the struggling post-war British textile industry and appeal to an American market. At the same time, companies in America were collaborating with fashionable artists such as Salvador Dali to bring modern art to the masses. This work follows on nicely from William Morris’ ideal in bringing new art and design into people’s homes. These collaborations as a commercial venture reminded me very much of some of the modern ‘capsule collections’ we see on the high street, branded by high-end catwalk couture designers; or the work of artists such as Rob Ryan or the design house ‘People Will Always Need Plates’ who have worked with Clothkits in designing their clothing. This carried on into the 1960’s, and the exhibition presents many examples of work commissioned from Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. I felt that a lot of the designs seemed very dated, and I guess that this is a consequence of the aim to be commercially fashionable. A good example of this is Joan Miro’s ‘Dancing People’ designed for Fuller Fabrics in New York 1956, which is very anchored in it’s time. Others may, of course, disagree with my assessment.

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In the 1950’s, companies including Heal’s and Edinburgh Weavers employed artists to design for them, or translated work by well known artists into printed woven textiles. An example I particularly enjoyed was ‘Whithorn’ by William Scott (Edinburgh Weavers) which was used widely in the interiors of Altnagelvin Hospital in Northern Ireland. I liked the contrast between fine marks and broad strokes, a primitive design in earthy colours with a large repeat. Although I liked the sample, I felt that it would be very austere and overbearing in any quantity. It seemed a heavyweight choice for a hospital setting, where today’s interiors use calming, clean and usually pale tones.

 

 

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By far my favourite designs on show were those from the furnishing fabric company Hammer Prints, established in 1954 by sculptor Eduardo Paoluzzi with his wife Freda (textile designer), and the photographer Nigel Henderson with his wife Judith Stephen (anthropologist and sociologist). Judith was also niece of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Wolf, which helped establish them as the artistic definition of the Bloomsbury agenda.  This sample is entitled ‘Newsprint’, and stood out as the only design on show with any element of photographic imagery. From a distance the design takes on the feel of  a rugged landscape, with more details being revealed as you get closer. The lack of colour in their work also set them apart in the exhibition.

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During the 1960’s, Picasso collaborated with American companies Bloomcraft Fabrics and American ski-wear company White Stag. ‘Musical Fawn’ for Bloomcraft was a particularly striking piece, and the juxtaposition of the fabric sample in colour and made-up dress in black and white allowed the viewer to appreciate the effect of colour and contrast on a design, and how different a sample can look from the fabric to the dress. The scale of the design and repeat also becomes particularly important and can completely change the feel of the piece. The large bold repeat works to show off the bold, stripped back composition.

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Prior to this exhibition, I had not appreciated how much work Andy Warhol had done in textile design. His work had a naivety in both subject and it’s execution that was very appealing. I have seen many examples over the past 30 years of his work being directly copied or inspiring designs for modern apparel, but all of these designs by him in the textile medium were completely new to me.

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A section on illustration in textiles was dominated by work by Saul Steinberg, who was commissioned by Piazza Prints in 1950’s America to design fabrics based on his satirical illustrations. I was mesmorised by the effect of the repeat, and how successful the results were. I would love to have a summer skirt from this directional print!

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Finally,  a print that caught my eye was this pattern ‘Princess’ by Ben Nicholson, which features a portrait of his then lover Barbara Hepworth. I was interested to see how the repeat works with repeated elements within it and inversion of the main pattern block within the design. Despite the way in which the pattern is constructed, the design still flows in a pleasing fashion across the piece.

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Feedback on Assignment 4 and Reflections

I have received feedback from my tutor on my collagraph project, part of it reads as follows:

“Task 2 (Project 12)

You were asked to work towards a series of representational images using the collagraph technique. Some interesting results for this exercise, I can see from your notes that you struggled a little with gaining a particular aesthetic in earlier test prints, but you took the knowledge from producing the test blocks for project 11 and made changes to rectify the lack of tone in your prints. Your referencing of site-specific materials within your collagraph blocks is a particularly nice touch, and your tests of these materials are really very engaging in themselves.

My only comment would be regarding the overall image. I don’t feel that it accurately describes your subject matter, and I found it difficult to ascertain what the image was until I referred to your preparatory work. Collagraph is a technique that takes time to perfect, and with further experimentation and development, I believe your prints will improve, and have the potential to reach the same level as your relief prints.

Feedback on assignment

The work submitted for assignment 4 is overall of a good standard. Your use of different papers and inking techniques (combining dabbing and rolling) is great, and your presentation of your prints is clean and professional. What I would recommend is a bit more work on your representational ability when using collagraph. If you can dedicate a bit of time to working with different types of composition, the description of foreground/background, and the use of multiple colours as apposed to just two, I think this would enable your skill in this area to develop further, and will benefit your submission when it comes to assessment.”

I agree entirely with this, and was concerned that my final image was a bit abstract. I did struggle with subject matter, and possibly fell into the same trap as with my elephant combination print, in that I was making the block do all the work, and didn’t use the inking to it’s full potential to add depth to the image. It’s back to the drawing board for this one, and I will need to comb my photographs and sketchbooks for a new subject that is not such a challenge for me to begin with.

To make some positive progress on this and get inspiration, I have been looking at some other artists collagraphs. One example that I felt worked particularly well and demonstrates the point I was making about making the colour do some of the work is “Bailey #1 (Original Collagraph of Boxer” by Bonnie Murray. In this print, the edges of the subject are quite loosely defined by the block itself, in which the patterned textured areas are used to draw the eye to the details of the portrait. The outline and depth in the portait is achieved by the application of varying tones of colour, using light and shade in a subtle way.

Note: I have included a link to this print image on the artist’s website rather than reproducing it here for copyright reasons.

Clothing factory

ed5 garments

ed5 shop

Another day, another factory. We visited another printing factory, which was a contrast to the others demonstrating the difference between Sanganer and Bagru styles of block print designs. I was excited by the bright and bold colour combinations, and the very fashionable motif designs. I bought a lovely print with a small motif repeat, and contrasting kantha stitching in diamonds between the motifs. Fabric was available to buy in bundles sufficient to make up a tunic, trousers and a matching crepe scarf. The fabric for the tunics had a trim machine sewn for the neckline, and any extra detailing such as the kantha stitching was in the shape of the front and back pieces.

One thing that was particularly interesting was the block printing of a garment part way through construction, using newsprint as a mask. This avoided awkward placement of designs on the torso, and allowed complex construction with fluidity of pattern across the garment.

ed5 dress2

ed5 dress

The pattern cutting was clever, keeping the arms and body as a single piece to avoid the tricky balancing of the shoulders.

This machinist was sewing edgings freehand in a number of ornate designs. I thought the padding and covering of the machine arm with the needle poking through was a good idea, protecting the work.

ed5 trim

During our trip, as a group we decided to make a book for Jamie, who organised the holiday. We each had a page to work with. Below is my contribution, a sketch based on our experiences so far. I used some blocks bought in Sanganer, and a base of torn local newspaper layered with white acrylic paint. Colour was added with watercolour washes and Inktense pencils. I titled it ‘The Spirit of Recycling” which seemed appropriate given our visit to the paper factory. I was also reminded of the layers of torn posters on the walls of the streets visible in most places around the city.

ed5 sketch

Sanganer

We stopped at Sanganer, a village feted by Anokhi as the home of the art of block-printed textiles in Rajasthan. The village is still home to a great number of carpenters, who sit on the floor of their workshops carving intricate designs for commissions. Each carpenter has his own unique designs, and they are very protective of these designs as they are their livelihood. Many sold small blocks directly from their workshops.

Approximately 1.5″ slices of shisham wood were laid out on the pavement for seasoning. The blocks are cut to size, and a paper design applied to the surface. Very fine chisels are used for carving, tapped with a length of timber. The chisels and blocks are rotated between cuts in a very fluid motion which was quite mesmerising to watch. I bought a selection of small edging blocks for my own stash as we looked around.

There was also a supplier making and selling the mesh beds for inking trays. String beds are used rather than metal to avoid rusting and colouring of the ink. These ink beds are really a luxury for small scale printing, and a sponge is sufficient.

ed4 carving

ed4 inking bed

ed4 workshop

Later in the week, we visited the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing at Amer, very close to the Amber Fort. The museum building is 400 years old, and was bought by Anokhi and renovated to it’s original state in 1988. There we learned more about the history of block printing at Sanganer, and the sort of textiles that have been produced there. Sanganer textiles differ from those produced in Bagru, as Sanganer tends to use brighter colours, smaller motifs and more screen printing and chemical dyes.

We learned about the language of textiles, where in various communities colours and designs of clothing are used to communicate caste and marital status. I have bought two books from the museum that I am working my way through. They are particularly lovely for textiles study as they have swatches of fabrics on almost every page. There were four or five books in the whole range, but I was unfortunately unable to get the others before selling out, and they are not available on the internet.