Posts Tagged ‘Disturbing Art’

People who take fashion seriously bore me to tears. The question mark-shaped models (stand up straight! for reals!), the frowny editors wearing head-to-toe designer (please be more creative, especially in this economy) trying fruitlessly to balance on their Louboutins, the rushed flacks who all seem to be losing their minds at the exact moment you catch a glimpse of their frantic faces. The scene, the whole thing is just so…tired. That’s why I’ve always been a fan of Alexander McQueen–the merry man of fashion. I used to stay up late when I was in my teens to watch his runway shows premiere on VideoFashion. Each season, he combined expertly tailored clothes with a show of unapologetically perverse storytelling and unencumbered wit. It was theater at its very finest. I still remember a Fall 2002 show replete with ghost-faced models leading wolves (or wolf-like dogs) through an open air, hauntingly lit, Victorian castle. The clothes fit the setting, yes, but these weren’t antique replicas–this was futuristic Goth with a splash of S &M (harnesses, breast plates, etc.). It was disturbing (in a fun creepy doll collection sort of way), but intensely elegant.

The Fall 2009 show conceived by McQueen was similarly filled with astonishing layers. The clothes themselves were gorgeously cut, as always, but they also incorporated a comedic element, in that the pieces and prints mocked the revelatory fashion inventions of the 20th century–Dior’s houndstooth separates, Chanel’s tweed, his own intense reds and burnt oranges and Hitchkockian Bird prints. Everything was exaggerated as though the clothes themselves were stage actors coated with a harsh layer of makeup meant to heighten the sweep of each feature. This was fashion’s last stand, if you will. The Brazil (the futuristic film, not the country)-inspired faces with their enormous rouged lips and non-existent brows depicted an after-the-rubble scenario: these clothes are fashion’s legacy; in the end, they’re utterly meaningless and might be worn by survivors with hubcap hats. At least, that’s my interpretation. Or, maybe McQueen was just having fun and the setting and accessories were done with no covert meaning and just entertainment in mind. Either way, fashion isn’t life, it’s just candy for the eyes and McQueen’s a master candy maker. (And no, the collection doesn’t remind me of Zoolander, silly fashion journalists.)

Re-assembled Dior worn with a hat made of what looks like medical gauze wrapped around aluminum cans! photo: style.com

Re-assembled Dior worn with a hat made of what looks like medical gauze wrapped around aluminum cans! photo: style.com

Those haunting faces under a hubcap hat; photo: style.com

Those haunting faces under a hubcap hat; photo: style.com


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It feels sort of weird to actually acknowledge, but disturbing art, literature, film and music has always fascinated me. I loved Marilyn Manson as a middle schooler, not for his noise-goth-punk-rock albums, but for his disturbing persona, which manifest itself through music videos featuring medieval face contortion devices and corseted mad-doctor costumes. Throw in some creepy wooden dolls and some dingy medical paraphernalia and I was glued to MTV, happily scaring myself (aren’t we all masochists?) each day after school. Interestingly, Manson is also a rather gifted painter whose watercolors have a serene, but frightening beauty that is comparable to the works of Marlene Dumas. Both use watercolor (though Dumas, not exclusively) as a way to suggest an image instead of explicitly define it, giving it a ghostly quality. Both also utilize this generally soft, palatable medium to portray harshness, strangeness and at times, un-savoriness (the below painting by Dumas, however, like much of her work, is oil on canvas and was featured in MoMA mid-career survey “Measuring Your Grave” on view last year).

Marilyn Manson via MTV.com

"Hand of Glory" by Marilyn Manson; image: Marilyn Manson via MTV.com

MoMA via nytimes.com

"The Painter" by Marlene Dumas; image: MoMA via nytimes.com

Disturbing imagery isn’t reserved for modern-day artwork. A while back I attended an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s.” I enjoyed it so much, I came back a second time. And then a third. The German Expressionist works, by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz, were raw in their depiction of the seediness and decadence of post-WWI Germany: saggy prostitutes, transvestites, disfigured veterans, a man with an upside down ribcage. People were painted to reveal their most grotesque, self-conscious selves. But the colors were vibrant, and the mood striving–one of a people desperate to enjoy life again. Some of the works were are almost a caricature of this mood; the works’ combined magnetism made this one of the best exhibitions I’d ever seen.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s"; image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Film, too, moves me similarly. After I finished watching “Lex Yeux Sans Visage” (Eyes Without a Face), A French horror film from 1960, I was confused; I knew I loved it, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint a reason why. The film was aptly frightening: the slow sequences built up the terror expertly. But it was also strangely heart-wrenching. The plot centered around a father and daughter; the father had caused a car accident that left his daughter disfigured–only eyes where her face used to be. Wrought with guilt, he seeks out similar-looking girls in a desperate, psychotic effort to find one whose face he can transplant onto his daughter’s (he is a surgeon by profession.) The efforts fail, as is expected, and the daughter, who wears a mask to hide her disfigurement, floats around the sets of this film in long white dresses with pirate collars (which I had read somewhere were designed by Givenchy). She is already gone, already a ghost, as the visual allusions seem to suggest. Her loneliness is at once wistful and resigned and the more her father harms others to better her, the deeper she slips into a desperate state. French films are known for this kind of all-sided hopelessness, of course. The film is beautiful, though, in the way a lot of disturbing, otherworldly art seems to be. Its pacing and cinematography are almost poetic and it escapes the horror genre to stand almost peerlessly as a movie that delves into a secret, subverted sector of the human psyche–a place where empathy, disgust and despair can exist simultaneously.


Les Yeux Sans Visage movie poster; image: associnetic.free.fr

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