There’s nothing like the experience of slipping into a museum after dark, as you feel less like you are in a public space and more like you are intruding on private and hallowed ground – and that’s exactly how I felt on Sunday night as I approached a hidden side-entrance at the Victoria and Albert Museum in anticipation of what is probably the most hyped-up show this year, that is, ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty‘. Since I didn’t book months in advance, I ended up with the strangest ticket time: 8pm on Easter Sunday. Luckily, it was just as well: I had been dreading a massive crowd, but there wasn’t one. And that eerie feeling from being in the V&A at what felt like an illicit hour could not have been more appropriate a mindset for what I was approaching. Immediately as I stepped into the first room, I was greeted by the looming face of McQueen himself, projected onto a dark wall like the omniscient illusion of the Wizard of Oz. Gradually, the face seemed to rot away, only to be replaced by a grinning golden skull. Already I was taken aback: I hadn’t been expecting to be greeted by such an intense memento mori in the very first room. But it was clear this was the scene being set for me, and that I was about to be presented with the story of a doomed genius.
The concept of ‘genius’ is no more real than that Wizard of Oz face, really just a projection from behind a curtain. It’s a construction that was typified in the Romantic era and feeds off the public’s love for a good slice of theatrical doom and gloom. Savage Beauty , I noticed, right away made no pretences about the fact it too was feeding off this myth, with rooms entitled ‘Romantic Gothic’ and ‘Romantic Naturalism’. The beautifully elaborate sets, unlike any other I have ever seen built for a museum exhibition, framed McQueen’s designs exactly like a theatre set for a play about a tragic artist who is victim to his own mad genius. Sound like something Edgar Allan Poe would write? That’s exactly what you are invited to compare the show to. In fact, all of McQueen’s many historical, artistic and literary influences – from Hieronymus Bosch to Charles Darwin, the Jacobite uprisings to the Salem Witch trials – were comprehensively and richly explored. Particularly impressive was the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ room, which was so stuffed full of what can only be described as artefacts, it was hard to know what to focus on first – much like trying to choose just one chocolate from a whole tray. But the beauty is that we don’t have to choose, as McQueen managed to engineer all of his designs to include the best of everything. Like a cabinet of curiosities should be, the room was abuzz and alive, as shoes and handbags, headdresses and cloaks seemed to conspire in terrifying conversation with each other.
If there was one thing that did strike me as somewhat disappointing, it was the look of the clothes up close. Despite the labels’ proud declarations of McQueen’s exquisite tailoring, many did not fit the dummies properly, looking rather limp and crumpled – it was desperately clear they are meant to be seen as animalistic and alive, an effect that can only be achieved on the catwalk. Yet step back, and those elaborate sets pull you right back into the illusion. And there was no greater master of illusion than McQueen himself. You get the sense he was more than aware of the artist-genius myth, but instead of trying to hide it, he used it, blowing it up. He mediated his work to us through spectacle. Nothing typified this more, for me, than the exquisite hologram of Kate Moss that was the finale of his 2006 ‘Widows of Culloden’ show in Paris. Using a Victorian trick known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, she appears both there and not there. As I gazed breathlessly at this ghostly vision, I thought about the words ‘spectre’ and ‘spectacle’ and how they both rely on an audience to exist. The same goes for the ‘Romantic’ artist, who himself is just like an elaborate Victorian hoax. A genius needs his audience to put on a good show, and that’s exactly what McQueen knew. His success comes from an understanding between seduced and seducer that one cannot exist without the other. Like the Wizard of Oz, he really was magic, or so you can believe – just as long as you pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is on view at the V&A until 2 August; Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL; Open Daily 10AM-5:45PM (10PM Fridays); Admission: £16 (full price, without donation), £9 (students)