At first glance, it might appear that the fashion designer Alexander McQueen and the photographer Francesca Woodman share little in common, save for the romantic goth sensibility that made them art student darlings, and their untimely death by suicide—McQueen, at the age of 40, in 2010, and Woodman, at only 22, in 1981. McQueen’s significance has been clear since the start of his career: richly rewarded during his life, he was honored soon after his death with a lavish, record-breaking exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. In contrast, Woodman died before she had achieved recognition, and her brooding legacy (venerated in C. Scott Willis’ 2010 documentary, The Woodmans) seems to have only interfered with her appreciation as an artist—at least on this continent. To wit, SFMOMA will hold only the first American retrospective of her small but startlingly mature oeuvre this fall, more than three decades after her death.
Nor does McQueen’s love of color and pattern and his sculptural use of fabric, hair, wood, leather, metal and other materials invite comparison to Woodman’s austere and almost exclusively black and white photographic medium. More obviously, McQueen’s art involves the making of clothing, while the better part of Woodman’s self-portraiture shows her without any on. Yet critical similarities link these two fascinating and disparate artists: apenchant for sumptuous texture, constant focus on the female body, performative self-expression, extravagant theatricality,and–in quiet contrast to their proclivity for shock–overriding, disciplined classicism.
Each of these commonalities is brought into play by a theme at the core of their highly personal work: the transformation of the body, and thus the self. Entirely magical, and yet reflecting our very real connection to the natural world, metamorphosis is a powerful metaphor for life, death, and all the dramatic and often frightening developments in between—none more miraculous than the changes a woman’s body undergoes in adolescence and pregnancy. And if the body is the animated instrument of the self, then metamorphosis is a conceit par excellence for the expression of the (re)invention of the self and all its transformative desires, fears, dualities, and fantasies—about self and other, identity and gender, exposure and privacy, to name just a few. While both Woodman and McQueen remained deeply respectful of the rigor of their respective crafts of photography and dressmaking, they nevertheless determinedly sought to stand out within those traditions. This tension, which runs throughout both oeuvres, is distilled in their use of the echt classical trope of metamorphosis to represent the wish to create—and to be—something entirely new.
Spending her summers in the family’s farmhouse outside of Florence, and studying in Rome for a semester while at RISD, Woodman grew up steeped in art-historical tradition. Many of her images juxtapose her body with natural elements—shells, eels, flowers, fruit, ferns, birch trees—mimicking metamorphic equivalence. In one photograph, she stands in a field with her head drooping like the towering sunflowers that surround her. In another (Untitled, New York, 1979-1980), she caresses a swan’s head, her body a gossamer column of white silk, as lustrous as the swan’s feathers. Her arm extends the swan’s neck, fusing with it to form a strangely graceful chimera. In much of her work, Woodman’s face is averted, draped, veiled, or, as it is here, cropped altogether, directing attention to her expressive body much the way a headless manikin defers to its clothes. Also recalling the headless statues of antiquity, this image with its utterly elegant form twists the myth of Leda, seduced by Jove in the guise of a swan: here, Woodman becomes Leda-as-swan, a woman made seductive—dangerously so—via dress. It is an image of power, countering her achingly vulnerable nude self-portraiture.
Clothing is a natural vehicle for meditations on metamorphosis: it is, after all, the main way that we alter our appearance. Woodman first showed an interest in art when, as a child, she began to copy paintings of women in fancy dress. By the age of 14, she had begun to layer her body with sheer lace and disrobe in front of her camera. Tellingly, McQueen got his start on Savile Row, and then worked with theatrical costumiers. Imaginatively and impeccably tailored, his clothes impose structure on the body, typically emphasizing femininity by accentuating the hips and shoulders and corseting the waist. Some of his most brilliant designs are subversive variations on the tailored jacket that morph its proverbial form in playful, often feminizing ways. McQueen also exploited the power wrought by transformation more literally, incorporating many animal forms into his designs: vulture’sskulls form menacing epaulets, horns and antlers sprout from heads and shoulders, dresses are encrusted with shells and upholstered with feathers. One exquisitely conceived example from the Horn of Plenty collection (2009-2010) makes explicit the relationship between the hourglass silhouette of Dior’s New Look and the mythical transformation of a woman into a different species altogether. In his hands, this feathered garment gives birth to a plausibly new creature, neither woman nor bird. In empathy, and possibly in identification with them, McQueen said that he ultimately wanted to make women feel powerful—to impact their “mentalities,” not just their bodies. A woman clad in such magnificent armature becomes a formidable raptor, not too far off from Woodman’s silken seductivity.
McQueen found the back, arguably the most androgynous part of the body, and certainly one of the most vulnerable, especially erotic. One of McQueen’s more chilling pieces, the 1998 “Spine” corset, features an anatomically correct spinal column, complete with erect tail, suggesting a sort of metamorphic hermaphrodite. Arming the female body with an inventive version of male virility, McQueen toys with gender while defending the back against predators. The corset is also a concrete elaboration of costume’s exhibition of the body, while at the same time covering it, sometimes revealing more than we care to know: uncharted, unexplored identities—as alien, perhaps, as the weird chimeric forms in myth. As Woodman wrote in her journal, “Real things don’t frighten me, just the ones in my mind”.
Woodman engages these very issues in an image in which she, too, superimposes a second spine—a fishbone—over her own (Untitled, New York, 1979-1980). Its delicate filigree is repeated in the pattern of her superimposed dresses (peeled back as though filleted) and the herringbone scaffold exposed in the disintegrating plaster wall. Woodman folds her body in the shape of a fish, with pointed head and fin. This image is perhaps Woodman’s most powerful statement on the duality of inner and outer realities, and the ability of art—like dress—to expose hidden interiorities via metamorphic suggestion, while camouflaging them with mystery and ambiguity—to uncover, while covering up. We look, we wonder,we want to know more.
In a gentler vein, McQueen invokes floral metamorphosis in a dress from the Sarabande collection (2007). A shell of sheer silk organza, shaped with boning, is festooned with both real,–and embroidered silk–flowers. Taking the cliché of the flowery dress as its point of departure, this work embodies various dualities—between the natural and the synthetic, between plush blossoms that cover the dress and its visible, skeletal trellis, and the fundamental duality between dying (and living) flowers and the living (and dying) body they adorn. Flowers are a locus of desire, and a metaphor for the brevity of life. In myths of metamorphosis, their beauty is a transformative foil for the cruelty of life’s passions and frustrations. The dress may have functioned in a similar way for McQueen. His use of the name Sarabande is not clear, but he may be alluding to Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Saraband (2003). Its protagonist, a musician, attempts suicide after his daughter and protégé, a young cellist, eludes his dominating control and leaves him to study elsewhere. In 2007, after having made serial serious suicide attempts, Isabella Blow, McQueen’s mentor and muse, finally succeeded. “I used flowers because they die,” said McQueen. Three years later, McQueen took his own life, nine days after his mother passed away.
Woodman herself makes frequent use of flowers in imagery that celebrates her blossoming female form. In a diptych (Untitled, New York, 1979-1980) made in the last year of her life, Woodman layers her extended arms in diaphanous sheets of clear plastic pierced by spikes of foxgloves, as if growing into and through her, their tapered forms echoing her graceful fingers. Dressed in a slip as fragile as the evanescent plastic—which is, like McQueen’s sheer organza, a ghostly intermediary material–Woodman is the elemental matrix which gives rise to flowers, their beauty as mute as an image. More darkly, one can also see this four-armed goddess trapped or impaled by these seemingly innocuous blossoms (recalling how Woodman and her work has been devalued by virtue of their beauty). On the left half of the diptych, Woodman looks down, the embodiment of a shy Pre-Raphaelite maiden in the garden. On the right half, we get a rare look into her heavy-lidded eyes—challenging, knowing, receding. The divided image comments on the elusive, dual nature of this enchanting chimera, available but not available, slipping from one world into another.
Woodman’s final project, The Temple, is a photographic reconstruction of a Grecian temple in which she poses as its various caryatids: a mortal body in an immortal image, a virtual metamorphosis into stone. In Angels and Demons, his last, unfinished collection, McQueen presented sumptuous neo-Renaissance garments, including a breathtaking, close-fitting coat of gilded feathers. Some pieces were fashioned from fabric digitally silkscreened with images from Breughel. At the close of careers in which these two artists consistently situated their oeuvres within the context of art history, McQueen and Woodman literally incorporated art history into the heart of their art. They each made a persuasive claim for their place within a glorious legacy, perhaps their metamorphosis was complete.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 4 – August 7, 2011
Francesca Woodman will appear at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, November 5, 2011 – February 20, 2012, and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, March 16 – June 13, 2012print