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Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Andrew Bolton

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 13, 2011
Category: Art and Photography

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has ended, which is just fine with me — I saw it four times, and each time it wrung me out. 

What kept me coming back?
Each time, I got wrung out in a completely different way.
The first time, I was just blown away. The exhibition is large, and each room contains a specific idea or period — the show was one surprise after another, and each surprise was a slap in the face. As Holland Cotter noted in The New York Times, “The show, or rather what’s in it, is a button-pushing marvel: ethereal and gross, graceful and utterly manipulative, and poised on a line where fashion turns into something else.” No wonder, as I stumbled through it, I felt like a pinball.

On my second visit, I just choked up. Really, the sadness was overwhelming. Whatever else he was, McQueen was a ferociously inventive creator — a genius, really, and an old-fashioned one, throwing everything into his design business instead of focusing on marketing and licensing, as the fashion playbook now dictates. He was, if not beloved, at least admired. But did any of it matter? At 40, he killed himself, moving on to that place where fame never comes. And here were all these people, oohing and ahing. Too late? Would he have cared? Whatever: sad, sad, sad.
The third time, I tried to be objective. Notebook out, I scribbled away. Noticed everything. Had lots of sharp insights.  Felt smart. Until I went outside. Then I thought: Idiot! This is not the show you insulate yourself from — this is the one you surrender to.
Yesterday, the last time, was perhaps the best. I went through the show as if it were an old friend, stopping at favorite pieces and breathing them in. Then I walked to the end of the line — they said it was an hour wait, but the line was so long that seemed wildly optimistic — and asked the smartest-looking woman there if she’d like to cut the line. (That’s a member’s privilege.) And back in we went. I, the so-called veteran, had a few things to say. She, the first-timer, had more. And in those rooms, buffeted by crowds and music and sound effects, we had the most compelling conversation I’ve had all week.
What do I wish for you? Everything I felt during these visits. Or, more correctly, whatever you might feel. Because this show is that important. Not for the clothes — as Mrs. Vreeland used to say, “It’s not about the dress, it’s about the woman in the dress, and where she’s going, and what she’s going to do there” — but for what the clothes make you feel and think about love, sex, the status of women, the function of nature in your life. In the end, “Savage Beauty” is a conversation-starter — a conversation with yourself.
If you’re not going to see the show before it closes on August 7, don’t despair. The Met’s web site provides an excellent guided tour. Andrew Bolton, who curated the show, is the master intelligence behind a book, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” It showcases just about everything that’s in the show, and a lot more. It has a thesis — McQueen as a Romantic — that you can argue with. And it has the cover of the year: a hologram that flips back and forth from McQueen’s face to a polished silver skull. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.] 
The cover says it all. This is not a book about fashion.