Picture Book of the Week: Punk – Chaos to Couture

How D I Y went high fashion.

The story goes that Malcolm McLaren plucked John Lydon off the street to audition for his new band after seeing him strut past in a Pink Floyd t-shirt, defaced with a scrawling “I hate”. It was 1975 and that band later became the Sex Pistols.

For 40 years, punk and fashion have been as inseparable as two strips of Velcro - each goading the other towards a more vibrant and more urgent vision of itself. When punk spoke anger, it spoke in speared belts, torn denim and heavy boots. Simultaneously safety pins, badges, flags and black leather earned new identities on the backs of disgruntled youths.

Fashion clung to punk's sweaty chest and devoured its energy. The punk look became a fantastical assemblage of noise, attitude, working-classness, crisis and resistance. In Britain, as Dick Hebdige asserts in his 1979 work Subculture and the Meaning of Style, the movement's “decisive break” with its “parent culture” made fashion a powerful shorthand for belief in punk ethos. “The punk ensembles," he writes, “did not so much magically resolve experienced contradictions as represent the experience of contradiction itself in the form of visual puns (bondage, the ripped tee-shirt etc)… the sensibility which punk style embodied was essentially dislocated, ironic and self aware.”

Punk’s appropriation by mainstream fashion has been ravenous and total. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last week launched Punk: Chaos to Couture, an exhibition counting Anna Wintour and Beyoncé as honorary chairs and which opened on the eve of the museum’s annual costume gala.

One hundred men’s and womenswear designers – John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Miuccia Prada, Karl Lagerfeld and Dolce & Gabanna, to name a few – exhibit collections which “extend the visual language of punk”, carrying on from looks established by punk heroes like Blondie, Sid Vicious, Richard Hell, Patti Smith and Vivienne Westwood. Influential garments from the mid-1970s will also be on display.

A book of the same name by curator Andrew Bolton accompanies the show, with an introduction by Jon Savage and prefaces from Richard Hell and John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, £30). In his introduction, Bolton says that the focus of the exhibition is on punk as “aesthetic” rather than “attitude” – how has haute couture borrowed from punk’s D I Y manifesto?

Acknowledging the inherent contradictions of "do-it-yourself" designer clothing (I imagine it would be tricky to whip up a Versace gown in one’s Brixton squat), Bolton says: “Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness.” Some have cringed at the juxtaposition (“A tough, mythical New York punk wouldn’t see herself here,” wrote Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker) and Chaos to Couture will undoubtedly take fire from punk purists. Though it's worth noting, perhaps, that haute couture was historically defined by the "custom fit". And punk fashion was nothing if not personalised. 

Punk: Chaos to Couture is on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 9 May to 14 August.

 

(John Lydon, 1976. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Richard Young/Rex USA)

 

(Jordan, 1977. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph from Rex USA)

 

(Richard Hell, late 1970s. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Kate Simon)

 

(Karl Lagerfeld, Vogue, March 2011. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by David Sims)

 

(Rodarte, Vogue, July 2008. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by David Sims)

 

(Hussein Chalayan, spring/summer 2003. Dazed and Confused, March 2003, Photograph by Eric Nehr)

All images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Vogue, March 2011. Photo by David Sims.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle