The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier - review

An extraordinary exhibition goes that far beyond the cone bra.

He needs no introduction. But he certainly deserves your attention. He’s the clothier credited with the cone bra and the man skirt, with radicalizing the looks of Madonna and Kylie Minogue, with putting street style on the catwalk, with making neoprene sexy. And from 2011 to 2013, the renowned French fashion designer has his first retrospective exhibition traveling the globe from Canada to the Netherlands. Originating at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, I managed to catch up with the show in San Francisco last week, where the de Young Museum plays third host to the couture circus.

The designer has been dubbed the fashion world’s “enfant terrible” since his catwalk debut in 1976, and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is a fitting hurly burly bonanza of extraordinary garments:  140 ensembles from the past 35 years of his couture and ready-to-wear collections. It’s a well-orchestrated free-for-all of pointy breasts and sci-fi silhouettes, plus a healthy lashing of showstoppers: Madonna’s cone-bra bustier worn on her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990, a black-diamond skeleton corset worn by Dita Von Teese in 2010.

The exhibition also features state-of-the-art digital content, including “living mannequins” - 3D holographic faces projected onto dressforms, defying the inherently static quality that pervades most fashion showrooms. Mannequins directly address and even sing for the audience. It’s both amusing and unnerving - the sort of combination Gaultier adores. One gets the sense they're a small part of a big joke.

Raucous and experimental both in form and content, I’m likely to call this the most blithely divine fashion show you’ll catch in the near future. But then I’m incredibly biased. Let me explain.

I first encountered Jean Paul on a boat ride to Dieppe when I was nine years old. It was summer, 1997, and my family had made the annual pilgrimage from our home in San Francisco to my grandparents’ in Sussex. My parents decided my sister and I had reached an age of maturity that meant we could nip across the channel to see what they called “the French way of life”. We had not reached the age of maturity that meant we could sit still for what was then a seven-hour ferry journey. My father, delegated with finding suitable distractions, announced we would be attending the vessel’s onboard cinema, little more than a few folding chairs facing a pull-down screen. Showing was a new sci-fi film with a gawp-worthy PG-13 rating. But the sweet promise of childcare relief must have usurped my father’s moral gripes, and in we went to see Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, a film for which – I later learned - Jean Paul Gaultier had designed and produced over 900 costumes.

It would only be slight hyperbole to say my life was changed that day. After having my tender mind blown by this two hour glam-punk sexed-up space-fest (mainly involving flying car chase scenes and Gary Oldman losing his cool), I came away with a few hard facts. First, Bruce Willis will always be the baddest man in the room, even in a backless tank-top. Second, orange hair and matching jockstrap are not mutually exclusive to sexiness. Third, the right man can wear a leopard print jumpsuit and still seduce. I gave Gaultier all the credit. Outlandish, impractical, and utterly provocative, his costumes spun a visual narrative that stuck in the mind better than any action sequence or nuanced dialogue. In short he proved – more decisively than any, I argue – that it’s clothes which take a individual from memorable to legendary.

So you’ve been warned – I’m a devotee upon arrival. Walking through this show a decade and a half after my formative encounter, I find myself wondering if childhood was perhaps the best time to fall for Gaultier, seeing as it’s his playful design ethos and irreverence for sartorial authority that have made his work so appealing and enduring.

It’s this youthful spirit that Sidewalk to Catwalk grabs by the throat. Arranged chronologically, its six thematic sections are a bold, episodic recount of a mature designer who, like a perpetual teenager, has continually fought tooth and nail against the grain of normative fashion.

Gaultier never studied design in an academic context. Rather, after a fervent adolescent interest in fashion, he came under the tutelage of legendary avant-garde dressmaker Pierre Cardin. The exhibition’s opening room – dubbed "The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier" – is an exploration of early motifs which were to become signature styles: Breton stripes, theatrical materials and kinky, androgynous cuts. His years as an assistant in the Cardin studio, famed for its quirky silhouettes and exquisite tailoring, are apparent in Gaultier’s own early attempts at subversion. Though crude (his solution for making the classic sailor sweater more “sexy” was simply to cut out the back) each piece retains the kind of singular vision that makes for sophistication.  His “Lascer” dress, a nautical columnar gown with a base of stretchy blue/white knit and elaborate feather appliqués on the skirt (it took 160 hours to hand sew), was worn by Princess Caroline of Monaco in 2000. It’s the sort of ultimate testament to his tireless gift for fusing the unconventional and the refined.

Gaultier has made a career of shaking up societal preconceptions of dress and of the fashion industry itself. He’s a man who states his personal work themes as “equality, diversity, and perversity”. His early catwalk shows earned attention for their use of nudity, cross-dressing and atypical models (he famously ran an ad in the classifieds that read: “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models – the conventionally pretty need not apply”). His most recent collection for Paris Fashion Week, an homage to the late Amy Winehouse, was declared by some to be “in bad taste”. But Gaultier is the sort of designer who would rather take risks – and risk causing offence – than play it safe.

Sidewalk to Catwalk embraces all of this transgression. Rooms two and three – titled "The Boudoir" and "Skin Deep" – explore a fluid vision of sexuality through exquisitely constructed corsetry for both men and women. Cone bras abound, while a talking male mannequin wearing crystal-studded dress shoes and a lace jumpsuit faces a mirror, questioning his simultaneous desire/fear to dress extravagantly.

The following "Urban Jungle" is a clash of multicultural influences, highlighting thirty years of Gaultier’s collections named for the civilization that inspired it. The Hussars Collection, The Samurai Collection, The Spain Collection, The Russia Collection, The China Collection, The Africa Collection, The Chic Rabbi Collection (no joke) – each playfully engage with well known tropes of dress (Russian furs, African masks, Japanese kimono) while subverting them with inventive materials (life-like animal skin constructed from beads, raffia placemats turned into crop-tops). Once again it’s a vertiginous, extravagant aesthetic that pulses throughout. One could call it over-the-top, if it were not so skillful. Gaultier’s expertise as a couture dress maker is undeniable. Catherine Deneuve, a longtime fan, once put it well: “He can allow himself many flights of fancy because the basic structure of the garment is always impeccable. No one comes closer to the chic modernity of Chanel and St. Laurent.”

It’s a quick stop at the full-sized moving catwalk before I round the bend to the eagerly awaited "Metropolis", the final room which explores Gaultier’s work with film directors Luc Besson and Pedro Almodovar. His costumes (and some behind-the-scenes screen tests) from The Fifth Element make their due appearance and I’m embarrassingly giddy. The child in me longs to reach out and touch. But here at the exhibition’s conclusion, amongst such a showing from such a brilliant oeuvre, the garments' status as costume becomes more ambiguous. This amalgamation of Gaultier’s brilliance proves that all dress is a form of costume; whether for the screen, for the catwalk, for the street, for life. Sidewalk to Caltwalk declares clothing an extension of the self: our sexuality, our opinions; a means to invite power, responses, revolutions, laughter. It’s this ballsy proclamation which makes Gaultier not just memorable, but legendary.

  • The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk is at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until 15 August. The show will then travel to  Fundación Mapfre — Instituto de Cultura, Madrid (26 September – 18 November, 2012), followed by Kunsthal Rotterdam, the Netherlands (9 February – 12 May, 2013)
Haute couture designs of Jean Paul Gaultier. Photo credit: Andrew Fox

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.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution