Reviews, News and Commentary

Stunning Alexander McQueen exhibition opens in Melbourne

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Alexander McQueen: Myth, Mythos, Muse 

 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

December 11 – April 14.

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

This year’s summer blockbuster at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is “Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse”  showcasing the work of the extraordinarily talented Alexander McQueen who died by suicide at the age of 40.

It is a stunning exhibition displaying 120 designs along with with 80 additional  paintings, sculptures, drawings and textiles which help contextualise his work It’s a show which provides insights into the creative thinking of one of the great designers of the twenty-first century.

With many fashion designers and collections one can see their creations building on previous designers, dress silhouettes and other fashion trends. McQueen in contrast always wanted to create narratives and explore ideas around historical  events and concepts. He understood that all art and cultures feeds of other.

He is also a visual artist, continually drawing on other visual material. He apparently went to the Victoria and Albert Museum couple of times  a week to look at the costume displays but he would have also seen all the other material in the museum  as well as paintings from the great London collections.  All of this fed into his imagination.


One of collection, “Eye” of 2000 was inspired by Turkish music and the greater Islamic community of London. The collection merges Western fashion with McQueen’s interpretation of Middle Eastern clothing referring to cultural religious dress, belly dancing costumes and soccer uniforms. McQueen conflating the a huge area and diverse populations of the Middle East into a few designs.

On display with one of the works from that show is  a Turkish liturgical veil, a wedding headdress from Palestine adorned with Turkish coins as well as Hapsburg coins depicting Maria Theresa. There is also a portrait by Jean Baptiste Greuze of woman in Turkish dress from 1790 a  time of exoticism in French painting. This small display demonstrates his varied sources of inspiration.

In another display McQueen’s “houndstooth design“ is linked with the artworks of  M C Escher whose designs he used in several creations.

His 2006 collection “Neptune” took inspiration from the Roman god of water and borrowed images of the deity, soldiers, gladiators, marble sculptures and classical architecture. He used these neo-classical images in the presentation along with a soundtrack  including Suzi Quatro, Aretha Franklin and Missy Elliott.

In “Widows of Culloden”, he drew inspiration from his own Scottish heritage and several of the creations used the McQueen tartan. The collection referenced the Battle of Culloden where the English defeated a Scots army which was also the last stand of Bonney Prince Charlie. The aftermath of the battle lead to privation of the Scots. The show also referred back to his previous Highland Rape collection.

His posthumous “Angels and Demons” collection of 2010–11, referenced Christian iconography from the Byzantine Empire as well as the northern and Italian Renaissance. With these works he created a poetic, medieval beauty that dealt with religious iconography using fabric that translated digital photographs of paintings such as Hieronymus  Bosch’s images of  demons.

The Great Depression dance marathon portrayed in the 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? inspired McQueen’s “Deliverance” which poses the danse macabre as a metaphor for working in fashion. A ‘raven cape’ embodies the film’s sense of foreboding: ravens, like other birds of prey, traditionally represent death. In “Deliverance” even wristwatch-strap sandals, marking McQueen’s 1969 birth year, are a form of memento mori.

There is a lot of ambiguity around  the impulses which drove McQueen’s approach to women and his designs. He can seem to be  misogynistic or trying to empower women. At times he is making real social statements and at others he indulges in  fairy tales.

With all his designs there is a sexual element. McQueen is quoted as  saying “I think there has to be an underlying sexuality. There has to be a perverseness to the clothes. There is a hidden agenda in the fragility of romance. I am not big on women looking naive. There has to be a sinister aspect, whether it’s melancholy or sadomasochist. I think everyone has a deep sexuality, and sometimes it’s good to use a little of it-and sometimes a lot of it like a masquerade”.

As  well as the designs om show throughout the galleries there are videos of previous shows and filmed interview of the McQueen. One of the videos shows the  closing moments of Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1999 show where supermodel Shalom Harlow stands alone, rotating like a ballerina on a platform while two robots encircled her spraying her white dress in an acidic yellow and black paint.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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