Should Jean Paul Gaultier be showing at the De Young Museum in San Francisco?
If you thought of Jean Paul Gaultier as a French couturier who designs clothes, think again. Yes it is confusing I’ll admit it. Is it fashion, costume design or art? It’s all of the above and more! You seem so sure of yourself Noa, how is it exactly art? You might say. Well, I am certain that Gaultier’s work is art as he is clearly a sculptor. He sculpts in the non-traditional medium of fabric (not too far off, in my mind, from Soft Sculpture) and produces (unlike Soft Sculpture) wearable pieces of art that redefine society’s relationship with fashion. Moreover, Gaultier’s Haute Couture is self-expressive and explores and reinterprets traditional themes in art. Here’s how:
Gaultier created a body of work that is fundamentally a self-expressive translation of the era and culture in which he lives and works. Gaultier’s Prêt-à-Porter commercial line, in case you were wondering, is designed to sell wearable, more affordable fashion to the masses. Prêt-à-Porter is the real moneymaker that greases the wheels of Gaultier’s fashion empire along with his perfume and accessory lines. Unfortunately, artistic statements about the state of society do not sell very well, so in truth, the Prêt-à-Porter lines are really just a watered-down version of his Haute Couture collections. However, the Haute Couture collection that Gaultier is showing at the De Young is largely composed of non-commercial and un-wearable pieces, unless you are a non-conformist avant-garde fashion rebel yourself. Gaultier says of himself “It’s not my aim to be provocative. I just try to reflect what I see and feel around me.” Haute Couture is where Gaultier can freely express the artist that he is through his chosen medium - fashion and costume design. Choices of fabric, of color, of silhouettes and of themes reflect his sense of aesthetics and his open-minded vision of society - where anything goes; erasing cultural and gender boundaries by creating pieces that are both hyper-sexualized and transgendered and that celebrate alternative lifestyles.
Gaultier explores traditional themes in art and reinterprets them.
Surprise, surprise! In some ways this “enfant terrible” is quite traditional. Two of the recurring themes that dominate Gaultier’s work are “The Torso” and “The Madonna”.
The human Torso is an artistic subject matter that has been around since prehistoric times (The Venus Figurines) and has appeared in Ancient Egypt (The Royal Torso), in Ancient India (The Sanchi Torso), in Greek sculpture (The Belvedere Torso) through Rodin’s expressive work (Torso: A Study for Ariane without Arms) and all the way to contemporary art as reflected in the riveting work of Louise Bourgeois (Torso: Self-Portrait). Gaultier’s approach to the human torso is unlike any other - treating the male torso to a pink satin corset and the female torso to aggressive bondage-wear. Gaultier also has a collection of perfumes that are modeled after the male and female torsos. It seems to me, that as long as human-beings posses a torso, they will continue to create artworks that glorify it.
For over a thousand years from Byzantine times through the medieval period to the early Renaissance, the Madonna was the most popular subject of art. Many artworks depicting the Madonna have achieved fame, such as Botticelli's “Madonna and five angels” and Raphael's “Madonna del Granduca”. Gultier’s fascination with the Madonna produced incredible ensembles and photographic work and has added his name to a long list of renowned artists in the history of art that have dedicated their work to the Madonna. Such artists as Duccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, Salvador Dali and Henry Moore. Gaultier has done it his way, on his terms and the result is breathtaking.
Ok, now that I’ve said my piece, I’ll also share with you that the exhibit itself of 140 Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Porter designs is fantastic! I won’t ruin it for you by describing the “deus ex machina” ploy that the exhibit designer used. I will however take off my virtual hat to him or her and say that it was worth every dollar. Do youself a huge favor - go see it!!!