QUÉBEC CITY, Quebec — High fashion is not generally accessible, practical, or even illuminating. We people on the pavement witness the excesses and outrages of modern shows and too often see prissy, regurgitated abstractions, silly gestures, emaciated bodies and absurd jumbles of material. Trash, vapidity, and cruelty are what we have come to expect from fashion at the edge, and we willing victims sometimes question our earnest naiveté.
Finally, however, with surprise and delight, we experience McQueen: Art Meets Fashion, the new show at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Québec City.
There is no artifice or melodrama. We learn not through pompous descriptions but by absorbing work after work at the exhibit’s easy, nonlinear pace, that British designer Lee Alexander McQueen drew from a heavy palette of traditions and cultures. The result has chops. The late McQueen’s art is like the Velveteen Rabbit: worn and reborn, mysterious and ethereal but undeniably authentic, alive, powerful, friendly, and new.
Framed pieces, objects, accessories and ephemera from other well-known artists and designers complement the fashions. In a pulsing succesion, without contrivance, Picasso’s Toreadors and other exotic visions draw us into Lee McQueen’s quiet, soaring dress-lines and horned hats.
Another sequence begins with a rough-hewn, primitive fur covering and climaxes in silk and pearl droplets, irresistibly flowing over the form as if some collection of past histories had condensed on human skin.
One chamber explodes with life, earthly and alien, cellular, primordial, morphing into astonishing gowns, jewels, headdresses. Always, despite an overwhelming mass of materials, color, and media, there is a cleanliness, simplicity and purity to the product.
McQueen’s bracing elegance seems impossibly fused from earthly, molten, cthonian conflict, yet the tempered, polished result is cool to see and feel. One pauses, wondering how fashion can feel so sharp and exciting.
In a progression of spaces and tableaux, and as the eye and feet wander, McQueen elevates women, with exclamations but without crass objectification, in textures, materials, patterns, folds, rivets and links. Somehow nothing seems unnatural. McQueen presses interwoven concepts and narratives into neat material incarnations, laying even extreme decorations with humility and sense on the body. His work helps us understand how fashion can be exhilarating, worthwhile art.
Over 225 pieces make up the collection, with nearly 70 ensembles on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There is a consistency of natural beauty and affection for humanity throughout: the work, and by extension, the show, emerges as a spontaneous act of generosity.
The layout is inviting, the spatial transitions both seamless and surprising, the work itself substantial and gripping. This is an approachable, concrete affair, yet it excites and inspires in ways that are difficult to describe.
If a great show over-delivers, and if great art stimulates our spirits without applying artificial force, McQueen: Art Meets Fashion stands as clear, refreshing evidence of greatness. The Musée des Beaux Arts and the show’s sponsor, Québec’s own SIMONS merchandisers, have given Canada something excellent.
The show closes on September 10, 2023.
Edited by Virginia Van Zandt