JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield
Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure may seem a rather conservative choice for edgy young fashion designer Jonathan Anderson to use as the opening exhibit in this show he has curated. Moore’s carved wooden sculpture of an abstract human body is so familiar to us now that it seems about as shocking as a comfort blanket. However, if you imagine yourself looking at the same piece when it was made back in 1936, this faceless, genderless, twisted bunch of limbs suddenly becomes something more disturbing. Now it makes perfect sense as the framing device for Anderson’s exploration of how the human body has been represented and reshaped in 20th and 21st-century art and fashion.
Anderson is the first guest curator in The Hepworth’s new series of exhibitions in which figures from outside the visual arts are invited to respond to the gallery’s collection. The 32-year-old, who established his JW Anderson label in 2008, has become known for clothes that blur gender boundaries and challenge conventional notions of beauty.
Like Alexander McQueen before him, his desire to find new forms for fashion has led Anderson to mine art and design history in search of inspiration. Here, he has selected over 100 works to tell the story of how the image of the body has changed, mixing his own designs among them. About half the exhibits are graceful essays in pure form, with little reference to anything beyond themselves. These include several of Barbara Hepworth’s smooth, organic marble carvings, delicate vessels by Lucie Rie, Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig-Zag Chair, Issey Miyake dresses and Cerith Wyn Evans’s minimalist neon light sculptures. There’s no questioning the beauty of these works, but in the context of a show titled Disobedient Bodies they seem to represent the well behaved, ordered body which Modernism inherited from the classical tradition. The exhibition design, a series of crisply curtained cubicles and elegant white tables by 6a Architects, is equally restrained.
A more provocative and troubling seam of art history is represented by the other half of the works on show. These are the disobedient bodies of the title, which here are most overtly manifested in the strange, monstrous forms by Louise Bourgeois and the dismembered dolls of Hans Bellmer. Bourgeois’s Untitled (1998) is a particularly unsettling headless female torso, while Bellmer’s La demi-poupée doll of 1972 is a single-breasted, eyeless mannequin that resembles a prop from a horror film. Works by Sarah Lucas and Dorothea Tanning also come under this category.
Where the show is at its strongest is in illustrating how this darker side of modern art history has been assimilated by fashion designers and expressed in their clothes. Among the most misshapen pieces on display are those by Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo, whose padded garments from 1997 are designed to distort the human shape into something neither male, female or human, but completely other. Helmut Lang’s harnesses and bondage-wear allude to the body’s erotic potential, while Anderson’s own designs subvert conventional expectations of what constitute appropriate clothes for men. His Ruffle shorts (A/W 2013/14), with their feminine frills, are a good example.
Fashion editors and collectors love to gush over the arty references and extreme form of such designs, and this opportunity to see them close up confirms the technical mastery and vision that goes into every piece. But there remains a fascinating contradiction that fashion-meets-art shows like this often expose, but rarely resolve.
Anderson, in a re-run of McQueen’s career, has shot to the top of the industry by making clothes that are anti-fashion. By referencing artworks like Bellmer’s dolls, which were made to challenge Nazi ideas of physical perfection, and Bourgeois’s monstrous forms, which are representations of the emotional abuse suffered by women, his clothes – just like McQueen’s – are channelling howls of rage. It certainly makes them interesting as exhibits, but you wonder if the luxury conglomerates who fund them (Anderson has backing from LVMH), and the bright young things who wear them, really dig the darkness or have any idea it’s there at all.
Disobediant Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield, WF1 5AW is open until 18 June
Marcus Field is a freelance writer