For the past month, the art museum at my university has been host to an exhibition of extraordinary beauty, fascinating experimentation, and craft technique of a skill that I thought was no longer found in the contemporary world. It was one of those extremely rare and sometimes rather confronting exhibitions where one finds oneself face-to-face with works of real creative genius and where one begins to get an understanding of what is really meant by ‘mastery’.
But……….there was, a ‘But’.
The exhibition was confronting, not only because of the distance between its works of genius and the works of our own, but because of its media. This was a retrospective exhibition of fur garments created by Karl Lagerfeld for the Italian design-house Fendi – ‘24 pieces that made fashion history’ – with a particular focus on the artisan tailoring techniques by which animal pelts are transformed into coats. But, how do, or how can, we appreciate such works?
Most people, I think, feel a level of disquiet at the very least about the use of animal furs in fashion. It is considered, I think, to be ‘a bad thing’ although it’s not clear quite why it’s thought worse to breed and slaughter animals for their beauty than to breed and slaughter animals for their taste.
Our concern seems to be selective. Designers covet the Le Corbusier / Charlotte Perriand designed LC1 ‘Sling’ Chair and the LC4 Chaise Longue, both often upholstered in pony. We appreciate the use of gems in fashion, and in industrial and medical equipment although we know some may be ‘blood diamonds’ mined in war-ravaged third-world countries to finance weapons and mercenaries. We know that the gold in our teeth, the ‘designer’ T-shirt on our back and the smart-phone in our pocket may all have been produced in very ethically-questionable conditions by the economic exploitation of cheap labour in distant lands. As the recent collapse of the Dhaka sweat-shop building drew to our almost-certainly short-lived attention, the production of our everyday lifestyle accessories may exact a brutal cost on the lives and lifestyles of others, but we choose to take the risk.
On the day of my first visit to the Fendi exhibition, that morning’s architecture web-news reported a dialogue between the architects Peter Eisenman, author of the Berlin ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, and Leon Krier, author of a recently re-published book on Albert Speer – Hitler’s architect of choice who subsequently served a 20-year prison sentence for war crimes. At issue in the discussion and related lecture was whether it is permissible to find beauty in an architecture that sought to promote and legitimize the abhorrent Nazi regime. Eisenman can: “I’m very fond of the Reich Chancellery. I think it’s a fabulous plan.” “Can a war criminal be a great artist?” asks Krier, “my answer is undeniably yes”. Speer’s work he argues, “hurts moral feelings and confuses judgment,” but it has, he says, a “seductive beauty”. Of the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds which Eisenman describes as an “extraordinary—no question—extraordinary place”, Krier suggests, “Take off the swastikas, and you can admire it without feeling guilty.” If we have selective vision or selective knowledge, he implies the ethical dilemma of our appreciation is manageable.
Nobody, not even the Fendi staff would suggest that procuring fur is not a nasty business. But, so too (if one remembers how the raw materials are produced) is procuring a breakfast plate of eggs and bacon. Only by not thinking of where it came from can we find it ethically palatable.
For those people open to the idea of fur in fashion, the Fendi exhibits were staggering examples of invention, with experimental study-boards trialing innumerable different ways of cutting, of stitching, of mixing and layering furs, of interweaving furs with fabrics, of dyeing and silk-screen printing onto fur, and even (…these fur coats, after all, are not aimed at the mass-market…) the coating of separate fur strands with pure gold. The art is in the composition of these diverse, complex colours and textures into works of coherence and uniqueness, and even of purity. It is an ‘Art Autre’ – the title of the exhibition – ‘Another Type of Art’.
The purity of the garment forms, though, was sometimes undermined by insensitivity of concept. The name of the 1979 coat ‘Noah’s Ark’ (mink, fox and mongolian, weasel and persian furs) begged the grim question of whether these animals were sewn together two-by-two. And, the 1983 coat, named ‘Ravioli’ –decorated with “stuffed mole fur triangles to recall the shape of the famous Italian stuffed pasta” – was offensive because these words were trivializing. Always underlaying the often extreme beauty of these coats was the unavoidable knowledge that they originated in death – as do the acclaimed, more orthodox types of artwork by Damien Hirst – which must involve the animal protagonists in no-less trauma than do the fur works.
Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided, now honoured by enshrinement in the permanent collection of London’s Tate Gallery, is described by its curators thus: “four glass-walled tanks containing the two halves of a cow and calf, each bisected and preserved in formaldehyde solution. The tanks are installed in pairs, the two halves of the calf in front of the two halves of the mother, with sufficient space between each pair that a visitor may walk between them and view the animals’ insides…In its reference to a mother and child, Mother and Child Divided subverts one of the oldest icons of Western Christian art – the portrait of the Holy Mother and Child traditionally the centrepiece of Catholic devotion.” Or, as Hirst, himself, put it, “What do you do if an animal is symmetrical? You cut it in half, and you can see what’s on the inside and outside simultaneously. It’s beautiful. The only problem is that it’s dead”.