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NGV's The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier unworthy of a great art museum


NGV's The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier unworthy of a great art museum

There are fashion designers such as the enigmatic Martin Margiela who refuse to be photographed or to give interviews. Then there is Jean Paul Gaultier, the only designer to have hosted a weekly TV program, presented the MTV Europe Music Awards, and recorded a house music hit song called Aow Tou Dou Zat.

Like Andy Warhol, whose recipe for success was "Go to all the parties", Gaultier has always pursued self-promotion as the surest form of brand promotion. As trademarks his peroxide close-crop and striped jersey are almost as recognisable as Warhol's silvery wig.

It sounds calculated but in both his designs and his personality Gaultier acts as a free spirit. He has an anything-goes ethos that allows him to roam freely across different ages and ethnicities when searching for inspiration. He is genuinely inclusive, being known for his practice of putting models of all ages, races, shapes and sizes onto the catwalk.

Gaultier's approach to fashion values creative freedom and fun. Even his outrageous French accent is used to disarming effect. He sounds like a character invented by Hanna-Barbera, and probably wouldn't have it any other way. He has been described so many times as an enfant terrible he must shudder when he hears the term nowadays, especially since he turned 60.

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I knew all this before I entered the show, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, at the National Gallery of Victoria. I knew it, but was quite unprepared for the visceral shock of the presentation. The display is so over-the-top I thought I was hallucinating. It was like watching the Apocalypse designed by Ken Russell, or perhaps Baz Luhrmann.

The fact that this lurid spectacle is proving popular with audiences is good news for the NGV's coffers but disturbing in terms of what it says about our cultural predilections. Will the audiences that have flocked to Gaultier come back for a show of Old Master paintings or Chinese artefacts? Conversely, will the NGV be obliged to keep hosting pop culture extravaganzas to keep up the good numbers?

I'm emphatically not a cultural snob who believes fashion has no place in the temples of high art, but Gaultier's unbridled invention leaves one longing for another Sol LeWitt survey.

It's partly to do with the riotous manner of staging this show, partly the all-pervasive cult of celebrity that envelops the event. The exhibition, now in its ninth incarnation as part of a world tour, comes with a small, home-made catalogue that includes an "essay" which is more of a shopping guide telling you where to buy Gaultier in Australia; and a series of utterly banal chapters on the designer's Australian "muses": Kylie Minogue, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman; and models, Gemma Ward, Andreja Pejic, Catherine McNeil and Alexandra Agoston.

The only interviewee of any interest is Pejic, who has enjoyed a unique career as a transgendered fashion model. The other "muses" simply tell us what a jolly fellow Gaultier is, while he tells us how much he loves them.

The trouble with this sort of magazine-style fairy floss is that it is unworthy of a great art museum. The world's leading art institutions have justified their growing taste for fashion exhibitions with the conviction that fashion must be taken seriously as an innovative artform, social artefact and conveyer of ideas. Take a scholarly approach to Yves Saint Laurent, Issey Miyake, or even Alexander McQueen, and it's surprising what emerges.

It's possible that Gaultier could sustain this kind of attention. Merely to investigate and catalogue his sources of inspiration would be a task to keep a fashion historian busy for months. He might be analysed in terms of the musical subcultures his outfits reflect; or the pop stars he has clothed, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson. He has also designed costumes for films by Pedro Almodovar, Peter Greenaway, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Luc Besson.

None of this is explored in the embarrassing little "muses" catalogue, and so an opportunity is lost to make sense of the sprawling frenzy of the exhibition. If the fashion show offers the art museum a window onto a popular audience, the art museum confers artistic and intellectual credibility on the couturier. Or at least it should.

The dreariness of our celebrity culture – virtually a contradiction-in-terms – should not be celebrated at the NGV. Imagine if a well-known artist's retrospective catalogue was solely devoted to testimonials saying what a great guy he was.

While one may be famous without being completely vapid the condition of "celebrity" turns everyone into an image, whether we are talking about Kim Kardashian or Stephen Hawking. It would have been best to focus on Gaultier the designer, rather than Jean Paul the international party boy.

Being famous may be the result of Gaultier's imagination and hard work, but it is not an end in itself. Stardom today is cheaply won and easily lost. We make a fetish of those who are rich or glamorous without considering what talent and application it takes to achieve that state. It's as if being in the social pages were a gift of God.

Because couturiers have been turning up in art museums with ever-greater frequency since the 1980s there has been much thought devoted to the problem of how to make an engaging display from a collection of inanimate garments. It could be argued that fashion only comes alive when it is attached to a living body. An abundance of mannequins soon grows monotonous, no matter how extreme the clothes.

Exhibition designers have included elaborate lighting schemes, theatrical sets, soundtracks, and numerous videos of catwalk events to offset the static nature of the fashion display. The Gaultier show has every trick in the book, including hologrammed faces projected on the mannequins, making them look as if they were alive. It has the effect of turning the show into one monstrous distraction. By the end my senses had been thoroughly monstered, but I could hardly remember what I'd been looking at.

It may be a fair reflection of the untrammelled nature of Gaultier's fantasy, which may draw on fetish and bondage gear, the hats and forelocks of Hasidic Jews, the veins and organs of the human body, the street style of the Punks, the body ornamentation of African tribes, or the layered animal pelts of Arctic dwellers.

On the way he channels the Surrealist games of Schiaparelli, the Grecian gowns of Madame Gres, and the metallic futurism of Paco Rabanne or Andre Courrèges. In truth, no designer is safe from his borrowings and pastiches. Everything is pulled together with infectious energy and more than a hint of comedy.

The pieces for which Gaultier is best known are strongly satirical, notably the over-sized pointy tipped bra that looks as if it might take out the eye of anyone ogling the cleavage. When Gaultier put his male models in skirts, in his 1985 collection, And God Created Man, it was not simply an exercise in blurring gender distinctions but an assault on the dubious superiority of those who "wear the pants". It was also a way of undermining the perennially safe and conservative nature of men's fashion, which has hardly moved on since the invention of the suit.

For all his iconoclasm what we see in this show is a mere fragment of Gaultier's business empire, which extends into perfumes, accessories, children's wear, and even furniture. The excesses of the catwalk may help establish a couturier's reputation, but the money flows from pret-a-porter lines, fragrances, and licensing a brand name to a variety of low cost products. This is how Yves Saint-Laurent became a multi-million dollar company, and it's almost certainly the case with Gaultier.

There is, however, a large element of Peter Pan in Gaultier. He is still the little boy we see in the old photographs with his fashion-loving grandmere, who allowed him to make a pointy bra for his teddy bear. He has no desire to grow up and enter the boring world of adults. His chosen profession has allowed him to make that refusal into a way of life.

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