Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Fantastic in the Fine Arts: "Joan"

Fashion designer Alexander McQueen's work was recently the subject of a glorious exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled Savage Beauty. Elements of the fantastic ranging from the sublime to the grotesque can be found throughout his work, and many of his collections were directly inspired by works of the fantastic. It's Only a Game (spring/ summer 2005) was inspired by the wizard chess scene in the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Eshu (autumn/ winter 2000-01) was inspired by the trickster god of the same name. McQueen also showed collections inspired by Dante, and by angels and demons.

This column focuses on a specific dress from McQueen's autumn/ winter 1998-99 collection, Joan, inspired by Joan of Arc. It is the final dress in the collection, a vivid reminder that it was a young French peasant named Jehanne, not Katniss Everdeen, who was the original girl on fire.

Joan of Arc's life reads like the plot of an epic fantasy novel. A teenage girl from the middle of nowhere who becomes the savior of a nation at war, raises the Siege of Orléans, and oversees the crowning of the Dauphin. She even had a miraculous sword, pulled from beneath the stones of the altar of Ste. Catherine de Fierbois. Then, captured by the English and abandoned by the French, Joan was put on trial as a heretic. Found guilty of the heresy of cross-dressing, on 30 May 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. She was nineteen years old.

McQueen's Joan collection is full of references to the history of Joan of Arc. There are pieces made from chain mail, and jackets tailored with military lines and precision. But it is the final dress - made entirely of red bugle beads - that truly calls to mind the Jehannine mythology.

Because while Joan's life was documented in incredible detail (up until the mid-nineteenth century, she was the most documented person who had lived), one tremendous and unanswerable secret remains: the truth of her voices. Implicated in the truth of her voices is the truth of her achievements - how could an uneducated peasant girl become a gifted political and military strategist? Or an articulate and literate advocate for herself in court? Though theories ranging from acceptance of Joan's own assertion of divine aid to severe mental illness have been put forth, it is a thing impossible to know.

Because of this crack in the known places of Joan's life, in combination with the extraordinary things she achieved, she has become a powerful symbol to many people. As with many symbols, the truth of the life behind it gets lost, becomes unimportant. McQueen's dress - the red of blood, the red of fire, the red of martyrdom - is designed to cover over the face of the woman wearing it. No longer a person, just a symbol. And at the end, one surrounded in flame.