Review of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Catwalk to Sidewalk, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Review of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Catwalk to Sidewalk, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In recent years, the National Gallery of Victoria has been criticised for shying away from traditional “art exhibitions” and instead playing fodder to the masses with its interest in so-called “blockbuster” fashion and photography shows. Given that the gallery is one of Australia’s major national galleries, many have been suspicious of the programme list for the NGV for the last few years. The new Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition may be yet another (unhappy) instance of the Gallery entertaining mainstream crossovers into the world of star politics and celebrity culture.

The Jean Paul Gaultier: From Catwalk to Sidewalk exhibition, which runs until 6 February, reconfigures the iconicity of the French designer (b. 1952) away from the Vogue catalogues and covers and into the realm of stardom. Between images of pop singer Kylie Minogue and American queen of controversy Madonna, Gaultier’s work is repositioned seemingly as an extension of the star images of these celebrities and entertainers. One only need look at the ubiquitous advertising the NGV has mounted in Australia of images of Minogue looking seductively and beguilingly at the camera as she is wrapped in one of Gaultier’s metallic gossamer creations.

To installation’s conflation of visual, literal, and star semiotics – one almost expected a Kylie Minogue song to be on loop inside the NGV – makes the experience a private red carpet cruise. The intimacy afforded to Gaultier’s most premier creations, combined with the artistic ephemera associated with the work including drawings and sketches, provides viewers with a refreshing closeness to the garments. Ostensibly, part of the pleasure of this arrangement is not only the visual splendour of the item but also the fact can be savoured that one particular garment over another was worn by a star for a Hollywood event.

The seemingly privileged intimacy of seeing a dress that Nicole Kidman strutted around a red carpet soiree evidently elevates the sacredness and originality of the item, underscoring that Gaultier’s couture are not for the bourgeoisie – they are artistic extensions of the artist and given to only the most glamorous of stars. Indeed there are times when it would seem the NGV is selling the star behind the dress rather than the aesthetic and creative energies of Gaultier’s work.

While the installation indulged in moments of discotheque finery, with New York skylines and Parisian splendour all featured during our red-carpet itinerary, one can still appreciate NGV’s efforts in relocating Gaultier into a visual and spatial discourse of stardom and fashion. Whether or not this aids the viewers is assessing the pieces – rather than simply elevating the experience to one of exclusivity and celebrity – may be contentious.

Certainly by utilising Kylie Minogue as the face of the exhibition – instead of Gaultier himself – privileges the star politics invested in the images and items of From Catwalk to Sidewalk. Surprisingly, if the exhibition was to swing from “catwalk” to “sidewalk” it does so clumsily and cobbles together a collection of rather unimpressive works of Gaultier, including a series of uninspired and insipid sketches that were perhaps best left in the artist’s filing cabinets.

The NGV’s attempt to negotiate both the artistic and creative energies of Gaultier’s creations and play to the fame of Minogue and Madonna ultimately comes across as mismanaged and firmly footed in the world of celebrity. The latter becomes the priority as the exhibition descends into more an exercise of star spotting than catwalk couture gazing.

Jean Paul Gaultier: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, until 6 February 2015, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

Nathan Smith

1. Rebellious: Gaultier’s Montmartre in French Vogue in 1991, Peter Lindbergh.