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By Matthew Robinson
When I stumbled upon the Saatchi gallery exhibition ‘photography, out of focus,’ there seemed to be something so apt for the modern world of fashion. Photographers, who had purposefully etched out and distorted the faces of their subjects to create faceless art to make the viewer question from where our beauty and identity arises.
The fashion industry is still one obsessed with physical beauty, and for what reason? If fashion really is art, then should we not be solely focussing on the clothes themselves? Or if fashion is deemed as living art, then can we really argue that a beautiful face constitutes living art?
It is true that high fashion presents an illusion, a surreal presentation of human existence and what we should wear, and in this respect we should discount journalists who berate the fashion world for presenting an unreal and unobtainable norm for the public, because fashion never presents itself as a reality, but rather a form of escapism, an intangible fantasy. Nevertheless, the unobtainable fantasy should not necessarily be associated with facial beauty.
Equally, art itself is not a promotion of a preordained and constructed notion of beauty, and in fact the most poignant art is often rooted in ugliness and bitterness. The most prolific artwork has often been seen to feature distorted faces; from Van Gogh’s self-portrait depicting him with a missing ear (selling for an extortionate $90million) to German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo,’ displaying beauty and energy resonating from the statue’s body, rather than his decapitated face. In fact, the word ‘beauty’ takes on a significantly different meaning in the world of art; it is not something deemed to be perfect or polished, but rather something sentimental and poignant. It makes you wonder why such emphasis is therefore placed on facial beauty in the world of fashion.
The photographer and artist John Stezaker produces photographic collages creating surrealist connections between seemingly incongruous images. His elegant juxtapositions between cut out images distorts the original message and conveys his own specific, often humorous meaning. In his series looking at Hollywood icons, he overlapped numerous famous stars creating ‘hybrid icons,’ along with overlapping the faces of men and women creating joint identities. A certain disjointed harmony is created in Stezaker’s work, where the irreconciliation of the juxtaposing halves detracts from the overall message. His disjointed images depict personalities as empty and vacant, perhaps even rendered void through the evident lack of clear focus. Through the distortion of his subjects, he questions our focus on the portrait and the importance we place on the face.
In the headless art of Mohau Modisakeng, the viewer quickly ignores the absence of the face and seeks the beauty from elsewhere. The energy and focus of the image is detracted from the face, and is re-centred in the body, and thus the dialogue of the image has undergone a significant change. The subject is consequently judged not purely on their facial features but on their physique and their clothes. Were fashion photographers to adopt similar photographic techniques, the fashion industry could quell claims that it focuses too strongly on superficial beauty, rather than on the clothes themselves. You could argue that the distinctive and often predictable facial features of fashion models present a constructed view of beauty, whereas faceless photography would give us free reign over what we deem beautiful. The soft features of the Pre-Raphaelites may still have been preferable over angular bone structure.
Yet fashion does not necessarily present a notion of beauty, but rather something striking; a subtle but important difference. Fashion muses are not exclusively beautiful by any means, and in fact Hedi Slimane’s wave of awkward, weak and unhealthy models presented fashion in a typically ugly light, yet no less striking. The common view that fashion merely presents a preordained idea of ‘beauty’ is therefore false, yet we cannot deny that a focus on the model themselves detracts from the notion of fashion as art.