How does material culture investigate concepts relating to glamour and the grotesque with specific reference to Alexander McQueen and Francis Bacon

This essay will be looking at Francis Bacon’s painting ‘Fury’ (1944), which is a variant of the right panel of the triptych ‘Three studies of figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944) and at one of Alexander McQueen’s dresses from his Spring/Summer show ‘Birds’ in 2001. This essay will focus mainly on how glamour and the grotesque have been demonstrated through material culture and how we have correlated these materials or techniques with fear. This essay will look into which aspects of these images we fear and why, how the choice of technique, colour and material effect the way we interpret the work. This essay will also look at how exaggerated aspects of glamour can transform into monstrosity and the grotesque and how specific objects can change interpretation of these images. This study will also look into Freudians concepts and various research from colour to physiology, it will end by comparing and contrasting different methods and techniques Bacon and McQueen have made to represent similar and opposing concepts.

In Figure 1 ‘Fury’ by Bacon we can see a liminal body, because liminal bodies cannot be easily categorised it becomes uneasy and troubled for us as we do not understand them. Van Alphen (1992, p.11) describes Bacon’s work as …make viewing a painful experience; they render viewers speechless. Bacon had deliberately added human features on the form such as human ears and mouth with teeth so we can correspond with the monstrous form, “what I want to do is distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance” (Van Alphen, 1992, p.166). Because we would have a connection with the liminal body it would unnerve us as it evokes shape shifting and reminds us of our own malleable and fluid bodies, Van Alphen (1992, p.147) describes Bacon’s work as …one of the reasons why Bacon’s paintings do not function as frames of the body, is …the entanglement between inside and outside. The pose of the form is also unnerving as the body is unbalanced and exaggerates glamourous concept, we are often pressured to follow these concepts in society such as long thin legs, thin necks and clean unblemished skin, this when exaggerated then borderlines monstrosity.

“Glamour…yields to the necessity of embodiment yet creates the subject as constituted by light. There is human form, but one encased as if by an envelope bearing a signature, communicating or radiating light, protected against the darkness that confers its shape…an image composed of shadow and light” (Dyhouse, 2010).

We can see traces of the rib cage on the liminal body, this could be an animal or a human form but as we found earlier we know Bacon was trying to imitate a human form by using a human mouth and ears, an animal and a human form are used frequently in films such as Alien (1979) to evoke terror and fear by intertwining with each other thus creating a monstrous form which we cannot categorize, this is what builds an uncanniness to the piece, “that which does not respect borders, positions, rules…that which disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva, 1982 cited in Creed, 1993, p.8). It also plays with aspects of concealing and revealing, through glamour this is used to evoke sexual desires by using materials such as netting, in this instance it creates uneasiness and fear that the raw flesh underneath is ready to burst out creating an orifice which relates back again to our malleable bodies. Miller, William Ian (2009 p.89) describes the fear of an orifice as, …when our inside is understood as soul the orifices of the body become highly vulnerable areas that risk admitting the defiling from the outside. But when our inside is understood as vile jelly, viscous ooze, or a storage area for excrement the orifices become dangerous as points of emission of polluting matter, dangerous both to us and to others. It is very interesting to see that the skin has been painted with delicate brush strokes, this allows the rib cage to be elaborated by appearing thin and translucent thus playing with the fear of inside becoming outside, we frequently see this thin material relating to organs inside our bodies like the placenta being used often in horror films to evoke fear in the viewer, most aliens we see are covered in slime and translucent skin for instance in Alien (1979). Benithen (1999 P.10) described it as a ‘classical distinction between internal and external…traditionally marked by the skin’, this portrays how important skin is as a protective barrier.

The most fascinating aspect of this image is that this liminal body is eating flowers, flowers are often distinguished by femininity as women are seen as one with mother nature, they are often given as gifts to women as a glamourous offering, ‘…In twentieth century fashion, glamour has its clichés: glitter, fur and slinky dresses, hothouse flowers and a slash of bright red lips’ Dyhouse, C (2010). Femininity is being pressurised onto the grotesque body but by using his wide human mouth creating an orifice it rejects them through using a grotesque manner, orifices are a vital element to our bodies without them we could not live, but because of how society has categorized orifices we often keep quiet and diminish them for example, closing our mouths while we eat and holding our nose when we sneeze. Sallybrass and White (1986, p.22) made relation to this grotesque manner through a glamourous concept by stating that ‘the classical statue has no openings or orifices whereas grotesque costume and masks emphasise the gaping mouth…the grotesque body stands in opposition to the bourgeois individualist conception of the body, which finds its image and legitimisation in the classical. The grotesque body is emphasised as a mobile, split, multiple self’. It could be argued that the image is tackling the Freudian (1927) concept of castration fear, because of the correlation between the flowers and the orifices we can guess that the gender of this liminal body is female. This has been caused by the notion that the female has already been castrated, this brings an essence of misogyny as it makes the man unstable and creates the fear that this might happen to him. According to the Freudian concept Women are feared because they are a reminder to men of their insecurities to do with losing their masculinity, “probably no male human being is spared the fright of castration at the sight of a female genital” (Freud, 1927, p.154), “[My greatest sexual fear?] The vagina dentata, the vagina with teeth. A story where you were making love to a woman and it just slammed shut and cut your penis off” (Stephen King cited in Creed, 1993:105).


According to Freudians (1927) concept, to distract the male gaze from their castration fear they have developed a physiological coping mechanism which is within fetishism, in this painting we can pick out which aspects of the body has been used to deflect attention away from the notion of female genitalia, ‘While looking at a woman’s body involves a pleasure of voyeuristic control, the sight of that body threatens to reawaken castration anxieties (Freud, 1927). Mc Donald (1995 p.88) also stated that ‘as a result, popular cinema is said to fetishes the female body in order to avoid the threat of castration anxiety’. All though we fear this liminal body, there are glamourous concepts which we can relate to such as the long elongated leg, legs are often the main fetishisms which are used to deflect attention away from the genitalia. To elongate the legs, women wear heels as it helps them give curvature to their bodies, ‘Heels that could not possibly be walked in proved to be the ideal footwear for a new kind of seductress’ (Parmentier 2016 p.515). The elongated leg is also used to accentuate the breast and the bum, in this painting the chest has been exaggerated which adds to the concept of drastic glamour which creates the liminal body. The exaggerated chest interests me greatly because it depicts breasts which is another factor that suggest the gender of this form is female, breasts are a key factor of fertility which differentiates us from men, this would make men unbalanced as misogynistic men fear us because of our differences but also, men are often attracted to breast as they were used to feed when they were younger. ‘there’s only one neurological explanation, and it has to do with brain mechanisms that promote the powerful bond of a mother to her infant ‘(Christine Hsu 2012)

Through looking at concepts of monstrosity and femininity, it is interesting why Bacon chose to use the colour Orange for the background of this painting. This colour links monstrosity and glamour together well, it is a combination of the fierce and carnage of the colour red which would represents monstrosity, the calming presence of yellow which is frequently is related to femininity and in this instance could represent glamour. ‘The human eye perceives orange as the warmest colour. Orange mimics the heat of a flame and combines the vibrance yellow with the intensity of red. It represents enthusiasm, creativity and invigoration’ (Mollica, 2013, p.47). The orange is very bright which could represent the fire inside this monstrous form, but because of the way the form has been painted with straight harsh edges it seems detached and quite distanced, this translates the orange to emit warmth and comfort to the form which contrasts highly with its pale skin. ‘In an abstract work. The artist simplifies or distorts the subject. The painting maintains a tangible tie to an object or figure. In this style the artist may choose to relate colours to the subject or use colour as a distorting element’ (Mollica, 2013, P.51).

After investigating into Francis Bacon painting ‘Fury’, my main findings were that there is a definite relation between Glamour and Grotesque in his painting, the most obvious concept which we can see is the liminal body, this is the main focus of the painting as Bacon has purposely added human relations to the form for us to relate to the piece to make us uneasy. He has also added glamourous concepts such as long thin legs and made them monstrous by exaggerating them thus transforming them monstrous, his painting technique and choice of colours have supported this greatly. There are aspects of concealing and revealing which can be seen in this painting, Bacon has transformed this from a glamourous concept of sexual desire into a grotesque fear and uneasiness. Specific objects have been used such as the flowers as a symbol of femininity and glamour which contrasts with the grotesque form, he has purposely used the liminal bodies orifices to reject the flowers which then brings elements of Freudians (1927) concepts relating to castration fear, misogyny and fetishisms. Specific details in the form of the liminal body also supports Freudians (1927) theory.

The second image this essay will look at is of Alexander McQueen’s dress from his 2001 spring collection ‘Birds’. The most eye catching aspect of this dress are the birds of prey who are flying above her pulling away her silky sheer top. While looking at Bacon’s painting I mentioned how he had used concepts of concealing and revealing in relation to the grotesque, here we can see how McQueen has used concealing and revealing in relation to Glamour. Silk and sheer materials are used frequently in the fashion industry to evoke sexual desire and the concept of wealth as they are luxurious materials. ‘A simple experiment will suffice: say the words ‘silk’ to a woman and ask her what the word conjures up for her. It is likely that she will respond with words like ‘sensuality’, ’luxury’, ’glamour’. (Robert R, 2001, p.1). Silk is often used to describe a woman’s hair, we see products advertised daily telling us that we need to buy them in order for us to have smooth and silky hair, it is all most perceived as being something magical which will change our lives, in reality it would not,

‘The very word ‘silk’ has entered everyday language in such phrases as ‘smooth as silk’, ‘silken hair’. It has even gone beyond the realm of textiles, and its name is used to produce goods and services as diverse as cigarettes, shampoo, whisky and airlines. Which indicates that silk is not perceived as an ordinary fibre but one which has come to represent something almost magical.’ (Robert R, 2001, p.1).

It is very surprising to me that the models hair has been covered as hair is a big aspect of a female femininity, this could suggest that McQueen is trying to remove all aspect of femininity which has correlation to nature, the silk has been made from silk worms and the feathers have been taken from the birds, Evans C (2003, p.4) described the fashion era as ‘while becoming more vivid in its presentation, many of its themes became correspondingly darker in the 1990s. Often permeated by death, disease and dereliction, its imaginary articulated the anxieties as well as the pleasures of identity, alienation and loss against the unstable backdrop of rapid social, economic and technological change at the end of the twentieth century’, this then evolves to the thought of what will consume us after we die which could be birds and worms.

The most prominent aspect of the dress are the birds; the birds could be attacking as revenge for her due to the feathered material of her dress. To look at it through the lens of them attacking her It looks as the birds were after the flesh she is concealing under the bandage on her head, this relates back to concealing and revealing in the same style Bacon used for his painting, we want to see what is underneath but the fear of seeing blood and flesh is repelling. “fashion theorists have failed to give due recognition to the way in which dress is a fleshy practice involving the body…they disembody fashion…fashion is always reinventing the body, finding new ways of concealing and revealing body parts and thus new ways of making the body visible…fashion can tell us a lot about the body in culture” (Entwistle and Wilson, 2001:4). The birds could also be attempting to rescue her, the feathered skirt looks thick and it is placed high up her waist as if it is engulfing her, combining this thought with how the birds are pulling her shirt off it could be seen as if she might be transforming into a bird herself, bandages are also an indication of change as their purpose are to conceal and protect wounds, ‘The taxidermy eagles seem to be swooping on the feather-skirted model, either in aggressive attack or perhaps serene rescue.’ (Knox Kristin, 2010, p.30). The thought of this woman shape shifting into a bird is empowering which is something McQueen wanted women to embrace from his work, it could be argued that she is going through the same liminal process as Bacon’s liminal body in his painting ‘Fury’.

While looking at Bacon’s painting Fury we talked about how the liminal body has been exaggerated, looking into glamorous concept women are pressured to wear heels to elongate their legs and add curvature to their bodies, we can see how Bacon has played with these concepts by exaggerating the thin leg and breasts, but in the painting the heel has been concealed. If we looked at this in relation to Mcqueen’s work we can see contrasting concepts, before she was being attacked by the birds we can assume that her breasts were visible through the sheer material which plays on aspects such as concealing and revealing, it could also bring elements of empowerment which McQueen would focused strongly in his work, once the birds are starting to pick on her sheer top revealing her smooth and vulnerable skin she’s covered her breasts, this could be the trigger when her body is becoming liminal. We can still see her heels but they are starting to become hidden by the dress which starts hiding aspects of glamour, this transformation is changing from the glamourous to the grotesque.

Both of these pieces were displayed very differently, Knox Kristin (2010, p.30) describes the show as ‘where McQueen seated the audience around a giant mirrored box meant to evoke the troubled setting of a mental asylum. While some looks touched on the disturbing uniform staples of such institutions (suggestive bandaging and nurses’ wear), others, such as this dress, brought to life the hopeful visual of flying over and out of the cuckoo’s nest.’, there were clearly mixed concepts involved in McQueens shows but the most important aspect was for the audience to watch and really question the meaning of beauty. Separating the audience with a sheet of glass again played with the concept of concealing and revealing, having that physical barrier would play with the viewers’ anticipation in relation to fear as the models were behaving disturbingly, the piece of glass like skin was performing as a protective barrier. This show would have a much bigger impact on the viewer as seeing something physically performing in front of them would affect them greater than at a still piece of painting, but it could be argued that a painting would be memorable as the viewer has to depict the image from its meaning.

After investigating into one of Alexander McQueens dresses from his show ‘Birds’, one of my main findings were aspects of concealing and revealing which is prominent in Bacon’s painting ‘Fury’ as well, it is interesting to see how both artist/designer has approached this differently. McQueen has approached it through relations of glamour where an area of the body has been concealed by a material but we can still see through making it revealing, this plays with the viewer gaze through a sexual desire usually when we look through it in a glamourous concept, he also approached concealing and revealing in relation to the grotesque where we can see a material such as bandage, this suggest it would be concealing an orifices or a gory wound which plays with the viewers perspective through fear of the unknown, what intensifies this fear is that he is hidden the hair which is a big aspect of femininity. Bacon has used concealing and revealing in relation to the grotesque by using painting techniques to make skin appear translucent and revealing the bones underneath, this unnerves us as we can make a physical relation to the liminal body which increases our fears of monstrosity. McQueen’s and Bacons materials and techniques have been vital to represent their concepts, McQueen’s main materials have been sourced by animals such as worms and birds, one of the prominent features of McQueen’s image is that the birds of prey are attaching the model which could be a sign of the animals fighting back and taking what is theirs, it could also be representation of what will consume us after we die. Bacons use of colours is also interesting as it combines concept of glamour and monstrosity through the colour orange, his painting techniques using harsh lines exaggerates the liminal body by detaching it from the warm background. Looking back at both images we have talked a lot about the grotesque and the glamour but the most evident concepts of both of these cannot be seen, when we look at glamour we think of heavy make-up and sparkling jewellery and when we think of the grotesque we imagine gory blood and flesh, none of these ideology can be seen in these images but there is an underlying concept which heightens the suspense, this makes us search and look for the meaning which engages us with the pieces. The main finding of these images is that they are both going through liminal transformation, Bacon’s painting is transforming from the grotesque to the glamour and McQueen’s image is transforming from the glamour to the grotesque, the materials and techniques which have been used have helped me conclude these finding and prove that they are a vital element for concept.

In regards to my practice, I am a maker and I look at everything from a three dimensional perspective, after researching on this topic I have learnt a lot about forms and the juxtaposition of materials, as well as techniques as a way of looking alternatively at work. As I work with 3D forms daily I have a much better understanding of them compared to a painting, I feel people can connect more with a 3D objects as it is tangible which can help people build a relationship with a piece. When investigating into Francis Bacon’s work and depicting his use of techniques and his use of colour, it helped me think if I should start analysing my work from a fine arts perspective, and how this could change the appearance of a piece as I mainly focus on material and context, it would be interesting to experiment with. As my work is mainly functional items I do not come across many social issues or feel like I need to interpret them, after looking at Bacon and McQueen work they clearly are very passionate and want others to realise the problems we need to address. Bacon’s work has definitely raised my awareness of how gender is represented, I think his work tries to warn us of the consequences of brain washing women into thinking they have to follow these ideologies, we are seeing these consequences frequently now with problems such as body dysmorphia and anorexia.


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