Christmas Pearls: purity and preciousness

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Medieval readers loved metaphor. The whole phenomenon of courtly love and romance poetry was built on allegory as a way of giving substance to otherwise abstract virtues like love, courage or humility. The late fourteenth century poem, Pearl, places the jewel at the centre of the narrative as the embodiment of purity and preciousness. In the poem it is used variously to signify the death of a child, immortality, celestial wisdom. The storyline concerns a bereaved father who dreams of a vision of a pearlescent maiden who comforts him with the news that his “pearl”, the infant, is among the saved with whom he can be reunited after death. By the end of the poem, the dreamer willingly commits his “pearl” to heaven and gains peace.

The poet reinforces the metaphor with a pen picture of the pearly maiden, her dress entirely covered in pearls and wearing a crown of pure white pearl. Heaven itself is likened to the pearl, where every gate is made of a single, unfading pearl. The advice of the maiden to the dreamer is that a matchless pearl can help him secure his own entrance into heaven. It’s a moving piece, written at a time when infant mortality would have been an all-too-frequent part of daily life and a reminder that even when death was so prevalent, the pain of loss needed to be assuaged with a vision of hope embedded in light and lustre.

Over 600 years later, we still hear the echoes of these allegories today in notions of modern day chivalry or the associations attached to a single strand of pearls, whether they are paired up with a prom dress, bridal gown or a leather jacket.

Apex predator

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There is something very “American Psycho” about these shoes, produced by artists, Fantich and Young, currently on display at Somerset House’s Fashioning Winter exhibition. They come from a collection that aims to subvert Darwinianism by re-introducing the super-natural into nature. “Apex Predator”  features other sinisterly beautiful items made from teeth, bone fragments and hair. There are hair suits, cut with the elegance and precision of a Hitchcock movie costume, strangely contorted masks and other objects that manage to look both familiar and alien at the same time.

The shoes are part of the “White Perspectives” display curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov, hanging in the Stamp Stairway. They sit alongside similarly conceptual pieces, including Maison Martin Margiela’s cloven toed boots, their cracked white paint altering their appearance on a daily basis; the wonderful Bea Szenfeld leopard (see Beast ); and an evening dress by Ann-Sofie Back that deconstructs the classic 1930s siren gown, originally intended to glow under film lights, now attached to the front of a long black slip.

At the opposite end of the building another form of art is displayed with the surrealist Christmas Cards sent by photographer, Angus McBean. In contrast, this time the artist has placed himself at the centre of the work, depicting himself seated amongst miniature figurines, inside other artworks, or as part of a camera. In spirit, it shares something with the Marchesa Casati’s declared aim: “I want to be a living work of art” though her rather macabre taste might have been more akin to a tooth-soled shoe.

One element that all these items have in common is their element of subversion of both articles and concepts, commonly held. It encourages us to re-assess our surroundings, question assumptions, look at things in new ways. In a world of mass-production, multi-national brands and constant pressure to consume, the discipline to stop, step back and appreciate the different is a luxury we cannot afford to overlook. It poses the question: in the twenty-first century who is the apex predator – the multinational brand or their customer?

Metamorphoses in white

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The curated collection of objects on a common theme is often used by designers and artisans for inspiration. Last winter, Hermes’s Monde d’Hermes celebrated the pleasures of winter with a series of breath-taking pictures of snow. They were taken by the Japanese photographer, Yoshihiro Hagiwara who returns to Northern Japan every winter to photograph derelict factories covered in blankets of snow. The photographs transform the subjects into astonishingly beautiful abstract plays of light and shade that seem reminiscent and ghostly but not quite recognisable.

The same kind of metamorphosis can be seen at work at Fashioning Winter’s White Perspectives exhibit, curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov. It transports us to a world in which snow leopards are made of paper, classically-inspired clothes drape with the elegance of Wedgwood and in which mother-of-pearl and even teeth sparkle unexpectedly on clothing. It considers the ways in which materials and technologies have evolved, suggesting new uses and the refreshing ways that fashion has offered new interpretations for the traditional.

At ground floor level we see a Gareth Pugh ensemble (AW 2014), at once futuristic and classically-inspired, hanging next to a Jean-Paul Gaultier white lace dress (SS 2009) which turns a historic embellishment into twenty-first century couture. The former recalls sculptural sheets of recycled plastic, the latter, a traditional wedding fabric re-interpreted.

This, most conceptual of exhibits is so stimulating, inviting the viewer to reconsider what white means to them – a visual form of word association (more to come on this). What does white suggest to you?