Leaving Fashion for Art

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It was not what I expected when I went to see the new film, A Single Man directed by fashion icon Tom Ford, but nevertheless, there I was, in a packed theater, following the story of a man about to die and being moved by it, but...only to a point. The acting was superb, and the same could be said about the lighting, the costume design, the sets – and for me such relentless striving for perfection significantly lowered the emotional impact of the movie. 

Watching this directorial debut by Mr. Ford, I found myself, strangely enough, thinking about other artists who established themselves initially in the world of Fashion – and then used it as a launching pad to a second career in the world of Fine Art. Just think about Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, the two most famous fashion photographers of the 20th century. Each built a stellar reputation with breathtakingly beautiful fashion shots and then had the passion and courage to move beyond the impossible perfection of the fashion world.

at091222a.jpgTake a look at the images accompanying today's Art Talk on the KCRW website. First, a 1950 black and white photo by Irving Penn of his wife and favorite model, the pencil-thin and excruciatingly elegant Lisa Fonssagrives. Two decades later, he shoots a still life, composed of nothing but two burned cigarette butts – definitely not beautiful objects in their own right, but a striking image nevertheless.

at091222b.jpgThe same goes for the pair of images by Richard Avedon: a famous 1950's fairy-tale shot of Dovima, his favorite model, posing with live elephants, and then a 1971 close-up of his father near the end of his life – a merciless, heartbreaking but deeply loving and ultimately beautiful portrait.

at091222c.jpgThese two great photographers had the courage and imagination to go beyond the perfection of a fantasy world to find inspiration in the deeply flawed real world we live in. I'm also thinking about Andy Warhol starting his career as a fashion illustrator and window designer for a luxury goods department store, and then making an impossible leap into the unthinkable - Campbell soup cans, car crashes, the electric chair.

at091222d.jpgReading the latest biography of Willem de Kooning, I I was astonished to learn that he made his living first in Holland and then here in the United States by painting decorative frescoes for high-end clients. Take a look at his 1940's pencil drawing - a rather traditional, realistic portrait of his wife Elaine.

I was astonished to learn that he made his living first in Holland and then here in the United States painting decorative frescoes for high-end clients. Again, take a look at his 1940's pencil drawing, a rather traditional, realistic portrait of his wife Elaine. Then, brace yourself at the sight of his terrifying, nightmarish, iconic "Woman I" in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It's as if the artist is saying, "Forget the light - that's what awaits you at the end of the tunnel."

So, sitting in the theater, I felt grateful to director Tom Ford, whose movie sent me on an unexpected journey through 20th century art and made me want to believe that he has a chance to follow the steep artistic trajectory of his illustrious predecessors in the world of high fashion and design. He has already showed his conviction by spending several years and millions of his own dollars making this film, but one crucial challenge still remains for him on the way to becoming a truly original artist, and that is having the courage to leave behind the beloved world of perfection he controls with an iron fist. He might fall on his face or he could soar high in the sky, taking us along for the ride. I definitely wish him the latter.

Banner image: A photograph taken by Richard Avedon for a Versace advertising campaign