There is no doubt: women are drawn to dangerous men, to men of great talent, to men in whom storms brew, drama rises, fires burn. There is great appeal in genius, in the creative artist who sees beyond the conventional blinkers most of us wear as we get through our ordinary days. There is a magnetic energy that surrounds the head of a truly creative man much the way a halo might encircle the face of a saint.
Women rush to become the muse of a man who promises a rocket trip to the stars. This was true of Alexander McQueen, who attracted more muses than almost any other designer. His clothes were, in some ways, as much poems about death as hymns to female grace. From the late Isabella Blow to Daphne Guinness, Kate Moss and Annabelle Neilson, these muses stood by his side, resplendent in designs that evoked the erotic fantasies of pain begetting pleasure and pleasure begetting pain. For McQueen’s clothes were transgressive, perverse secrets exposed. They hint, not so subtly, at the wild connection between beast and beauty, caught together in a vicious dance. There is the dress from the Highland Rape collection, for example, green and torn, lace and leaf. There is Widows of Culloden and a pale cream silk dress topped with antlers, so the model becomes a half-human, half-ghostly apparition. There is a corset made from aluminium bands that bind a woman and strip her of all her gender’s classic tenderness. There are dresses that turn the wearer into a bird of prey with black feathers, and blood red dresses that speak of a devouring hunger. And they are all about to go on display in an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Entitled Savage Beauty, the show celebrates the work of the designer who killed himself last year aged 40, leaving the women who inspired his designs to mourn his loss. Both the clothes and his muses will be on view at the show’s Monday opening and, in their juxtaposition, we can see the romance and the tragedy of a doomed but perennial relationship: the artist and his muse.
I cannot, of course, presume to know the minds and emotions of Guinness et al but I do speak from experience. My first love was a brilliant playwright whose gift became drowned in drink and, though we finally parted, old wounds still ache on certain days.
As a culture, we value art. We are curious about artists’ lives and we are fascinated (I was fascinated) when we hear how some of them ride into the night. We like hearing of their sexual affairs, their inner chaos, their fates, which are rarely good and sometimes tragic. So we can certainly understand why some women seek the excitement, the drugs of fame and attention that accompany these mad artists. But it is a damaging role, as I well know.
Because women who choose to follow these artists, be they musicians, painters, writers, or fashion designers, choose to make themselves secondary; they become decoration for the artist at hand. They are often willing to sublimate their own talents, their own visions, to serve as saviours for the men at the centre of their emotional turmoil. Women pulled towards mad artists can be as fragile as snowflakes, as dark of spirit as trolls, and as frightened of the real world, and their own minds, as is the male creator himself. Yet these women have gifts too. They are original and sparkling and fascinate the rest of us in the blaze of their lives. There is excitement and even courage, in the strange humiliation of being worshipped for one’s ability to serve as mirror, nurse, inspiration and escort for the artist. Yes, it is not boring or wearing on the spirit in the way ordinary life, with its babies waking at 3am and its petty repetitions, may be. But it is a role that reminds me of Peter Pan flying off to Never Never Land while others are growing fatter, more reliable, with fewer dreams and more banal choices. Wendy goes home; Peter Pan, her alter ego, cannot, and parties on alone.
We marvel at the story the two, muse and artist, can create together. We admire the clothes that hang in a museum and once were worn – that will be worn – by some warm bodies. But here is what I hope: that in the glory of the institution we do not forget the hard truths and less than easy lives that have dreamed them into existence. It is a crooked heart that mixes beauty and pain in almost equal measure.
‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 4-July 31; www.metmuseum.org
Anne Roiphe is author of ‘Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason’ (Nan A Talese)