In connection with the travelling exhibition featuring the pioneering artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) – recently opened at Louisiana – the fashion company Acne Studios has launched a collection based on the artist’s motifs and imagery. The collection serves as a reminder that a ghost is haunting modernism: The ghost of decoration. This spectre was first conjured up towards the late 19th century when painting began to move away from figuration and perspective in favour of the pictorial qualities of the surface, including the abstract idiom. Such conjuring was done in the name of progressivity, but it came at an unexpected price: Instead of being a window opening up on other worlds the painting became a concrete object in room; an object whose ultimate function was to serve as a backdrop, as wallpaper.
Modernism has fought, but also invoked, this ghost in an ambivalent discussion of how the “wallpaper aesthetic” affects art. From the Suprematists to Bauhaus, the Constructivist movement nurtured a dream about a universal “design”, as they called it, a visuality that could, taking its point of departure in painting, be translated into all media, including clothing. Through such translations art and life would come together, meshing to form a heightened state of living where each individual and society as such would experience spiritual growth.
No such social utopianism lay behind Jackson Pollock’s decision to allow Vogue to use four of his legendary drip paintings as the backdrop of a 1951 photo shoot by Cecil Beaton featuring two models parading the spring fashion of the year. To Pollock this was a media stunt. He loved media attention and was proud of the series himself, but the glamour of fascination also blinded him to the fact that the Beaton photo shoot not only misread, but also appropriated the paintings. The “otherness” beyond the realms of bourgeois consciousness addressed in his material mythology became incorporated in the self-image of that very same bourgeoisie.
In 1986 Andy Warhol exhibited his (and his era’s) version of Pollock’s allover paintings: the series Camouflage Paintings. Back in the beginning of the 20th century the Cubist artists had been inspired by military uses of camouflage as a flat representation of a landscape, devoid of perspective, but Warhol’s source of inspiration was the urban youth culture of New York and the camouflage pattern t-shirts the young people wore. The paintings were not true to nature, but to urban life in the sense that their colours were bright and synthetic; these patterns did not offer concealment in nature, but would have their optimum impact at a party at a disco. On paintings and t-shirts alike.
Now, modernism is once again haunted by this ghost. And the Swedish clothing company Acne is the medium that conjures up the revenant. Acne belongs to the high-end echelons of the globalised Swedish fashion industry, which also includes companies such as H&M and Cheap Mondays, and this is probably why this particular company was allowed to create a “small collection inspired by the most important works of Hilma af Klint”, as the press release says. One might well imagine that H&M expressed an interest, but the Hilma af Klint Foundation has, in spite of everything, decided to limit distribution somewhat, presumably believing that this would safeguard some of the work’s integrity. You may share or question this belief according to temperament.
The collection consists of sweatshirts, t-shirts, a shirt, scarves, and tote bags. Yes, tote bags. The motifs lifted from af Klint’s paintings cover the entire garment. They do not reproduce the painting as such, but are “interpretations” in the sense that the square paintings have been deftly reshaped and sown up to fit sleeves, collars, etc.
Hilma af Klint did not want her works to go on public display until twenty years after her death; she believed the world would not be ready until then. Thirty years have passed since this “ban” was lifted, and now it appears that not just the world, but the world of fashion, too, is ready to look at her colourful spiritual explorations.
The collection seems to be aimed at the hipster segment and continues a well-established trend of graphic designs on textiles; a trend much beloved by this part of the present-day fashion establishment. But the time frame of this penchant for prints is immaterial here; the modernist painting represents a different time scale than that of fashion. Fashion changes twice a year; old collections are marked down while new products hit the shelves. By contrast, af Klint’s paintings depict a world of eternal, non-material values. Does that present a problem, a schism? The fashion world does not seem to think so; a world that excels in its frictionless treatment of (for which we may substitute: understanding of) cultural modes of expression. This is the trait that enables it to appropriate and “interpret” absolutely anything. Twice a year.
Granted, the creative director of Acne, Jonny Johansson, was probably quite genuinely fascinated with af Klimt’s paintings when he came up with the idea for the collection. What creative director would fail to be enthralled when encountering a truly innovative visual vision such as the one evident in these paintings? It is doubtful that very many of the designers at Acne could come up with something like this. However, instead of showing some humility in the face of art, acknowledging that art’s approach to images is virtually the antithesis to fashion’s view of images – where everything is signs (money) rather than visions – Johansson has chosen the position that fashion, and specifically the Acne brand, can carry out a translation from canvas to cotton. And he has persuaded the Hilma af Klint Foundation that this is the case.
Wishing to pay homage to af Klint is a laudable goal, but unlike the museums that present the paintings – such as Louisiana and Moderna Museet – Acne is not truly dedicated by presenting and conveying the ideas, the essence, on which the paintings are based and from which they cannot be separated. As such Johansson’s “interpretation” is ultimately an empty gesture. Unoriginal, grabbing, and unaware of its own limitations.
In his critique of present-day approaches to spirituality Slavoj Žižek has often raised his pen against what he terms “Western Buddhism”. One of the important aspects of his criticism is concerned with how the Western world and its vast, post-modern project of self-realisation has grown interested in Eastern philosophy such as Buddhism. Not as an alternative to Western lifestyles, mind you, but rather as a part of that lifestyle. Unlike Christianity, the Western version of Buddhism does not present a range of prohibitions that would limit each individual’s active participation in the capitalist consumer culture. Quite the contrary: it can provide a rationale for such participation. In the present situation the line of reasoning would go something like this: “I am spending more than a thousand kroner on a fashionable shirt, but it shows imagery by Hilma af Klint, so in fact I am expressing my interest in esoteric and occult spirituality. I am no fashion victim, but a spiritual, edgy person.”
Regardless of how deep such interests run, they buy into the premise that spirituality is not something radically other in relation to the logic of the material world. That there is no conflict between being a consumer and being spiritual. Or, to go even further: that the act of consumption is an inseparable, even essential part of the pursuit of spiritual values and insights. This is a mode of thought that the New Age industry has benefited from for a long time. Now the world of fashion follows in its footsteps. Can the spirit of Hilma af Klint keep up?