“To creativity!” said Jonathan Anderson in his toast at the dinner to celebrate his thoughtful, fascinating exhibition “Disobedient Bodies” at the Hepworth Wakefield. The museum, a masterwork created by architect David Chipperfield between 2003 and 2011 and dramatically situated to rise from the River Calder, is dedicated to the work of Barbara Hepworth, the great British sculptor who was born and raised in this Yorkshire town, once celebrated for its textiles, and later a center of Yorkshire’s coal-mining industry.
In his speech, Anderson recalled how he had experienced an epiphany in 2006 at the exhibition dedicated to the fabled wardrobe of the idiosyncratic fashion editor and muse Anna Piaggi at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum—a moment when he realized that clothing could be an artistic expression and “achieve sculptural forms,” and that this was a world he wanted to be a part of. He noted that he would consider his mission a success if his own exhibition “inspires even two young people as that one inspired me.”
Anderson has long admired Hepworth’s work—much of it drawn from the wild beauty of the Yorkshire landscape with its mountains and bleak moors—and said as much in a television interview. The Wakefield’s dynamic, young chief curator, Andrew Bonacina, had set a Google alert for mention of Hepworth, and when Anderson’s interview popped up on it, he decided to approach him as he was looking for ways to integrate other creative disciplines into his exhibition program. Anderson was subsequently invited to respond to the modern British art in the collection, and chose to look at the early work of Hepworth and her friend Henry Moore.
Sensitive to the museum’s mission, Anderson decided to corral a mightily impressive selection of sculptures, art, and fashion together in provocative dialogues to illustrate “the way that the body has been challenged” and the sculptural possibilities of dress. An early juxtaposition sees Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, 1936, surrounded by images from The Thinleys, an ongoing photography series that Anderson has worked on with Jamie Hawkesworth that explores different textiles that the designer has experimented with. In an adjoining room, Jean Paul Gaultier’s Cone dress of 1983–84, an early, more sculptural iteration of the famous conical bra worn by Madonna, is presented on a table surface, padded out to its pneumatic dimensions, as an echo and a response to the Moore piece, isolated from its original purpose as a garment intended to evoke amusement and desire.
For the intriguing installation, 6a Architects created a series of “rooms” and spaces using curtains of deadstock fabric from the J.W. Anderson archives. “Each of these rooms is like an individual character at a cocktail party,” says Anderson, “speaking to each other.”
Pieces from Rei Kawakubo’s 2012 two-dimensional collection are placed with Naum Gabo’s giant Head No. 2, 1972, for instance, while in another space, hung with celestial ivory fabric, Issey Miyake’s pleated dresses hang alongside Isamu Noguchi’s iconic paper lanterns, which the dresses so closely resemble. Anderson also considers “the reduction of form” in a room that places Alberto Giacometti’s Standing Woman, 1958–59 with Helmut Lang’s harnesses. The designer spent two years working on the exhibition; pieces like those proved elusive, as did a longed-for dress from Yves Saint Laurent’s 1969 haute couture collection that featured chiffon evening dresses anchored with bronze elements cast from the body by the sculptor Claude Lalanne. With the help of Pierre Bergé, he tracked one down to a visionary woman who had ordered the midriff version from Saint Laurent’s swan-song retrospective collection, shown in 2002, when favored clients were allowed to commission re-editions of archive pieces they might have missed through the years.
The designer’s own work reveals his experimental, deeply artistic approach to creating clothing, as in his black silk neoprene menswear pieces from 2014 juxtaposed with Sara Flynn’s black porcelain vessels. Serious though this exhibition is, Anderson clearly wants the visitor’s experience to be a playful as well as a thoughtful one. In one room, for instance, sweaters that he has designed for both Loewe and his own line hang from floor to ceiling, creating a knitwear forest that invites you to walk through and experience its textures. A 1950s Madame Gres dress, all liquid pleats in white and lilac jersey, was found in a private wardrobe, still owned by the woman who had ordered it. Anderson wanted to include “a garment that has been loved,” and has boldly draped the dress over a chair by Eileen Gray, the innovative Irish-born Jazz Age designer.
The pieces are animated with video clips that include Samuel Beckett’s Quad; Martha Graham manipulating her jersey dance costume in Lamentation, 1935; Merce Cunningham’s 1997 ballet Scenario, costumed by Rei Kawakubo in pieces adapted from her “lump and bump” Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body collection of that same year (Anderson has dotted Kawakubo pieces from this collection around the room “like boulders”); and, perhaps most significant of all for the designer, The Bridegroom Stripped Bare, an art piece by Alexander McQueen for Show Studio. “I remember seeing that,” Anderson says, “and knowing that I wanted to be in fashion.”
Although there are some highly significant pieces in the collection—sculptures by Constantin Brâncuși, Jean Arp, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Robert Gober, Louise Bourgeois, Lynn Chadwick, Franz Walter, Lynda Benglis, and Rebecca Warren (who has cited Hepworth as one of her biggest influences), among many others—these objects have been discreetly numbered, and the catalogue has provided thoughtful notes so that, as Anderson says, “you don’t judge on the names you see but see things for how they are.”
Furnishings include chairs by Gerrit Rietveld and Gaetano Pesce (his welcoming Feltri chair, 1987, which visitors are encouraged to sit in), and a bookcase by the turn-of-the-century architect-designer C.F.A. Voysey, which unexpectedly incorporates his profile. “I just thought it was the most modern thing that had been done in 1901,” says Anderson. Another serendipitous discovery was the work of the 1980s Paris-based designer Elisabeth de Senneville, from whom he found boxy garments with plastic outer layers in which children’s toys had been trapped.
In his speech at dinner, Anderson noted that “what’s so exciting about it is it’s not in London!” and bemoaned the London bubble he had been living in. He also said that the exhibition had made him pose once more the eternal question of whether fashion can be art. In this elegant, exciting project, the fashion pieces that Anderson has chosen to isolate and re-contextualize certainly take on a potency and a power to move that transcends the desire and allure of the runway.
A jersey dress by Madame Grès, c 1955, with Eileen Gray’s Transat chair, 1926.
J.W. Anderson’s Tubular Knits, A/W 2014/15.
Anderson’s clear plastic ensembles for Loewe, S/S 2016.