Dries Van Noten, Francis Bacon: Methods of Reference

“Fashion is finished. There is no fashion anymore. And I think that’s a good thing.” These oracular words, spoken by the eccentric pret-a-porter designer Dries Van Noten, express the philosophy of an artistic vision that is unbound from common meta-narratives about ‘fashion history’ as a self-contained field of artistic reference and transformation. 

Famous as a member of the Antwerp 6, the group of young designers that emerged from Belgium’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1981, Van Noten’s work nevertheless departs dramatically from the designs of contemporaries like Ann Demeulemeester or Walter Van Beirendonck, evincing a vision that is undeniably singular. 

Often Van Noten selects an archival photograph, a fragmentary image of an artwork, and spins this inspiration into a guiding thread for garment construction. His work is some of the most deeply referential that can be found, revealing an imbrication in history that goes beyond the world of fashion, touching especially on the tradition of Western painting. One painting by Lucien Freud, he has said, could be the inspiration for an entire collection. And the designs that have emerged from this process of research and reference have broken the mold, producing ready-to-wear that suggests the same intellectual and historical immersion of many couture designers. 

There is something of this iconoclasm in one of Van Noten’s most abiding influences: the English painter Francis Bacon. Bacon’s life was fraught with pain, abandonment, violence, and addiction, experiences that emerge in his work in the form of tortured, grotesque, and horrific imagery. Like Van Noten, Bacon’s work is driven by a deep knowledge of art history and a passion for reference. His piece Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, recasts the baroque as a scene of hallucination, horror, and nightmare. As we will see though, Van Noten’s approach to reference is distinct from his inspiration. Unlike Bacon’s Velázquez, Van Noten’s garments do not perform an inversion, parody, or deconstruction of their references—instead, the designer approaches his references as windows into their creators’ way of seeing, as opportunities to translate art history into new, abstract formations of color and texture. 

In this vein, Van Noten has stated that he does not hope for his designs to shock, which many have found to be one of the most enduring impressions left by Bacon’s work, which overturned the expectations of the art world with his revelation of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Instead, Van Noten suggests, what is at stake in a painter like Bacon is not the final product, but the way the artist ‘looks’ at their materials and the trajectory of their process.

This alchemical relation to his reference can explain how work such as Bacon’s, which has always foregrounded the ugly, brutal, and violent can inform subtle, floral, and even sympathetic constructions by Van Noten. In this sense, the designer digs beneath the surface of a work’s apparent content to excavate its fundamental artistic orientation, to unearth the process by which raw materials are translated into constellations of color and form.

In an interview, he described his reflections on Bacon in these terms:

"I think I never went so far in using colors.  They really looked like paintings of Bacon, which we translated in fabric, and a lot of work went into finding the right shine of fabric, like the dullness of certain fabrics, to have the right feeling in these things.  Some people of the press absolutely loved it, other people of the press absolutely hated it.  Suzy Menkes invented even a new word for a color, so she calls one of the colors which we used 'rotten shrimp' – so it was really to show that she didn't like so much what she saw on the catwalk.  And also the customers didn't react very well, so it was a collection that was one of the most tough ones to sell in stores."

Van Noten’s collection translates the brutality of Bacon into singular, abstract forms. The collection almost operates like a series of extreme close-ups, honing in on specific swatches of Bacon’s color palette, prolonging ephemeral shades into solid, purified meditations. New colors emerge—rotten shrimp—and the content of historical canvases becomes a mine for new experiments in form. This is the essence of abstraction, which is not the obsolescence of the referent, but the sublation of the referent into a suspension of its essential materials, their orientations—the manifest content dissolves to reveal the glance, or look at stake in vision.  

In his 2009 collection inspired by Bacon, Van Noten provides a series of ever-more intense reds and pinks, establishing a spectrum that evokes the artist’s preoccupation with the flesh, with raw meat, with torture. What was once a grotesque image, however, is here refracted as a beautiful experiment with fabric and its torsions. In one look, the fabric is made flesh—shadows pooling at the flowing base of the dress ripple to give the impression of an ombre or a gradient; in a violent evocation of Bacon, the fabric almost looks like wrapped up human skin, but retreats from this initial perception to reveal itself as a beautiful experiment in textile motion. The stiff, minimal coat Van Noten pairs with it references the tension between the organic and the physical so often gestured to in Bacon by the juxtaposition of meat and bodies with household objects like umbrellas or knives. 

Van Noten suggests that he strives not to influence himself with the art of Francis Bacon, but with the emotion implicit in that art. Unlike a couture-oriented designer like McQueen, who shared this fascination with the violent and the grotesque, Van Noten works with the image of intense horror in order to translate it into new formal possibilities for the everyday. While McQueen’s designs often directly show the horror they reference, such as in his famous Jack the Ripper-inspired collections, Van Noten’s engagement with the violence of artists like Bacon is submerged, becoming a formal tool for discovering new methods of design.

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