Costume Institute’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion“, on view until September 8th, is a sweeping retrospective, covering aesthetic of this style from the seventeenth-century to this day. The word ‘style’ is an approximation— Camp defies boundaries and demarcations, refusing to be reduced into a category or a style.
It is easy, however, to assert the following—the exhibition’s remarkable visual opulence and its equally impressive scope that draws from literary, gender studies, artistic, intellectual, and, naturally, from sartorial domain. And while its overreaching range is a side effect of Camp’s ambiguity, its visual splendor is a testimony to the perennial allure of Camp’s extravagance.
The first section of the exhibit begins with the Beau Ideal, an early nineteenth-century aesthetical concept that denotes a perfect classical model of male beauty. Accordingly, it is a bronze sculpture of a Hellenic idol of homoerotic love—Belvedere Antinous from 1630—who, along with Hermes and Ganymede, epitomizes the beau ideal, that greets visitors in front of an enfilade of pink-walled galleries.
Each of the galleries is focused on a hero or a heroine, tracing the origins of Camp chronologically and across categories—portraits, letters, a volume of Molièr’s “The Impostures of Scapin” (a first literary reference to Camp), and brick-à-brac juxtaposed with Jean-Paul Gaultier’s eighteenth-century style dress worn with twentieth-century man’s suite and sequined sailor’s outfits—a dense collection of artifacts in museum glass displays, an effort designed to define the indefinable, that is to say, to explain Camp.
But it’s a fascinating journey—one is pulled through, tantalized by gradually unfolding narrative. Next stop is Louis XIV’s Versailles–retroactively idealized as “Camp Eden”—a precursor to Camp’s aesthetic of cross-dressing and subversion; its centerpiece is Jean-Laurent Mosnier’s portrait of Chevalier d’Eon, an androgynous nobleman, who, as a Louis XIV’s spy, was able to infiltrate the courts of Europe as a lady in waiting. Next gallery is dedicated to the nineteenth-century, which gave us Oscar Wilde, the paragon of decadence and subversive wit, along with a guilty pleasure of poring over deliciously obscene vignettes of Aubrey Beardsley’s grotesquely beautiful drawings.
Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition is anchored in Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Notes on Camp” and Sontagian Camp, which comprises works of art from Met’s collection that illustrate her ideas of Camp, is this section’s largest gallery space. While Sontag viewed Camp’s “love of unnatural” going as far back as the Renaissance, finding it in painting of Carlo Crivelli, it was Baroque art and its masters that she saw as exemplary of Camp qualities. Along with Chinoiserie, caricatures, Gothic novels, Tiffani lamps, Art Nouveau, the 1920s beaded dresses, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Vincenzo Bellini’s operas. All that is too much, too extravagant, over the top— think Cardi B ‘s Thierry Mugler’s Venus creation, which she wore to the February Grammys (also, on view at the exhibit).
Sontagian Camp is also an abridgment that connects two-part exhibit, leading to the Camp Eye, which is devoted to Camp in fashion—the “dandyism of mass culture,” as Sontag asserts. That is the moment when–cue in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, Pure Imagination scene–one finally gets to experience Camp in all of its exuberance and splendor. One wanders into this larger than life darkened hall unexpectedly; its only source of light emanates from towering double-decker multicolor vitrines that line the walls. This window-shopper’s Utopia is inhabited by haute couture dressed mannequins and each set of garments demonstrates a particular aspect of Camp: “The Psychopathology of Affluence” is embodied by a pair of mannequins clad in Gareth Pugh’s ensemble and Jeremy Scott’s dress,”Cultural Slumming” is shown by the House of Moschino, “Second Childhood” is exemplified Comme des Garçons, Molly Goddard, and Walter Van Beirendonck—all in all, sixty-seven displays organized under eighteen statements that “communicate Camp sensibility.”
Sontag’s essay propelled Camp into the main-steam culture, but it didn’t help to define Camp, for she was attracted to it precisely because of its ambiguity; and while she was “strongly drawn to it,” she was, at the same time, “offended by it.”
Andrew Bolton’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion” is a daring enterprise and, is very likely Costume Institute’s most conceptualized show. It works, insofar as it works with taming exotic beasts—one can never be sure. But the ensuing sensory overload is well worth it.