W magazine’s bizarre Enlightenment

W december 2Wright of Derby redux W Magazine December 2015wright-experiment-bird-air-pump-NG725-fm

W magazine went 18th century in its December issue!

Check out this salon attire: a dress by Stella McCartney which is tight, confining, and awkwardly cage-skirted. Uncomfortable, inconvenient, and all-around annoying. More or less authentically eighteenth-century styles.

The masculine line is equally intriguing. I admit that this photo threw me for a loop, at first. Did you see the connection right away?

The clever art director is spoofing Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous painting of an Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump (1767-68), where a multi-generational drama acts out around the intense gaze of an early modern experimenter in pneumatics and his audience. He is holding the stop-clock that controls the supply of oxygen to a white dove that is either dying, dead or reviving in the pump’s glass receiver. It is a sadistic scene about the power of science, which is as magical to the men as it is horrifying to the girls. Horror is reflected in the face of the young girls whimpering for their pet bird, which was considered a “tender touch” by one period critic. A strange choice for a fashion spread.

Now look carefully at the model’s makeup: at first I just thought she had a lot of powder on, but on closer look I realize that she is painted as a spotty half-black, half-albino woman. This must be inspired by the famous “nègre blanc” or albino negro who was featured in 18th-century anthropological writing by Buffon among others. Check out my book on the Wild Girl, Natural Man and the Monster or Andy Curran’s Anatomy of BlacknessLooks like someone at W magazine did some good work on 18th-century Art History! Bravo!

But what is the image trying to say?

I love the wacky way the artist is bringing eighteenth-century imagery–recognizable only by initiates of Enlightenment anthropology and painting–into this display of clothing that is meant to sell clothes, if I understand correctly.

Not sure what it means, but I love it.

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