Just a few weeks ago, the Italian fashion label Gucci sent models down the runway with subtle references to Renaissance art. Models casually held hyper-realistic severed heads and dragons, a reflection of Alessandro Michele’s long-standing fascination with Renaissance motifs.
Now, the fashion house has rolled out massive digital installations in stores across the world, featuring iconic artworks reinterpreted alongside items from its Spring 2018 collection. As part of the project, the young Spanish artist Ignasi Monreal borrows from paintings like “Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck (1434), “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais (c. 1852), and “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch (1480-1490). To each painting, Monreal and Gucci have added a twist. They call it “Utopian Fantasy.”
This may seem strange, given that Millais was painting a young woman’s suicide, and Bosch was dramatizing religious scenes of torture and suffering. Monreal’s take on Bosch includes illustrations of people wearing the latest Gucci clothing within the fantasy world that the Renaissance artist created. (In some of Monreal’s illustrations, there are campaign images that don’t directly relate to art — such as a scene featuring a sleeping Snow White, which echoes a sweater in the Gucci’s Spring 2018 collection.)
One of the most eye-catching parts of this campaign is Gucci’s digital reinterpretation of Ophelia, which has been installed in video format in Milan Montenapoleone, the label’s boutique. “Stores around the world will feature windows dedicated to promoting this digital initiative,” reads a statement from Gucci. “A large screen will show an animated digital illustration, as if it were an artwork in a gallery. On most windows, this impression is reinforced by the presence of a bench facing the screen on which colored velvet-covered mannequins will sit, as if looking at the art hung on a gallery wall.”
Since designer Alessandro Michele became Gucci’s creative director in 2015, he’s frequently referenced fine art in his fashion, recruiting artists like Monreal and illustrator Angela Hicks for campaigns and products. Still, the direct appropriation of art in these displays seems different. Gucci has chosen to install mannequins lifelessly watching the video versions of appropriated art, while people move around the space shopping.
As a result, the painting loses some of its original narrative. Those who know “Ophelia” will recognize the reference, but others who flock to the stores to shop, instead of view art, may just see it as a corporate interpretation of fashion and art. Meanwhile, Monreal removed some of the defining elements of the painting, dressing her instead in a yellow dress and pearls from the Spring 2018 Collection. Gone are the symbolic flowers she holds: poppies for death, pansies for love in vain, and daisies for innocence.
Still, Diana Stelin, a Boston-based art historian and painter who has studied the Pre-Raphaelites, felt that the reference had a kind of sophistication. “It’s jarring to see such delicacy when death is portrayed. I believe Gucci is playing off these contrasts,” Stelin said. “I believe it has an effect of doom, fear, yet a wistful desire for eternal love. Ophelia is all about hyper-realistic color and detail.” Gucci often displays a magpie aesthetic, mixing pearls, royal jewel-toned colors, and embellishment with quirky, sometimes macabre details on the runway — like severed heads and mini-sized beasts, or rings shaped like roaring lions and faces painted in eerie blue hues.
Not surprisingly, Gucci’s campaign also has a social media component: a sticker on the window will allow anyone with the Gucci app to access a special microsite, with downloadable wallpapers and access to a catalog of more of Monreal’s Gucci-ized artworks. In this case, fashion is looking to art to create an installation of its own variety, in a seemingly new form.