Exhibitions: It isn't art. It isn't fashion. And it isn't stylish

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The Independent Culture
Addressing the Century

Hayward, SE1

The first thing wrong with the Hayward Gallery's "" is that so little fine art is contained within its large and elaborate displays. There are a handful of paintings and drawings by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Leger, Rodchenko, Jim Dine and others, but nothing substantial or truly engaging in the way of art. The second thing wrong with this show - whose purpose is to explore the relations between art and fashion in the 20th century - is an absence of glamour. Visitors with an appetite for style will be disappointed. High fashion should be thrilling, amazing, stunning; yet many corners of this exhibition are positively dowdy.

A third criticism concerns the catalogue. At the South Bank Centre they are rather proud of Hayward Gallery Publishing, for the simple reason that this operation makes a profit. I wish that HPG would do so by selling us better books. The Hayward exhibition will not stay in the mind. None the less, it approaches an important topic and we could have been given a significant publication. The book that goes with the show is not up to the mark. Like the show, it fails to be stylish. Furthermore, the text could easily have been informative, with a much longer commentary on the exhibits by Peter Wollen, who is the exhibition's curator.

The Hayward introduces Wollen as a "cultural commentator" and Professor of Film Studies at the University of California in Los Angeles. I add that Wollen, who is English, has long been familiar to readers of New Left Review. He is the author of Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, which was quite a famous book in the late 1960s, and more recently of Raiding the Ice Box (1993), a collection of his essays. All of Wollen's writing demonstrates the unease of the intellectual new left when attempting to assess modern art, which, on the whole, new leftists distrusted. Yet Wollen's erudition and unusual mind make him an intriguing historian. Only a full account of his exhibits could give sense to "".

Visually, the show is a rag-bag. An adventurous design by Zaha Hadid gives zip to the Hayward's separate rooms without enhancing the low quality of so many hats in the shape of ships, or shoes covered in beeswax, necklaces made out of human hair, and so on. The omissions are distressing. Which 20th-century artist had the most piercing eye for fashion, its fun and its ephemerality? Why no society portraiture, a genre which long preserved the painterly love of dress and its codes, a magical aspect of Impressionism? Why is the representation of Pop Art so feeble? What about some swimsuits, maquillage, cross-dressing and jewellery?

Our suspicion is that the left-wing mind is hostile to frivolity as well as to the classic art of the modern avant garde. At every turn, the exhibition prefers baroque caricatures of fashion to the relaxed and elegant pleasures of frou-frou and the cocktail hour. Its surrealism is unsatisfactory, and Russian revolutionary working wear is more than a little chilling. To my bourgeois eye, perfection of style is found in the work of Elsa Schiaparelli. By far the best hat is the lavender-coloured, shell- like piece by Mariuccia Mandelli of Krizia in Milan (1980). The shoes are disappointing and the show has no feeling for the sexual mysteries of the handbag, that most telling accessory of fashion.

Speaking historically, it's clear that the brightest period of interaction between art and fashion was after the First World War. Flat, patterned design in the 1920s inspired both artists and dressmakers. What happened to subsequent style and art is more obscure. Especially since Surrealism muddied new thinking. As Wollen points out, Hitler's war put an end to the predominance of Paris as a fashion centre. The scene moved to New York. So also did movements in art. Wistfully, the catalogue records that "although Jackson Pollock paintings were used as backgrounds for fashion shoots in Harper's Bazaar, Abstract Expressionism was far removed from the world of couture". Some of us do not lament the separation. Art and fashion may come from the same background and share a zeitgeist; ingenious historians may find sign systems common to both. But the fact remains that art has different ambitions and systems of value.

In truth, Abstract Expressionism did have its fashionable side, as we see in the paintings and career of Willem de Kooning. Plain-minded socialists will observe that modern art has generally been made by people who are poor, while couture has generally been consumed by people who are rich. De Kooning's famous artistic uniform (boots, jeans, T-shirt) was an artisanal style that spread way beyond lower Manhattan. Then, in the 1960s, all sorts of fashion became available to the working classes, especially in England. There were parallels between such fashion and contemporary art. At the Hayward, there are Mary Quant suits and other relics of the period. Alas, no Sixties painting or sculpture accompany the dress designs of those happy days. The present art-fashion relationship is confusing. I guess that our predominant type of art, neo-conceptualism, has no parallel in fashion because it doesn't possess any strong visual manner.

"" is an exhibition whose natural home is in the V&A, where it might have been better managed. We hoped for more from the Hayward, especially since this is its only autumn exhibition. A sign of difficulties at the South Bank is the show's extended run. It will occupy the Hayward for a long three months, until a Patrick Caulfield retrospective opens next February.

'': Hayward, SE1 (0171 960 5226), to 11 January.

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