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Skulls, Sunflowers & Sneakers

The worlds of fashion and art seem to have a natural affinity for one another, with designers and clothing brands partnering with artists on collaborations, many of which have now become iconic (the long-standing collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami is but one of many examples). Here’s a little bit of fashion-art history courtesy of Vogue that you can mention with an airy wave of the hand the next time you’re at a gallery opening – the historical intersection between the two worlds apparently first took place in the 1920s in Paris, when the dawn of high fashion coincided with the city’s avant-garde art movement. In fact, many say that it was designer Elsa Schiaparelli and Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who started the first art-fashion collaboration.

Among the most famous of Schiaparelli and Dali’s collaborations is the iconic “Lobster Dress”, owned by Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, and pictured here in both the original and a 2017 reissue. Image credit:

Fast-forward to the present day and the tradition carries on, stronger than ever. Enlisting an artist for a fashion line is becoming very much par for the course. This is perhaps indicative of a much broader shift in the worlds of art and fashion, where the boundaries between the two worlds are becoming increasingly porous. And it’s no longer just in the world of high fashion or haute couture  that successful art-fashion collaborations take place. In fact, at the forefront of some of the most creatively exciting and innovative collaborations between artists and fashion brands are those initiated by streetwear brands like the uber-cool skate culture apparel brand, Vans (Like Louis Vuitton, Vans, too, has collaborated with the artist Takashi Murakami, for a limited edition collection launched in 2015).

I’m here in Amsterdam for the launch of Vans’ latest artist collaboration, this time with the Van Gogh Museum. The Vans x Van Gogh collection, which will be available from 3 August on the Vans website as well as  from the Van Gogh Museum shop, will feature some of the most iconic works of art by Van Gogh in the Museum’s collection:  Self-Portrait as a Painter, Skull , Old Vineyard with Peasant Woman, Almond Blossom, Sunflowers, as well as excerpts from some of the 700 letters that Van Gogh wrote to his younger brother, Theo, during his lifetime. Scroll through for a first look!

But why do brands want to collaborate with artists and why are artists drawn to working with fashion brands? More to the point, in the case of this collaboration between Vans and the Van Gogh Museum, why does a museum that represents an artist who died more than a hundred years ago want to work with a brand that is very much about the youth culture of today – and vice versa? What might seem, at first, to be a somewhat incongruous pairing begins to make sense when we consider that the Van Gogh Museum’s aim, as noted in its mission statement, is to “make the life and art of Vincent Van Gogh  … accessible”, to reach “as many people as possible and to enrich and inspire them.”

Last night, at a dinner event to launch the collection, Axel Rüger, Director of the Museum, explained that the Museum has a strong desire to remain current and relevant to the world around it. In fact, the average age of its visitors is 34 years and, since thirty is now the new twenty, Vans’ products and their reach are “squarely within the target of the Museum”. As for Vans, the passion, vitality and creativity of Vincent Van Gogh – qualities that so clearly imbue his amazing paintings – are qualities that very much represent the spirit of Vans. Indeed, far from being dissonant in any way, I was struck, when viewing the items in the collection in the flesh, by how successfully these iconic works by Van Gogh were translated onto contemporary apparel like bomber jackets, hoodies, backpacks and sneakers.

Here at Plural, of course, we’re all about Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art. So, before we conclude this article, we thought we’d make a pitch for a future Vans collaboration with a contemporary artist from our region. (It won’t be the first time a Southeast Asian artist has collaborated with a sneaker brand – Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai has done it – although it wasn’t with Vans.)

In any case, our nominee is that towering giant of Indonesian art and our very own grandmaster of Expressionist painting, Affandi. Affandi has, in fact, often been compared to Van Gogh. As Low Sze Wee, former Director of Curatorial and Collections at the National Gallery Singapore and current CEO of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre pointed out in an interview with CNBC, a viewer unfamiliar with Southeast Asian art might, indeed, see similarities in brushstrokes and style between Affandi’s works and Van Gogh’s.

Affandi, Sunflowers, 1963 (Image credit: Sardjana Sumichan, Affandi)

Affandi himself, however, was not unduly bothered by comparisons to Van Gogh declaring, in a 1982 interview:

 “Affandi is Affandi, and Van Gogh is Van Gogh.”

Born in 1907, Affandi is an internationally acclaimed artist and was already winning prizes, in the 1950s, at the Venice and São Paulo Biennales. British art critic and historian Eric Newton declared, in a speech at an opening of an exhibition of Affandi paintings in London in 1952 that, while Affandi’s works reminded him of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, the act of “reminding” should not be problematised and that he certainly wasn’t trying to assert that Affandi was influenced by Van Gogh. Rather, Newton said, it meant that both artists set out from the same point of humanity and vitality. In a subsequent article, Newton said that Affandi produced works that were “wilder than Kokoschka, as human and passionate as Van Gogh”, adding that “He is the perfect example of the Expressionist”.

Affandi, Ploughing the Field II, 1979 (Image credit: Sardjana Sumichan, Affandi)

Like Van Gogh, Affandi, too, painted many self-portraits. The Indonesian curator, critic and art historian Jim Supangkat considers the self-portraits painted throughout the artist’s career to be a crucial lens by which his development as an artist can be traced.

Affandi, Self-Portrait I, 1975. (Image credit: Affandi, Sardjana Sumichan)

In our humble opinion, Affandi’s distinctive technique of squeezing tubes of paint directly onto the canvas, his depiction of Southeast Asian landscapes, flora, fauna and people and his expressive, emotive works that vividly depict our way of life, make him a prime candidate for a future Vans-artist collaboration. How about it, Vans?


Note:  The feature image and all images in the Vans x Van Gogh collection are courtesy of Vans.



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