The Law of Retaliation

At times, words obsess me more than images, and when it happens, it’s hard for me to take that word (and the concept it expresses) out of my mind. I’ve recently thought of the Italian word “contrappasso”: it has a Latin origin (contra and patior literally mean “suffer the contrary”) and refers to punishment by a process which resembles or contrasts with the sin itself. If you’ve ever read Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and Purgatorio, you know what I’m talking about. The English translation of this term – that is “retaliation” – has a slightly different origin: it comes from the Latin lex talionis, the law of talion, that means a punishment indentical to the offense. Though fascinating, this topic introduces, as usual, fashion matters: retaliation is what first came to my mind when I saw Versace fall-winter 2011-2012 advertising campaign.

Let me tell you the campaign, featuring the model Saskia de Brauw, is gorgeous, and maybe this is the reason why I’ve decided to write extensively about it. The model wears beautiful outfits – black, dark blue and purple are the dominating colors, with touches of gold, white and green – while posing in a desert background: we can see a desert plain, rocks and mountains in the distance and a dramatic sunset. The fiery colors  of the setting sun are kind of stifled by dark, menacing clouds, a detail which turns the setting into a perfectly Gothic location.

The campaign, shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, features the model in this peculiar setting. The quality of light dominating the scene is mirrored on the model herself, and this is another peak of the pictures: her skin has a livid, kind of silvery color, thus turning her into an alien presence in a desert place.

I don’t think there’s a specific theme behind the campaign, but if you look at the gesture the model is doing in the picture above, you’ll realize symbolism is not actually far from here. It’s a vague symbolism, not directly connected to anything, but yet it’s there. I’ll explain this point later.

In this case, something new enters the scenery: some broken wood planks on the ground, remains of a past which has been swept away. See the perfectly balanced harmony of colors in this picture: the clouds echo the ground and the wood planks, while the golden details on the blue military coat echo the gilded light of the setting sun.

This shot presents again the chromatic composition we’ve noticed in the previous picture. Just a few words about the dress, one of my favourite pieces of the collection: its military vibe is reinforced by gold buttons and by the shape of the pocket, and paired to a different, kind of minimal shape, which can be seen in the sharp lines and in the wide cut on the shoulder.

Order and symmetry have been a bit scattered in this picture. The dissonant element is, in my opinion, the bag that the model is holding, but – again – this accessory and the jewelry have the function of echoing the warm tones of the sunset.

This is definitely my favourite shot, portraying one of my favourite pieces of the collection – a feathered number with asymmetrical neckline, accented by golden details. Isn’t the golden Medusa-head box bag lovely?

Now, let’s go back to the premise. I started this post by talking of etymology, Dante and punishment, but now let’s take the topic to the Versace campaign. As I’ve already written, it was shot by Mert and Marcus (with the styling of the legendary Joe McKenna), but it heavily pays homage to a late Nineties Versace campaign by Steven Meisel. Now, since we’re talking of the same brand, it’s possible this similarity is not a coincidence. I mean, maybe Donatella said: “Why don’t we give a modern vibe to that Scandinavian folklore-inspired campaign?” or something like this. In any case, I guess this is the right “cultural punishment” when you take the game of “taking inspiration from…” a bit too far. I’m not calling into question Meisel’s art, but you must admit his references are on the verge of plagiarism at times (yes, I’m referring to the infamous Louis Vuitton fall-winter 2010-2011 campaign). He who lives by the sword will die by the sword, and this is definitely the case.

Even if the Mert & Marcus campaign is nice, there’s no comparison with the original. This is actually the best campaign by Meisel ever (and please note that I adore many of the campaigns he shot for Versace): it’s mysterious, esoteric, highly symbolical, savage and haunting. The highly stylized pictures, the presence of symbolical objects (the glass sphere, the cup, musical instruments, a book, a dagger) and animals (the crow, which is surely a reference to Huginn and Muninn – names coming from the Old Norse words for “thought” and “mind”, respectively – the couple of ravens usually associated to Odin, in Norse mythology) depthen the levels of intepretation, and turn the set of pictures into a fascinating cycle.

As you can see from the pictures above, the setting of the two campaigns is almost the same – a waste land and stormy clouds in the distance. The campaign by Meisel is much more elaborated (it includes a small lake, too, and the landscape is snowy), of course, but the similarities are striking. Do you remember my hint at the symbolical gesture of Saskia de Brauw? Well, I think it could be another (not so) veiled reference to the campaign by Meisel.

Before closing, here is my question: why was the fall-winter 2011-2012 campaign shot by others than Meisel? There’s no need for me to explain why Meisel and the Versace maison are a match made in heaven, but I just don’t get this. Why don’t you take the real thing if you want to re-create the vibe of a campaign shot 13 years ago? This is the point that started the imitation/homage/copy chain, which is quite disappointing and opens disquieting scenarios when it comes to the concepts of originality and (collective) memory.

Source and source.

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One comment

  1. it’s interesting that you introduce the concept of contrappasso when describing these pictures, as both campaigns have a slight religious/ pagan feel, vaguely uncanny and apocalyptic (especially the one by Met and Marcus). Perhaps because I was thinking of religious symbolism, I associated Saskia’s hand gesture to the “three finger blessing” that are usually delivered by bishops (I apologise for this definition but I don’t recall whether this blessing has a specific name) and also of the Middle Ages/ Renaissance paintings where a specific character in the painting, usually the most important one, is pointed at by another character.
    Moving on from the campaign, I just would like to thank you because of the way you present images/ campaigns on this blog, which is often from a very specific, personal and different point of view, making connections that perhaps I wouldn’t or introducing concepts or imagery I didn’t know about- so, thank you! 🙂

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