Kate Moss may have inspired more artists’ work than any other non-religious or royal female subject in history. Depictions of the thirty-five year old English model or references to her have found their way into works of all mediums and styles by artists at all levels of mastery and recognition. Some artists seek to depict her distinctive personal beauty while others allude to her persona or employ her as a signifier for beauty as an ideal. Yet the original works created thus far fail to capture the qualities that are so captivating in photographs of her. This essay will sketch out some of the reasons why Moss has captivated her contemporary art community. It will assess three examples of art made about Moss and then discuss how works such as those reflect certain issues within contemporary art concerning artists’ conceptions of the relationship of art to beauty, fashion, portraiture and mass media.
On an amateur or neophyte level, fans and art-students have lovingly rendered Moss’s distinct face. But she has also been the subject of works by artists at the zenith of the contemporary art world, including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Marc Quinn, Lucian Freud, Adam McEwen, Stella Vine, Rita Ackermann, Alex Katz, Gary Hume, Banksy, Katherine Bernhardt, Karen Kilimnik and Chuck Close. In addition, images of Kate Moss created in fashion editorials and fashion photographs by Corinne Day, Ryan McGinley, Jurgen Teller and Terry Richardson have achieved high-art status at art fairs, galleries and museum exhibitions. An exhibition devoted to her nineteen years in the public eye will be hosted by the Musée des Arts Decoratifs from November 2009 through April 2010.
Why has Moss received such widespread attention within the fashion and art communities and general mass audiences? With a focus on novelty and distinctiveness, the fashion community gravitates toward unconventional beauty, but general audiences prefer polished and familiar figures to fuel their fantasies rather than models with distinctly raw appearances. Moss’s diminutive height, unglamorous initial persona and feral sex appeal made her ascent to the upper echelons of fashion a significant feat, while her further entry into mainstream pop culture has been extraordinary. Her transformation into an art icon may then seem a natural progression, since the appreciations by artists of individual complex beauty are often sharper than are found in mainstream commercial culture. A precursor pop-culture figure who inspired a volume of direct appropriations, homages and references in contemporary art is Marilyn Monroe. But while Monroe posed for only a few of the works made about her, Moss has been actively sought after and has willingly functioned as an artist’s muse.
Moss emerged in the public imagination in the 1990s, a period marked by postmodern theories of relativism, simulacrum and identity discourse. Skepticism toward the media and media manipulations, which had become a strong component of academia and other subcultures, manifested itself in self-consciously “meta” mainstream imagery in the nineties. The nineties can be defined as an era consumed with a quest for authenticity but leavened with skepticism. And skepticism combined with a desire to appear knowing underscored a culture in which irony and cynicism were prevailing popular, intellectual and creative impulses.
Moss was born in Croydon and discovered at age fourteen. She was photographed by the realist fashion photographer Corinne Day for a black and white unposed spread entitled “The Third Summer of Love” that appeared in the British avant-garde magazine The Face. In contrast to the globally recognized models and the prevailing style of that period, Moss’s body was waifish, her teeth were snagged, her skin was freckled and her attitude was gawky and irreverent. In sum, she emanated authenticity. For an era obsessed with deconstructing and understanding the historical and ongoing relationships between identity and privilege, Moss’s raw yet uncontestable beauty offered a visual equivalent to the grunge rock movement’s sound and ethos, and stood out as a comparable manifestation of rebelliousness against polished, problematic ideals and standards.
One of the first artists to incorporate images of Kate Moss into her oeuvre was Karen Kilimnik, whose own guileless charm was met with initial measures of both critical admiration and condemnation, but who has earned long-lasting significance within contemporary art. Kilimnik’s doodle-like drawings of waifish models Twiggy, Kate Moss, Amber Valetta and Cecelia Chancellor, which she copied from fashion editorials and ads in the 1990’s, displayed many of the qualities ascribed to the girls themselves. The endearingly flawed pencil drawings and paintings possessed a rough adolescent aspect that conveyed yearning, solipsism and naked desires. And the prevailing subject matter of her work was plainly a tender sense of admiration and association with the models she drew. Kilimnik’s art muddied boundaries between the art of outsider fans and high art by accepted professional artists; her work employed post-modern strategies of pastiche and provoked discussion of gender, media and artists’ identity, yet also expressed her uncritical fascination with the figures she depicted.
Among those figures, Moss in particular enabled Kilimnik to appropriate a model as an ideal fantasy surrogate for herself. Tellingly, one of Kilimnik’s first well-known images was a 1998 watercolor appropriation of a 1993 photograph by Mario Testino, a photograph of Kate Moss from the launch issue of Russia Vogue, which Kilimnik titled, “Me — I Forgot the Wire Cutters Getting the Wire Cutters from the Car to Break into Stonehenge, 1982.”
As a vivid contrast, the image that has suffered strong criticism for its lack of resemblance to Moss is the one that intentionally defies the idealized fantasy image created for her in later glossy editorial and advertising work. “Naked Portrait 2002” was painted by Lucien Freud in his studio and presents a nude, pregnant Kate Moss lounging on a rough single bed. Her features are unrecognizably heavy and her legendary body appears bloated and slovenly rather than pregnant. Moss’s flesh is rendered thick and blotchy from Freud’s signature application of chunky swatches of paint slathered on the canvas with a palette knife. The painting extends to visual distortion the many candid and non-idealized images of Moss that have been published since the beginning of her career.
Critic David Cohen has asserted on his art blog that: “It seems incongruous for Kate Moss to end up in a Freud painting: His aesthetic, so redolent of the miserabilist, earnest, existentialist postwar period in which he came artistically of age, seems a far cry from the slick, trashy, ephemeral pop culture epitomized by the cult of celebrity models.” Cohen’s comment betrays a lack of understanding of Moss’s unique role within the fashion industry as a broad cultural icon embodying the antithesis of typical glossy fashion culture. In the context of the fashion industry, Moss’s allure originates with the very ability to embody the qualities Cohen ascribes to Freud. Yet Cohen’s appreciation of the inherent tension in the painting might accurately reflect the discomfort Freud would have encountered in rendering Moss realistically, and which led him away from showing her to be an idealized Great Beauty rather than a malformed body on a bed.
Though antithetical in style, Freud’s realist portrait of Moss evokes an emotional response that echoes William De Kooning’s 1954 abstract portrait of Marilyn Monroe, which deployed aggressive slaps and heavy swipes of paint to represent her as a misshapen figure recognizable only through the signifiers of blond hair, red lips and giant breasts. A 1996 abstract gloss-paint-and-paper-on-aluminum-panel portrait of Moss by the Young British Artist, Gary Hume, similarly reduces her to a few basic forms — a bikini top, blond ponytail and silver oval instead of a face. Yet the temperament of that image is reverential, while Freud’s appears to lower Moss to the level of common flesh without acknowledging that Moss’s significance as a subject already resides in her commonness. As Alex Katz asserted in the 2003 W magazine issue devoted to artists paying homage to Moss — which contained Katz’s own minimalist portrait of the model — “She’s completely ordinary. That’s what makes her extraordinary.”
At first glance, Freud’s painting appears to fit within the genre of realism, yet it actually functions more as a cartoon of Moss which exaggerates her authentic, relaxed, naked, earthy qualities which captivate and propel her celebrity status, but stops short of offering a keener insight into her as a person or a demonstration of the power of her persona. However, Freud’s painting is one of the more intriguing works about Moss because it exemplifies the struggle artists face to express the potent yet elusive attributes that distinguish her from other celebrity figures or even other models. Stella Vine, another artist who became known after creating work paying homage to Moss, is direct about her admiration when discussing Moss. In an interview I conducted with the controversial British outsider artist, she compared Moss to the Mona Lisa because “Kate doesn’t speak.” She also ascribed qualities to Moss that made her a heroic subject. “There’s a bravery in Kate’s eyes.” Vine’s works during Moss’s media shaming about cocaine use capture a brassy, vibrant strength that reflects Vine’s faith in Moss’s personal fortitude, perhaps as a projection of her own wished-for self.
Other artists have engaged Moss’s image as a fashion icon whose unconventional beauty exemplifies the fashion industry’s paradoxical interest in jolie laides rather than obvious prettiness. The Dutch artist Amie Dicke, whose interventions into fashion images have produced seductive and disarming collage works in recent years, often employs images of Moss. For a recent mixed-media work, Dicke drove silver nails through a French Vogue magazine cover featuring Moss in a black and white image, covering Moss’s face and body and hammering the two longest extended nails through her palms. Although her features are completely obscured, Moss’s name is still seen written in gold letter across her raised knees. While violent, the image that emerges is beautiful and redolent of Moss’s own sexually daring style aesthetic. At the same time, it evokes Dicke’s previous work in cutting the models shown in fashion editorial images into vampire-like figures, and appears to serve as a commentary on Moss as a persecuted figure during her widely scrutinized relationship with the drug addicted, romantic rock star Pete Doherty, although linking Moss and Christ through images of stigmata is unlike the subtly-minded Dicke.
At its core, Kate Moss’s image appeals to audiences because of her own refusal to refute their associations. She grants few interviews and remains sphinx-like when she does speak. The paradoxical nature of her accessible and mysterious beauty allows artists to approach but never quite capture the essence of her allure, while also giving them scope to empathize with her through their work. “Kate’s an artist too, it’s all there in her eyes,” said Vine. “She gives all us fucked-up loners a sparkle in our day.”