Karl Lagerfeld: The Devil is in the Detail – Artist Jeremy Penn

“We live in a dark and romantic and quite tragic world.”  - Karl Lagerfeld

Art: A Multifaceted Gem

There are many forms of Art. It surrounds us on a daily basis, on a number of levels, and isn’t just restricted to the paintbrush and canvas. Every day often starts with an artistic decision as we open our wardrobe and peer in at the clothes inside. ‘What shall I wear today’ is often a sub-conscious way of saying ‘who shall I be today’. As Art is transformative, so too, is Fashion. 

Fashion is the Art form that envelops us, flatters us, gets us noticed and changes our identity in a matter of moments. It is Art for a mass audience, Art that takes into account not only the process of transforming a surface, but also the process of movement, of angles and of textures. In short, the Art of Fashion is a complex process. 

Understanding Fashion

It’s perhaps partly due to this fascination with the concept of Fashion as an art form that I selected Karl Lagerfeld as my latest muse. After all, there are few designers working in this era who capture the very essence of Fashion as essentially as him. 

Currently creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous label, Karl Lagerfeld is as much famous for his own iconic image as for his haute couture. His stark uniform of sharp, monochromatic suits and jet-black shades provide a fascinating counterpoint to his feminine designs, which are often rich in detail and reveal a distinct appreciation of the female form. 

Raised in pre-war Germany, (and originally a ‘Lagerfeldt’ rather than a ‘Lagerfeld’; the ‘t’ was dropped as he felt it made his name more ‘commercial’ without it) Karl Lagerfeld once famously described himself as a ‘working class person, working with class’.

Karl Lagerfeld Jeremy Penn

The Enchantment of the Myth

I am drawn to Karl Lagerfeld not simply because of his inspirational designs; designs that show such staggering understanding of not only the female body, but also the female mind. I find myself, as an artist, longing to paint him, in an attempt to capture some of the essence of his true persona. 

However, this is a challenging task. Who is the real Karl Lagerfeld? It is abundantly clear that he himself doesn’t want to be identified with on a personal level; the sunglasses, blocking his eyes completely, create a natural wall between us, the people that surround him, and himself. 

Normally, I am drawn to eyes; and they often provide a focal point for my art. Yet in this case, for once, I am drawn to the lack of eye contact. I’m drawn to the mystery of the figure beneath the shades, a character swathed in almost mythological enigma. Even the clothes that he wears reflect a certain desire to conceal; the regimented uniform of tailored, colorless suits that reveal very little about the personality of the man inside. 

He described himself as a working class person, yet even that description is challenged, with his almost baroque hair-style and elegant, manicured appearance. In the 21st century, Lagerfeld appears almost more like an Earl from a bygone era, rather than a working class figure. 

Jeremy Penn Painting Karl Lagerfeld
Jeremy Penn Painting Karl Lagerfeld

Capturing a Moment in Time

Fashion can never capture a moment in time. (Unless of course, it is photographed, but then, arguably, it becomes photographic art, rather than fashion in its purest essence). Fashion continually moves, it shifts, both from day to day and minute to minute. It is designed to be fluid, restless and free-form. 

"Uncle Karl" by Artist Jeremy Penn

Painting is, of course, often the reverse. We capture a freeze-frame of a particular moment in time, and we try to trap the essence of that moment into every brushstroke. This is what I was attempting to do in painting Karl Lagerfeld; capturing the restless energy that so clearly lies within him, yet is so perfectly poised beneath the protective armor of his suit and sunglasses. 

This was why I chose to use a sombre palate of deep blues and blacks for the man himself, and place him against an almost shocking red background. There is a distinct dichotomy in my painting, and so too is there a similar dichotomy in Lagerfeld. The working class hero turned 21st century Lord. The restrained fashion icon and the vocal, intelligent man. The masculine dresser, who, in turn, understands exactly how to clothe a woman to make her feel at her most feminine and beautiful. 

Visible eyes or not, what artist can resist working with such a fascinating, contradictory muse?