If it’s not the best exhibition I have ever seen, it is certainly in my personal top three: the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris is a breathtaking display of artistic force and curatorial skilfulness, a monumental tribute to a truly monumental personality of the twentieth century. The show is organized by the above mentioned museum in collaboration with Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and is placed under the patronage of Carla Bruni, France’s first lady and former fashion model who collaborated with the flamboyant and influent Parisian designer.
Some three hundred Saint Laurent models were set on display by the two curators, Florence Muller and Farid Chenoune, alongside an impressive quantity of drawings, sketches, documentary videos, comics and so on, offering a compelling and touching image of a complex, challenging and truly groundbreaking artist. The retrospective includes works dating from the late fifties (pieces of Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection from 1958, when he was working for Christian Dior) until his last elegant and somewhat melancholic creations of 2002. Thus, more then four decades of work unfold before the viewer, in such a manner that maintaining a critical stance becomes difficult, while sheer aesthetic pleasure and intellectual marvelling take over.
In presenting the artist’s fashion production, the exhibition poignantly underlines the profoundly innovative character of Yves Saint Laurent’s creation and the broad and deep understanding of society, culture and art that it is based upon. From the very beginnings of his career, the Oran born designer was pushing against the boundaries of fashion, understanding that it can be fully meaningful only when rules are left aside in order to meet, but also to forge, social demand. Deploying an acute understanding of form and colour, a feverish skill and a relentless work capacity, the French artist was the one to produce a series of significant “firsts”. Thus, the first sea jacket in 1962, the first safari suit in 1968 and, probably most notoriously, the first smoking suit in 1966 constitute some important highlights of his oeuvre. The importance of his participation in the social transformations that took place so spectacularly during the sixties and the early seventies, especially in regard to the role, the image and the self perception of women, is adequately described by a sentence used more than once in relation to the artist, which is also appropriated by the curators of the show: “Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power”.
Drawing is very present throughout the exhibition, in various forms. Some of his sketches were digitalized and then printed in huge sizes, covering the monumental windows of the halls at Petit Palais. Still, nothing of the freshness, the tactile quality and the astonishing simplicity of the original drawing is lost. A video showing Yves Saint Laurent at work leaves the spectator with the impression he or she’s just been watching an elegant lesson about mastering the line, in an effortless and eerily fast manner. The comics centred on the character of the naughty girl, Lulu, are another way the artist used the medium of drawing as form of expression. La vilaine Lulu is a book that was acclaimed by some as being a display of savage irony directed at various fears and clichés of the contemporary era, while others have furiously criticized it, even going so far as to denounce it as a plain manifest of Satanism.
This is not the only part of the exhibition which reveals Yves Saint Laurent potential for generating controversy. Thus, one room is dedicated to his spring 1971 collection, which was accused by many in his country and elsewhere of explicit references to the time of collaborationism in France and of romanticizing the German Nazi occupation and received more than a handful of negative reviews. Also, another room is presenting the spectator with a series of photographic nude portraits of the fashion designer realized by the photographer Jeanloup Sieff. Like other Saint Laurent “products”, the controversial images, initially conceived as part of a branding campaign, have meanwhile become classics equally for the genre of fashion photography, for that of photo portrait and that of the photographical nude.
By all means, the relation that the fashion designer has developed with other artistic media and with (modernist) art history is very well accounted for in the show. Some of his opera and theatre costumes are on view and one of the most touching section of the display is formed by screenings of movies to the production of which he contributed. In this respect, model and actress Catherine Deneuve, his long time muse, staring in Belle du jour, one of the most important Buñuel films and one of the most provocative products of European cinematography in the sixties, is both an eye stopper and a moving reminder of a great friendship which bounded two icons of contemporary culture. Following the same line of the dialogue with other artistic media, a rather small selection of fashion photographs, realized by some of the best artists ever active in this field and inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s creations is presented at Petit Palais. The curators seem to have privileged quality over quantity and indeed, some of the photos displayed are exquisite works of art, particularly those of Helmut Newton.
But Saint Laurent’s relation to art is a much more intimate one, as convincingly proved by his collections dedicated to or inspired by the works of great artists of the twentieth century. A whole room of the retrospective show is hosting some of the most impressive examples of such creations of the French designer. Here, the refined and somewhat minimalist art of Mondrian becomes the pretext for a lavishly seductive dress; there, Picasso’s daring and trembled lines are tamed and charmed into seductively following the curves of the female body. And it seems there are no unsurpassable limits for the swirling whirlpool of his imagination: just as easy as he can move throughout art history, from using the chromatic harmonies of Robert Delaunay to reshaping the reveries of the surrealists, Yves Saint Laurent can move through (cultural) spaces. Titled Les voyages imaginaire, one section of the show brings forward examples of clothes he’s conceived taking as starting point the formal and chromatic specificities of the traditional costumes from area as diverse as Spain or Russia, the Maghreb or the Far East. The designer’s imaginary voyages are romanticist exercises in exoticism, understood in its positive, playful and truly seductive meaning.
One of the things that Saint Laurent held to be axiomatic for the world of fashion was that haute couture’ s time is over. Therefore, it was a shocking and revealing experience to view Le dernier bal, one of the last and arguably the most spectacular room in the show. Some tens of haute couture models that he produced during his entire career were displayed on mannequins placed on a monumental podium – like stage, in a large, high room. Opera music played, and while the centre of the room was occupied by the startlingly elegant, sensuously colourful dresses, one of the walls was covered by a huge print depicting a nineteenth century ball scene and another one was literally covered, top to bottom, by black and dark grey smoking suits produces by the artist. The stark contrast between sobriety and innovation on one hand, history and nostalgia meaningfully and acutely circumscribe Yves Saint Laurent’s creative personality.
Somewhat lateral from what is supposed to constitute the main itinerary within the display, Yves Saint Laurent’s work studio from the sixties was reconstituted and displayed. Viewing it is both an emotional and a startling experience. A simple wooden desk lies in front of the visitor, with rather few objects placed upon it. There are some pencils, some sketches and several blank sheets of paper, two or three art catalogues. On the wall behind the desk and the simple, even banal chair used by the designer, several shelves can be seen, on which more art books are arranged. And that’s pretty much it. Nothing is sophisticated, nothing is glamorous. It is almost as someone would try to define and construct a minimum set of tools an artist might need in order to achieve creative greatness. This simplicity is all the more uncanny and somehow moving as one remembers that the artist in question is one of the sacred monsters of the shiny, spectacular, vanity driven world of fashion.
All in all, the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at Petit Palais is a splendid epitome of one of the fundamental beliefs regarding the field of fashion design which the artist had once formulated: “I have always held above all the respect for this profession which is not entirely an art, but needs an artist in order to exist”. And, as Yves Saint Laurent proves, every now and then a great artist comes into this profession and transforms it from maybe less than art into maybe more than art, making it a world shaping, society moulding instrument, while it still remains visually enchanting.

Note: for a virtual tour of the show, check http://www.yslretrospective.com

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“La solitude organisative” is an exhibition which represents the fortunate encounter between a reputed artist that has reached the full maturity of his production and an institution whose existence significantly enriched Madrid’s cultural landscape. Benefiting from the financial support of the Iberian finance and insurance giant La Caixa, the Caixa Forum was designed by the architects of Herzog & de Meuron, who brilliantly used an old power station to create a spectacular space for displaying and discussing contemporary art. Only minutes away from both Prado and Reina Sofia, the two iconic art venues in the city, Caixa Forum opened in 2008 and already has become a place which attracts not only contemporary art lovers, but also people who are dazzled by the elegantly sort of postmodern, charmingly eclectic architectural romanticism deployed by Herzog & de Meuron.
Born in 1957 and quite a star of the art scene in Spain, Miquel Barceló has also been getting increased attention from the international art world during the last two decades, being especially appreciated in Europe (in France and the United Kingdom, for example), although still rather unacknowledged in the United States. He was involved in significant vanguard movements in the late seventies, while always engaged in fighting off the by then dominant belief in the unattainability of painting. Quite young, he made the acquaintance and gained the appreciation of renowned fellow artists such as the revered Juan Miró or the young and rebel star, Jean – Michel Basquiat. Among his most prominent public appearances, one can recount his shows at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the Louvre Museum (the first living contemporary artist to ever have his works exhibited here) and the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, but also the grand, spectacular and quite controversial permanent installation he conceived for one of the rooms of the U. N.’ Palace of Nations in Geneva. Also, he represented in a quite poignant manner Spain at the Venice Biennale in 2009, where the Spanish Pavilion was taken over by his expressionistic, large and unctuous canvas.
“La solitude organisative” at the Caixa Forum in Madrid is a comprehensive and compelling retrospective, presenting the viewer with Barceló’s works which encompass a time span of roughly twenty-five years, namely dating from the early eighties until the very recent years. The media deployed by the artists are quite various, as he moved from painting to sculpture, from ceramics to aquarelle, from performance to drawing. Even before entering the exhibition space, one of the most impressive works ever realized by Barceló is awaiting the spectator on a platform in front of the Caixa Forum building: the seven meters high bronze cast titled Upright Elephant, an uncannily realistic rendering of a huge animal performing an impossible demonstration of equilibristic as it stands vertically on its trunk. Visually compelling and symbolically rich, the Elephant may well function as a manifesto of his art, coherently embedding some of its core values and characteristics: boldness, plasticity, formal attentiveness, a drive for monumentality.
Barceló is undoubtedly a gifted painter, who often uses the props of a dynamic neoexpressionism in order to realize mostly large size, mixed media paintings that in many cases allude to the artist’s personal experiences as he was travelling around Europe and Africa. His works from the eighties have visible similarities with the visual vocabulary used by the German generation of the Neue Wilde, especially with the works of Anselm Kiefer. Simultaneity it is not the only thing that makes the viewer refrain from the temptation of considering the Spaniard to be a mere epigone of the German art world stars. Thus, many formal traits reveal his works as strongly rooted in a Spanish artistic tradition, which includes artists as various as Velasquez or Tapies. Barceló’s Big Spanish Dinner or L’amour fou are only two of the paintings that make plain such a lineage, with their strong impasto combined with a refined chromatic and a solid, baroque inspired composition.
The late eighties and early nineties were years of significant development and turn over in the artist’s evolution. It is the time of his African journeys, which will have an important impact on his art. One of the most coherent sections of the exhibition is convincingly revealing this transformation. Barceló’s rich palette is almost drying out; white and washed up greys become predominant chromatic tools he deploys in order to relate to the hysterical, hypnotic Saharan landscapes. Powerful works such as Paysage pour aveugles sur fond vert II are results of this painterly approach, which tantalizingly near the topic of the zero degree of painting, while still maintaining a savoury, relief – like treatment of the surface of the canvas.
Drawing and especially aquarelle gradually became for Miquel Barceló the media par excellence used for recording memories, for pinning down feelings and sensations linked with various places and people encountered at one point or another in his life. The Spanish artist is undoubtedly one of the most valuable contemporary aquarellists, the freshness that this medium enables being fully and poignantly used by him. The hot, sunny, bright coloured African outdoors were the visual source for some of the most beautiful and delicately balanced of his endeavours in that medium. “La solitude organisative” also includes his series of aquarelle illustrations for Dante’s Divina Comedia, a challenge he took up with impressive results. Swirling pale silhouettes populate a dreamlike world, where the law of gravity is charmingly abolished, while rather elaborated compositions are matched with a refined, decadent palette.
The line separating the flatness of painting and the objecthood of sculpture is frequently blurred in Barceló’s works. Layers of thick paint often award his canvases sculptural qualities, as they become tactile and wildly sensuous. The vegetal and animal realms are often used by the artist as pretext for such painterly renderings: the fruits and the seeds, the fish and the imaginary traces of prehistorically living creatures are just some of the visual references contained in several of his most honestly delightful pieces on display at Caixa Forum. Also, a number of works in the exhibition forcefully demonstrate that Miquel Barceló is no stranger to sculpture as such. In this respect, bronze is his favourite material and animal morphology his main formal topic. The “seriousness” that a huge tradition gives bronze sculpture is aptly tuned with the slightly expressionistic casts proposed by the Spanish artist, though neither irony nor bitter, existentialist humour are excluded. Thus, the small and uncanny Pinocchio mort, a cast representing a human skull with an oversized nose successfully functions as eyebrow raising counterpart of the equally witty, giant elephant placed in the small plaza in front of the show’s venue.
The last work before exiting the exhibition is the one lending its title to the retrospective display. The strange, large sized pseudo self-portrait as an ape was one of the best works the artist exhibited in 2009 at the Spanish pavilion in Venice. To be interpreted as an ars poetica would probably be too much, but it certainly allows the spectator a glimpse into Barceló’s view, strongly influenced by classic modernist conceptual features, of the status of the artist. In his understanding, he/ she would be a lonely personality, scrutinizing the world in search of expressive opportunities, a reflexive nature which is still almost compulsively drawn to impetuous action. There is something both ironic and heroic in this work, just as a mix of irony and heroism, of energy and melancholy pervades the entire exhibition. In the end, perhaps the most important thing assuring Barceló‘s art poignancy and freshness is precisely his ability, which so vividly reminds one of the famous Spanish character of Don Quijote, to nonchalantly blend formalism and feeling, Gauguin-like escapism and expressionistic impetus, machismo and refinement, modernist bravado and postmodern allegorical drive, Spain and the wide world.

Note: for a brief video survey of the exhibition, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QW8yjm73nC0