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