Between now and the end of spring, Parisians and tourists will feast on Yves Saint Laurent. With half a dozen simultaneous exhibitions on the couturier at the Center Pompidou, the City’s Museum of Modern Art, the Picasso Museum, the Yves Saint Laurent Museum and the Louvre Museum, the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation realizes a vertiginous double hat-trick, a real six-gun salute to the one who wears glasses.
Given the marathon dimensions of such an exegesis, do you really need six shows to probe Saint Laurent’s enthusiasm for the fine arts? Because the craze was, or more exactly, an addiction. Matisse, Léger, Picasso and Mondrian were his gods. All were in the collection he began building in the 1950s with his lover and partner Pierre Bergé. Most fashion designers have an equanimous relationship with art, but Saint Laurent was in thrall to art. He was never able to separate himself, even temporarily, from his Goya, for example by canceling a promised loan from the Portrait of Don Luis María de Cistué at the Prado at the last second.
It was the Mondrian dress that gave the designer his first commercial blockbuster in 1965. Saint Laurent obeyed Piet Mondrian’s neo-plastic manifesto to the letter. He chose the trapeze shape that André Courrèges had unleashed on the catwalks a year earlier, a silhouette as close to a canvas as possible. But there remained a fundamental contradiction: nothing is more of the real and corporeal here-and-now that Mondrian’s art disdained than a dress, so few concessions it makes to hips and breasts. When you think about it, the Mondrian cocktail dress has completely gutted the Dutchman’s principle of pure abstraction. Although perhaps the Dutchman, being a ladies’ man, wouldn’t have cared. Perhaps the sartorial art transmuted by wearing it, making the Mondrian dress performative. Or maybe, as Sonia Delaunay sniffed, it was no longer art at all, just “society entertainment”, “a circus”. Saint Laurent told fashion historians Florence Müller and Farid Chenoune: “I realized that we had to stop thinking of a garment as a sculpture and, instead, we had to think of it as mobile.” In terms of art, a neo-plastic dress disturbed the contemplation of universal beauty. In terms of fashion, these mini dresses rocked.
Sometimes the relationship between YSL and the artist was a simple theft. Like the peasant blouse he knocked off of Matisse The Romanian Blouse (1940). Alongside a few strokes of a heart-shaped ovoid with nothing more than a trapezoid cut here and there a triangle of decorative patterns to suggest a folk blouse, it’s a bit deflating to see the literal shirt (attached to the skirt) hanging right next to it, no matter how beautiful.
Sometimes museum encounters between Saint Laurent and the artist are lazy: take the Pop Art pairing of a fall 1966 dress bifurcated by a long dancer’s leg with Gary Hume’s bright and shiny dress The moon (2009); like Hume, Saint Laurent was a fan of Tom Wesselmann Great American Nudes but really, we know, it was about the matching games.
There are also a few notable absences. The Musee d’Orsay exhibit did not include Saint Laurent’s Van Gogh sunflower and iris jackets, whose Lesage pearls perfectly mimic the sheen and swirl of Van Gogh’s knife-applied paint. Also missing is the hieratic silk-chiffon gown and cast-copper breasted veil by Claude Lalanne that Saint Laurent produced for Fall/Winter 1969.
Breasts were Saint Laurent territory. It was on his knees that Courrèges planted his flag. Together they vaporized the French Catholic prudery of the 1950s and early 1960s, but Saint Laurent was the most racy. Nearly two decades before Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1984 conical breasts, popularized by Madonna, Saint Laurent was dressed in a totemic black Bambara dress. The pattern of wooden beads and rhodoïd discs of the dress recalls the sculptures of the Malian Bambara people, whose art figured in the cabinet of curiosities of André Breton. While Yves Saint Laurent drew on an assortment of cultures, including chinoiserie for a collection in 1977, the Center Pompidou draws a line between the 1967 dress and bronze raffia coat and African-influenced avant-garde. of Braque, Derain and Picasso.
Saint Laurent was good at capturing a painter’s intentions with the couturier’s language of fabric, gathers and drapes. On his 1984 Domino dress, Saint Laurent performed some of Matisse’s gymnastic push and twist unfinished dance (1931) with folds and undulating black bands. Moiré satin also adds a sense of movement with its optical interference effects. Like the fresco now restored at the City’s Museum of Modern Art, the dress is in the same wintry palette of blue, pink, gray. Elsewhere, Bonnard and Vuillard are satisfactorily rendered in light, mottled, color-saturated dresses with puff-sleeved naivety. He interpreted Sonia Delaunay at the Center Pompidou in his own way with streamers, starfish shapes and coarser, jewel-toned pieces of fabric, roughly patchworked on the skirt. Saint Laurent’s clothes have always been refined to perfection. But the almost hippie quilting of his Delaunay dress shows he was aware of the “simultaneous” dresses the artist began making in 1913.
Sometimes the dresses of Saint Laurent surpass the works that inspired them. The relief ornamentation of a dress surrounded by Fernand Léger’s canvases of cones, spheres and cylinders in the Pompidou is even better than Léger’s compositions, which are more vivid in color and less calculated in spatial arrangement. To Léger’s Euclidean geometry, Saint Laurent responded with a kinetic blurring of what today looks like street graffiti.
Yet, after going through exhibition after exhibition, the dresses become a miasma of exquisiteness, an excess of tied waists and oval necklines. Beauty was Saint Laurent’s complex, its Achilles’ heel. He once said to his friend the jewelry designer Loulou de la Falaise: “Symmetry calms me down, the lack of symmetry drives me crazy. But the first Yves could be shocking, even ugly. Saint Laurent’s January 1971 couture show was jam-packed with 1940s wedge heels, chunky shoulder pads and a cute cropped hideous green dyed fox coat. The Center Pompidou hung the jacket next to that of Martial Raysse Made in Japan – La Grande Odalisque (1964), an amusing and devious version of Ingres’ famous painting. Although the gaudy greens make comparison easy at first glance, there’s a call and response between Saint Laurent’s maligned fur and Raysse’s one-eyed dispatch. Deliberate ugliness was something Raysse kitsch Odalisque and Yves’ jacket had in common. There can be an expansion, an astringent freedom in ugliness for which beauty is too strained. “Beauty is in bad taste,” Raysse said. “Bad taste is the dream of a beauty too desired.
If he was an artist, the art of Yves Saint Laurent suffered from his craze for splendor. In 1992, he declared: “I am a failed painter”. Yet the watercolors in the Musée d’Orsay exhibit, painted by Yves Saint Laurent when he was 21, of frivolous pineapple hairstyles and flower-laden follies, had a quick, easy, exultant hand akin to that of Raoul Dufy. After 1992, with Saint Laurent surrounded by Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse in his own house, art no longer entered into his work. Gone are the appropriations that make fashion radical and art fascinating. Only beautiful clothes remained.
‘Yves Saint Laurent at the Museums’ is in different places, Paris, until May 16th.
Excerpt from the March 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.