'Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen' on view at the NYPL for the Performing Arts, Oct. 18, 2012 - Jan. 12, 2013.
With this post, we introduce our newest DG contributor, Jessica Barber. (If the post's formatting looks odd, please adjust the width of your browser window. TypePad can produce some odd effects with photo placement, and they aren't Jessica's fault.)--vp
Last month I had the great pleasure of patronizing the beautifully curated costume exhibition Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, in a seemingly unlikely venue for such a topic: the New York Public Library. The exhibition was organized by the Kent State University Museum, which was given 700 items from Hepburn's estate several years after her passing in 2003 at the age of 96. (The museum is renowned for its extensive costume collection, which contains more than 40,000 objects.) In collaboration with the NYPL, the exhibition included not only many of the costumes from the actress's long career in stage, film, and television, but also examples of the casual everyday wardrobe that helped solidify her as an icon of “rebel chic.”
The fashion and costume designers represented in the exhibition were a veritable who’s who of Hollywood names: Valentina, Howard Greer, Muriel King, Irene, and Cecil Beaton, to name a few. Exhibited alongside garments and accessories were other film and stage ephemera such as posters, playbills, lobby cards, and even a makeup kit used by Hepburn, with various brushes, lipsticks, and Max Factor concealor still inside.
Black silk evening gown by Walter Plunkett, worn by Hepburn as Amanda Bonner in 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.4, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn. Designed to accent her 20" waist, this gown was colored red by the MGM publicity department for the lobby card, right.
Original lobby card for 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.3.14, Gift of Christopher P. Sullivan.
Katharine Hepburn, Self-portrait as Coco Chanel, 1970, watercolor on paper; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.58, Gift of Katharine Hepburn
One of the most important points the exhibition illustrated was Hepburn's high level of involvement in crafting her characters' wardrobes. More than many of her contemporaries, Hepburn was acutely aware of the importance of dress not only to the characters she portrayed but to the overall storyline as well. She worked closely with the designers of her film and stage ensembles (famed costume designer Edith Head once remarked that one "did not design for her," but "with her") and she even made sketches of her own costume designs. The muticolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina that she wore as Jamie Coe Rowan in the 1942 film Without Love was one of many dresses that Hepburn personally sketched, noting details of the fabric choice, the construction, and how the skirt "simply floated."
Hepburn was also known to sketch self-portraits of herself as the characters she played. These captured the qualities she wanted to convey with each. Among the sketches included in the exhibition was her watercolor self-rendering as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, whom she played in the stage musical Coco (1969). Chanel was a hardworking couturière who was known for her stern personality, and this trait is skillfully conveyed by Hepburn's characterization.
Multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina, worn by Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan in 'Without Love' ; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.62, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan, wearing a multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina in 'Without Love' .
Cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown by Irene, Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.12.3, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Also of particular note was how meticulously well-crafted and in rather good condition many of these garments were, such as this shirred and appliquéd cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown designed by Irene and worn by Hepburn as Mary Matthews in State of the Union (MGM, 1948). As any designer for the stage or screen will tell you, this is not always the case. Between the forgiving eye of the camera (or the forgiving distance of the audience from the stage) and the many retakes and rehearsals, the film and theatre costumes in museum collections are notorious for their shabbiness. But even from behind a wall of Plexiglas, it was clear that much care had been put into their detailed construction. This is no doubt also a reflection of how involved Hepburn was in the process of designing and creating them, and of the high standard to which she worked. As the exhibition text noted, she often had recreations of her costumes made for her everyday wardrobe, so it is no surprise that they were made to stand the test of time.
Slacks and jodhpurs worn by Katharine Hepburn at the NYPL. Image credit: The Associated Press.
Of course no clothing exhibition of Katharine Hepburn's would be complete without at least a passing mention of her well-known preference for trousers in her everyday life. The exhibition included many pairs of slacks and jodhpurs skillfully installed on half-mannequins in poses that playfully evoked her unabashed preference for this masculine style, when it was still unheard of for women to express such sartorial sentiments.
With four Academy Awards for Best Actress (and eight additional Oscar nominations), Katharine Hepburn remains the most decorated actress in American film history. Even ten years after her passing, she continues to charm the public with her style, wit, and enduring performances. As noted in the exhibition brochure, perhaps Calvin Klein summed up Hepburn’s mass appeal best when he presented her with the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985: “She has truly epitomized the ultimate American woman. She’s vibrant, she’s outspoken, she’s hardworking and she’s independent…and, fortunately for all of us, she’s never been afraid to be comfortable.”
(Note: The exhibition opened to the public in October 2012, and three months is the generally accepted upper limit on exhibitions featuring costumes and textiles because of their fragility, so the exhibition closed in January 2013. But, you can still download a PDF copy of the handsomely illustrated exhibition brochure here).
Unobtainium. The exotic, unobtainable, and probably mythic substance sought by scientists that would make a resounding breakthrough and success of the scientific endeavor at hand. Borrowing that concept from science, it’s interesting to realize that some of the glamorous things we desire give a convincing illusion of attainability but are, instead, wholly unobtainable.
Consider Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave’s elaborate gowns copied from some 300 years of high fashion, ca. late 17th to the early 20th century. Even the most elaborate of original fabric gowns from those eras are, theoretically, wearable. Certainly recreatable, in approximate respects. But de Borchgrave’s gowns are made of papier-mâché! Life-size, three-dimensional, authentic-looking gowns, robes, and jackets. And shoes – delightful faux-brocade pumps and slippers.
A close look at these gowns, featured in Prêt-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, a recent exhibit at the Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C., revealed the intricate workmanship of the drape, prints, trims, and ornamentation. The heavy drape of an opulent taffeta, perhaps. The gossamer lightness of voile. The impressive illusion of fabric fitted atop hoops and panniers. In certain respects, the de Borchgrave gowns are perhaps more impressive than the originals in that the artist had to not only design, cut and assemble the gowns but also fashion and paint the “fabric.” Each piece is painstakingly crushed, ironed, painted, cut, and constructed. It looks just as if a wearer could be fitted into these splendid fashions by a lady’s maid, or more simply slip into one of the sheath 1920s frocks by Poiret, Lanvin, and Redfern of London. (Virginia wrote about a 2009 exhibit of de Borchgrave's Italian Renaissance gowns here.)
Papier-mâché can be made into wearable, if not especially durable, costumes and masks. The de Borchgrave gowns were not made for that.
Yet, one wants to wear these dresses, designed, as they originally were, for human beings - or at least see someone else wear them. File under “impossible fantasy” because, alas, they are fantasies made of papier-mâché.
(For another, more conceptual take on paper fashion, see also: Petra Storrs on Pinterest and YouTube.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted an extraordinary exhibit called The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, which includes paintings, sculptures, medals, and preparatory drawings that are rarely if ever seen together. I was lured to the December press preview by the chance to see Botticelli's idealized portraits of Simonetta Vespucci (above) without a trip to Berlin. (I've previously discussed the right-facing portrait's resemblance to a certain contemporary star.) They are indeed spectacular.
But the most impressive display was the side-by-side comparison of two busts of Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano: the terracotta study done from life, above, and the final marble version, below.
The two busts are the same, yet different: a portrait before and after subtle retouching. In the marble bust, da Maiano not only makes Strozzi looks less tired and absent but also changes the tilt of his head, giving him a nobler mien. He looks like a leader.
We've gotten so used to thinking about retouching as something done with pixels and Photoshop that we often forget not only how important it was to early glamour photographers like George Hurrell but also how unusual the ideal of non-idealized images was throughout most of western history. Until the rise of what historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison call the ideal of "mechanical objectivity," there would have been no question that a portrait should follow the Aristotelian ideal of producing a “likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.”
This dictum applied more universally than we tend to think. In The Patron's Payoff, Jonathan Nelson and Richard Zeckhauser note that “though many praise Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man for its 'realism,' the bulbous growth on the patron’s nose was even more prominent in the preparatory drawing.” You can see the final, glamorized version, which is in the Met exhibit, above.
As traditionally conceived, portraits are not like snapshots (most of which aren't that candid either). They're designed to present a public face. Within the constraints of likeness, they represent the persona the subject wishes to appear—assuming that the subject is the one commissioning the portrait. In The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, John Brewer discusses some of the dilemmas facing 18th-century portrait painters, whose clients could refuse to pay if they didn't like the results.“The trick,” writes Brewer, “was to understand how the portrait should be presented. Usually the client had a sense of how he wanted the sitter to appear. Part of a good portraitist's skill lay in discerning this; otherwise the commission could go disastrously wrong.”
For instance, Jean-Ãtienne Liotard, who specialized in miniatures, was too realistic for his clients' tastes. (Here's a nice example of his work.) “His likenesses were very strong,” a contemporary said, “and too like [i.e., accurate] to please those who sat for him; thus he had great employment the first year and very little the second.” Ozias Humphry ran into a different sort of conflict when he was hired by a man who wanted a portrait of his wife. The wife, naturally, wanted to look young and attractive. Humphry complied—and infuriated his paying customer. “You have forgot that she is between 30 and 40,” he wrote to Humphry, “and that I am 70, and that the character of a smirking Girl is very unfit for her situation, as I should have liked to have made her of more Importance, and I find some of my friends ridicule me upon it.”
When I read that I thought of my official Bloomberg portrait. In real life, I look more or less like the photo on the left, which is a candid of me accepting the Bastiat Prize. (I'm well lit and well coiffed.) The middle photo is the one I use most of the time as my “official” portrait and is, except for reversing the hands, a characteristic post. (My hair no longer has those post-chemo curls.) The one on the right is my Bloomberg photo, for which I had professional hair and makeup and unknown amounts of retouching. But, most important, the photographer refused to let me smile. No “smirking Girls” at Bloomberg View! (For another contrast, check out Amity Shlaes at Bloomberg View, in a candid lecture shot, and on her own website.) The expression isn't my resting or serious face either; it's more attractive. So the picture looks like I'm an actress playing someone else—the same physiognomy but a different personality.
For more on Nelson and Zeckhauser's work on image building by Florentine patrons, including Strozzi, see my article here. The Met exhibit will be on through March 18. If you can't make it in person, you might want to get the gorgeous catalog.
[Botticelli's Ideal Portrait of a Lady (right-facing image) and Ghirlandaio's Portrait of an Old Man courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other exhibit photos by Virginia Postrel and permission is granted to reproduce these photos with a link back to this post.]
The photos all present idealized versions of the stars--but what a range of ideals they represent, from the refined elegance of Grace Kelly to the sultry seductiveness of Rita Hayworth's Gilda, from Vivian Leigh in hyperfeminine white ruffles to Marlene Dietrich tough and dominant in a crisp blouse and slacks. And those are just (a few of) the women. Click the slideshow link for a selection.
Reviewing the London exhibit in The Independent, Matthew Bell praised it for giving visitors a hint of the effort behind the effortlessness:
The most interesting image isn't on the wall. It's tucked in a cabinet and is of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, marked up for retouching. A backroom worker has criss-crossed the areas that need work – stubble and hairy hands for him, crow's feet and a flabby jawline for her. If you have been duped into believing in the fantasy of Hollywood, this snap brings you down to earth.
Like Debbie Reynolds's late-lamented costume collection, the John Kobal Collection originated with MGM's previously mentioned mother of all garage sales. In the '60s and '70s, when Golden Age glamour was out of fashion and studios were dumping their archives, Kobal bought and preserved prints and negatives, befriended aging stars and photographers, and documented their stories. Most of the classic images you see reproduced today come from his archives, now licensed by Getty Images.
In the introduction to her essay collection, A Dedicated Follower of Fashion, fashion critic Holly Brubach makes a case for the cultural significance of fashion. It is, she suggests, “architecture’s feminine counterpart....Buildings and clothes are the primary components of our everyday landscape, and they embody the ideas and the attitudes of the time in which we live.”
While I agree with her about fashion’s significance, I’m not convinced that buildings are clothing’s masculine counterpart. They are too static, too permanent, and too communal. Architecture operates differently on the imagination. It tends to be more evocative in photographs than in person, while clothes are just the opposite.
Fashion’s real masculine counterpart is personal transportation, which since the early 20th century means cars. (It once meant coaches, as time spent with Madame Bovary or Sherlock Holmes will quickly demonstrate.) Like an outfit, an automobile wraps its owner in a new outer shell, both protective and decorative. Even the most ordinary car, like even the most ordinary clothes, thus holds some prospect of transformation while extraordinary cars, like extraordinary clothes, conjure up whole new lives. The glamour of both comes from the promise of escape and transformation.
Both cars and clothes also express, as Brubach said of architecture, the ideas and attitudes of their time. Yet, outside of the movies, they are only rarely deliberately paired to call attention to these correspondences. People who think seriously about cars usually know little about fashion, and vice versa.
As the exhibit’s copy notes, in the streamline era the echoes were sometimes deliberate:
Wealthy connoisseurs would collaborate with French couturiers, automakers, and coachbuilders to create perfectly matching ensembles. Even Chanel met with exclusive coachbuilders like Joseph Figoni to formulate matching automobile and fashion ensembles for a select few clients. Well heeled patrons often had long lunches in exclusive hotel restaurants with their coachbuilders and couturiers to order coordinating fashion and automobile ensembles to be debuted at prestigious parties or high profile events such as a concours d’elegance.
There might have been other, less official wardrobe coordination. The second car pictured is a 1937 Delage D8-120. Louis Delage, the car company’s founder, contrasted his products with the competition. “Gentlemen drive Alfas, and you’re driven in a Rolls,” he said. “But a Delage is something to give one’s mistress,” perhaps along with a similarly streamlined bias-cut dress.
[Car photos courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum. Fashion from Phoenix Art Museum Collection, photos by Ken Howie. Bottom exhibit photo by Virginia Postrel.]
Boston-based artist Ria Brodell doesn’t think of her work as glamorous, but when I happened upon her “Self Portraits” exhibit at the Kopeikin Gallery in West Hollywood, her drawings struck me as perfectly expressing the way glamour works as an imaginative process. Her drawings capture how she projected her ideal self onto slightly mysterious, impossibly graceful figures—in this case, male icons ranging from classic movie stars like Gene Kelly and Cary Grant to Catholic saints and children’s toys. Like her very different “Distant Lands” drawings, which depict strange and whimsical animals, the portraits are at once charming, sweet, and slightly subversive. (This YouTube video shows Ria at work on her Distant Lands creatures.) Her exhibit will be open until March 6.
DG: How did you select the figures you depicted yourself as in “Self-Portraits”? Why these particular men?
Ria Brodell: The figures I chose were all men I connected with in some way as a kid. If I could have grown up to be a man, I would have been a man like them. Sometimes it was their style, the way they dressed, their hair, the way they carried themselves. Sometimes it was their über masculinity. Of course, in regards to the movie stars, all of this came from their depictions in the movies and not necessarily their real selves.
RB: When I began this series I remembered a drawing I made for my First Reconciliation book in second grade (I went to Catholic school). I had drawn a picture of St. Michael that I was very proud of and I showed it to my Grandma. She told me he looked more like He-Man. I remember feeling ashamed for some reason, perhaps knowing I should have shown St. Michael more reverence. I used to draw He-Man all the time, practicing over and over until his muscles looked right. Looking back now, He-Man and St. Michael had a similar appeal to me, strong warriors, fighting for good. As far as what unites movie stars, saints, and toys like G.I. Joe and He-Man, for me they all represented an ideal, whether it was physical aesthetics or moral values. In combining them all for “The Handsome & The Holy” I was hoping to unite my “queer side” with my religious background because they are equally present in my life. DG: Your drawings have been described as “achingly sincere,” “both earnest and humorous,” and “intently self-aware schmaltz.” Their humor is gentle and sweet, not ironic—juxtaposing He-Man and St. Michael is funny, but you are, at the same time, owning up to your desires to be like them. Is it hard for a contemporary artist to portray desire and identification without using irony to maintain your cool? Does glamour risk condemnation as kitsch? RB: I don’t think I’m intentionally trying to be funny in all the drawings. I’m trying to be completely honest, but I think the juxtaposition of some of these subjects is just naturally odd and therefore funny. Sexuality, gender identity, and religion can be very serious, often complicated subjects. I want to create work that deals with these subjects in a simple and not heavy-handed way. Of course there is always a risk of the work having unintended consequences, such as being deemed “kitsch.” With this work there is a bit of background information needed. On the surface they can appear to be just glamorous self-portraits or “dress-up” but my hope is that people look further than that and begin to think about gender identity and sexuality outside of our society’s strict definitions.
DG: One of your drawings is called “A Picnic With Audrey Hepburn.” It shows Audrey from the back, but there is no one with her. A critic described it as “a picture of mythic femininity, here elusive.” But the title suggests the perspective not of Audrey but of her unseen date, inviting viewers to project themselves into the scene. What inspired this drawing? What does Audrey Hepburn mean to you?
RB: As a teenager I became slightly obsessed with Audrey Hepburn after seeing her in “My Fair Lady.” She was not only beautiful and glamorous but also a humanitarian. For me, this drawing represents the complexity of figuring out ones sexuality, especially queer sexuality, the desire and simultaneous shame I felt. How could I possibly desire a woman and not just any woman, but Audrey Hepburn? Feeling unworthy of her, I chicken-out on our date.
In 2008 Giorgio Armani sponsored the Met’s annual Costume Institute gala and the related exhibit, “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.” It was an odd pairing. At the press preview, Mr. Armani, who built his career on understated elegance, marveled at the over-the-top concoctions of designers like Thierry Mugler, Gareth Pugh, and Alexander McQueen and acknowledged the irony of his own role. “The curators must have worked very hard to find something in my past that belongs in this exhibit,” he said. It was clear, however, that for all his dedication to “a fashion that is worn,” he was enjoying the exuberant creativity behind all those impractically superheroic clothes.
And now we have Lady Gaga wearing Armani haute couture to the Grammys. Strange, but perhaps not as strange as it immediately appears. Aside from recycledpressreleases, there hasn’t been much commentary on how music’s most flamboyant performer teamed up with a designer known for his restraint. But I can’t help thinking that Armani wanted his own superhero moment.
Left: Gareth Pugh, spring/summer 2007 Photograph courtesy of firstVIEW. Right: Alexander McQueen, fall/winter 2007-2008 Photograph courtesy of Chris Moore. Both courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. Lady Gaga photo from Giorgio Armani press materials.
For the best look at Lady Gaga’s Grammy costumes, check out this New York magazine slideshow.
See a slideshow of Armani Privé's Spring 2010 collection, inspired by the moon, here.
The first is the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate, the largest privately held collection of vintage George Hurrell photographs, to which we also owe the beautiful photo of Dorothy Jordan that alternates with Rick Lee’s woman in sunglasses as our masthead. At the party, we will have an ongoing slideshow of more than 40 Hurrell photos of people in hats, including many rare treasures like this perfect-for-the-occasion shot of Buster Keaton.
The photos range from the Golden Era glamour of Marlene Dietrich, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, and Carole Lombard (and, of course, the beautiful Anita Page photo on our invitation) to portraits from the 1970s and ’80s. It's an unusual Hurrell show, where Aretha Franklin and Bianca Jagger appear more often than Joan Crawford. But Crawford will be making a special appearance, since Lou D’Elia, the collector behind the Pancho Barnes archives, is also lending us one of the large-scale, limited-edition prints recently issued by the Estate of George Hurrell.
The second collection is Wendy Ann Rosen’s House of Hats, the best collection of 20th-century hats outside a museum. Wendy Ann, a makeup artist by trade, not only collects hats. She keeps them in a world-class collection of vintage hat boxes. Some of her hats are included in the V&A’s recent Hats: An Anthology exhibition, curated by Stephen Jones. Those hats are still traveling the world, but others will be on display at 5th & Spring--and available for purchase, since Wendy Ann is, as they say in the museum business, deaccessioning a few of her more than 600 chapeaux.
Wendy Ann is one of L.A.’s hidden treasures, someone only a few aficionados know about. Working on her own, mostly in the 1990s, she researched the history of 20th-century millinery and identified, bought, and preserved the best examples of the milliner’s art. (Here's a fashion spread featuring some of her hats from the 1920s, aquired through the Adamson Estate.) In addition to hats and hat boxes, she collects tools of the hat-maker's trade, signs and other ephemera, and the adorable cupcake-sized mini hats and boxes that were used as milliner's gift certificates since hats were custom-fitted. (Alas, she's not bringing any of the mini hats. Partygoers will have to make do with literal cupcakes.)
Although some of Wendy Ann's hats are from famous fashion designers, including Chanel, Dior and Schiaparelli, many are from hat specialists like Madame Georgette who were renowned in their day but are now forgotten. “I want to make sure that they're recognized and remembered. That's my main purpose,” she says.
DG's party, "You're the Top: A Celebration of Glamorous Hats & the People Who Wear Them," is free and open to the public as part of the first Downtown Fashion Walk. RSVPs are appreciated but not required. See our invitation for details on the location. Ample parking is available in the garage at 530 S. Spring for $5. The map for Downtown Fashion Walk is online here.
This week's Fashion Show challenged contestants to design an outfit based on the work of one of eight fashion icons: Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Gianni Versace, Madame Grès, Emilio Pucci, Halston, or Yves Saint-Laurent. It was surprising to see how little fashion history many of these designers have absorbed, since a littlewebsurfing or the occasional visit to a museum or bookstore is enough to give you a basic education—no formal schooling required. The episode also demonstrated how much the show could be improved by a tie-in with FIT (a rival to Project Runway’s Parsons or FIDM), especially its outstanding museum. It would be great to see the brainy Valerie Steele replace deadwood host Kelly Rowland.
The contestants who wound up in the bottom two, Haven and Reco, were assigned Yves Saint Laurent and Halston, respectively. Although Haven professed a great admiration for YSL’s work, she failed to capture its feel, while Reco knew nothing about Halston. Unfortunately, as judge Fern Mallis noted on her blog, the samples provided by the vintage shop—just one per design icon—"were not in all instances great representations of those iconic designers' most important or influential looks." Better than a poor vintage selection would have been a tour of the Met’s current Model as Muse exhibit (see earlier post here). Haven and Reco in particular might have learned from this recreation of a Studio 54-era “VIP Room.”
In the Either/Or section of DG Q&A interviews, we ask, “Armani or Versace?” In the 1990s, those two designers represented contrasting aesthetics, both associated with but not the same as glamour: the elegant, understated luxury of Giorgio Armani (who, unlike Fashion Show's icons, is still living) and the flash and sexuality of Gianni Versace. Each is glamorous in the eyes of some audiences, not so to others. The Met’s ’70s tableau offers another contrasting choice: Yves Saint Laurent or Halston. It’s a great demonstration that glamour can take many different stylistic forms, even in the same historical context. (The tableau also reminds people like me, who tend to think of ’70s fashion as a glamour-free zone, that those who associate the decade with glamour aren’t entirely nuts.)
Here we see two contrasting, but equally glamorous, visions, both offering escape and transformation. YSL’s plays with exoticism, ornamentation, and idealized peasant forms—mythical historicism. Halston, by contrast, promises to make the wearer streamlined and modern. Both aim at seduction, YSL with flowing fabrics that brush the body but don’t display it, Halston with elegant but body-conscious fit. In keeping with the times, both styles appear to require few undergarments and permit easy removal. (The bizarre head gear is part of the museum display.)
I was amused to read that Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent's partner and keeper of his legacy, had withdrawn YSL's portrait from a Paris exhibit of Andy Warhol portraits, on the grounds that mixing the designer with others from the world of "glamour" was disrespectful to Saint Laurent as an artiste. Bergé's letter of explanation, published in Le Monde, opened with a quote from Warhol himself, proclaiming YSL "le plus grand artiste français de notre temps."
Even leaving aside the very important and limiting qualifier français, what would Andy Warhol mean by proclaiming someone a "the greatest artist"? After all, Warhol famously wrote:
Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called “art” or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business—they’d say, “Money is bad,” and “Working is bad,” but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.
Bergé's reaction was very French and not very Warholian.
“All things considered this was not an affair about painting but about people," said the exhibit's curator in response. "It’s a decision I regret enormously, because the portraits are those where Warhol’s empathy for the subject is of the highest degree.”
Once the show opened, people pretty much forgot about Saint Laurent. In an interesting review that doesn't mention the missing portraits (except in their appearance in a poorly reviewed exhibit 30 years ago), the FT's Jackie Wullschlager writes:
The sweeping style with which some 100 paintings are displayed, across vast galleries linked by a belle-époque staircase, would surely have made Warhol delirious with snobbish glee. His best works – “Red Jackie”, “Silver Liz”, laconic 1963-64 self-portraits in dark glasses, interleaved with paintings of a glittery dollar sign and an electric chair – have never looked more seductive or more classical. Warhol, New York soup can prince of conceptualism, becomes in Paris an opulent society portraitist in the tradition of John Singer Sargent or Kees van Dongen: master of colour, texture, clarity, precision, ravishing yet chilly, flattering even as he anatomises triviality and brittleness...
Frivolous in appearance but deadly serious in intent, his mechanical repetitions put painting in its place, within a continuum of the 1960s media of mass production – particularly photography – only to exalt it again by the conviction and beauty of his painterly surfaces. This is an utterly enjoyable show which illuminates the artist’s lifelong concerns, methods and his discomforting, prophetic take on an epoch that continues to shape our own.
This online article, which features some shots from the show (including one of the missing YSL portraits), explains some of the groupings:
Hollywood stars (Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Sylvester Stallone, BB, etc), pop stars (Mick Jagger, Deborah Harry, etc.), artists (Man Ray, David Hockney, Joseph Beuys, Keith Haring, etc.), collectors and art dealers (Dominique de Menil, Bruno Bischofberger, Ileana Sonnabend, Leo Castelli), politicians (Willy Brandt, Edward Kennedy, etc.), fashion designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Hélène Rochas, etc.) as well as businessmen and jet-setters (Gianni Agnelli, Lee Radziwell, Princess Grace of Monaco, Günter Sachs, etc.). Famous or less famous, they all glow with the aura of Warhol’s genius. The entire global social scene… in paint!
Like designers, singers are commercial artists. But you don't see Mick Jagger and Deborah Harry pitching fits about not being adequately respected. Of course, they aren't French.