Exhibition review: Y. S. Laurent House Museum, Paris

Yves Saint Laurent photographed by François-Marie Banier

New Display for the Collections 

from 12.02 to 31.12.2019
@ Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

 Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, the house museum of beloved fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent, is located in the legendary hôtel particulier at 5 avenue Marceau where he worked almost thirty years designing his collections from 1974 to 2002. The building is also the headquarters of the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent. Across 450 m2 the audience is presented the essential designs that defined his style and temporary thematic displays, both carefully selected from the museum storage that is currently a home for nearly 8000 original garments. Audience is welcomed to see the exhibition on their own or book a tour with a guide, and once a month there is an opportunity to take a look at what is going on behind the museums closed doors in restauration/conservation studios.

Mirror mirror on the wall

     The formative years in Yves Saint Laurents career overlap with the huge socio-economical, cultural and political changes that took place after WW II. The very essence of the post war fashion on a broader social scale is it being the post war society's preferred form of self expression and re-invention. In this context fashion could be viewed simultaneously as the creator and creation of personal and interpersonal aspects of psyche - the persona and the zeitgeist.

The allure of the great game of fashion emerges from its playful ability to reflect individual and universal, past and future. It is a profound manifestation of the paradox of aesthetics which slides on a scale of truth and deception. Or as Stendhal famously stated, beauty is a promise to happiness, meaning that one should explore further behind the surface layers to find the true essence of a subject. After all, fashion, beauty and appearance have always been the attributes of seduction and desire. From a more biologically determined viewpoint one might find Nietzsches theory of apollonian beauty to be quite accurate in context of fashion, stating that beauty is merely a veil covering the dionysian side of human nature which's primary evolutionary goal is seduction followed by reproduction that serves as a guarantee for the survival of a species.

This aspect of fashion might explain how such practice, sometimes dismissed as an expression of vanity, could have survived the catastrophic wars when people were starving (and in some extreme cases even forced to eat their garments). Yet over the periods of wars and emerging to the current day, haute couture has served for the French as a national emblem of pride and also an employer of thousands of skilled craftsmen, not to mention its role in exports and international trade. Fashion always reflects what is going on in the society, both from the perspective of production and consumption. So even when considering some less glamorous effects of fashion (such as promoting unhealthy body images, environmental challenges that the industry faces) we must take into account that in this case we are facing a two sided mirror. On one side there's the creation of those imbalances and on the other hand it is reflecting, questioning and challenging that which already exists.

Taking all that into account, Yves Saint Laurent was definitely among one of the most important pioneers of post war fashions movement towards liberation of women. Although being a relatively private person he never fought on public forefronts. His resolute statements were delicately woven into his designs.

The exhibition starts from the hall of mirrors, a place where new collections were presented to the elite clients. The fashion house and the brand itself were founded in collaboration with his lifelong companion and business partner Pierre Bergé, just shortly after YSL left the house of Dior in 1961.

A new temporary display Les Salons Haute Couture

     Fashion is art - a statement made absolutely clear by the designer of those famous Mondrian dresses that were inspired by the paintings of Piet Mondrian, an artist that we nowadays know as one of the fundamental classics of geometrical abstractionism in art history. Nevertheless it is interesting to acknowledge that it was only after these cutting-edge short dresses over floated the world of fashion from Europe to United States that the author of the paintings became known to wider audiences posthumously. The issues regarding intellectual property which are strictly regulated in todays art markets were not so relevant back then. According to the curator of the exhibition (Aurélie Samuel, director of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, who had asked the same question from Mr. Bergé before he died in 2017), Bergé assured no copy write issues never arose. The greatness of the phenomenal dresses that have now become symbolic to the era might be described with Picassos famous saying that good artists copy, great artist steal. Furthermore the designer was absolutely aware of his contribution to promoting the works of other artist as he has honored many famous visual artists in his tribute collections (one of which in 1979 was Tribute to Picasso)

Photo taken by M.Pabunen @ Museé YSL

Too perfect to be true

    The only omission from the curatorial side would be simultaneously what one could find to be a strong point of the exhibition. It is the seamless perfection in which the story is told, but to me it is a bit too close to the extent of boredom. In other words - to my surprise I wasn’t surprised, everything was simply immaculate. One might regard it as critics for the sake of critics when there is nothing to complain about. But being one step ahead of that I will further explain what's my agenda behind this critique.

What I missed the most was the lack of personalized content that you'd expect from a biographical exhibition. The juicier, more intimate details that you will not be able to experience just by reading an article from Wikipedia. Even the artists personal space, which was said to be left more or less just as the late legend himself left it, seemed too neatly clean and sterile to draw an intimate, close-up portrait of the artist to whom the viewer could relate to. Regarding the spatial context of the exhibition - a house museum with a rather compact exhibition area - it is somewhat odd that instead of taking advantage of the intimate nature of the space the viewer is left to experience the world of the artist from a distance that naturally occurs in monumental exhibition spaces. The human side of the monumental figure of the fashion world remains behind a carefully arranged facade.

Another apparent intention from the curatorial viewpoint seemed to be staying true to the designers unconditionally flawless public image: all of his boundary braking designs were presented to the audience in the utmost perfect, yet detached manner. As a person Yves Saint Laurent obviously was not a boat rocker, compared for example to one of his contemporary public figures, Albert Camus, with whom they shared Algerian roots and who was way more forthright in addressing the brutal French-Algerian colonization conflicts of the time. If we are to claim that fashion is art and a fashion designer has an equal stand with all other artists whose work reflect and also recreate the society, then with that comes undoubtedly some social responsibility, both for the actions and inactions. After all, colonization is an act of violence and not

taking a side is as risky as choosing one. So while Camus was made a fool by the press for having a say, Saint Laurent paid the price of staying silent with an act of violence from the current political forces by being hospitalized in a mental institution, which by his own words put an indelible mark on the following years of his life and career. Deep depression, drugs and alcohol abuse were no strangers to the iconic designer. Some more ambiguous public receptions of his designs were also neglected (if not to mention a brief hint to a 1971 collection which provoke scandal for its extremely short skirt styles).

Exclusion of controversial content is not surprising though as the museum was founded and run by the couple (Saint Laurent and Bergé) itself who started the tradition of conservation and preservation of their legacy already at their lifetime. At it's best the current curatorial team definitely stays true to the high standards of the founders. Same can be said about the scenography of the exhibition, seamless and flawless as the haute couture garments themselves, which can be attributed to set designer Nathalie Crinière and decorator Jacques Grange (both long-time collaborators of the Foundation) who have left little room for excessive illustration and delightfully highlight only the quintessential.

Both the curatorial and scenographical aspects of the exhibition succeed in not over floating the space with the supplementary. After all we should not underestimate the visitors own horizons of knowledge and imagination. Yet as the museum ''seeks to address the history of the twentieth century and the haute couture traditions that accompanied a way of life that no longer exists'' * then this aspect was not so evidently exhibited in comparison to its monographic ambitions. Although, as Yves Saint Laurent truly is one of the most influential figures in modern history of fashion, this omission might as well be forgiven as this detailed, elegant portrait of his artistic creations also serves as a reflection of his contemporary surroundings in itself.

* quoted from the official webpage of the museum (https://museeyslparis.com)


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