"A woman. There. A man. Here. He sketches. And the woman is dressed." (Marguerite Duras)
A painter of the modern woman by Dominique Païni Yves Saint Laurent's contribution has been decisive: a dialogue between art and Haute Couture. This was no foregone conclusion. Inventing forms and dressing... forms. Despite the apparent proximity of the words, these two projects had little in common at first glance.
No doubt this proximity - almost a play on words - gave birth to a certain wariness. Nevertheless, when historians look back on the twentieth century, the dialogue between art and haute couture is a particularly privileged mechanism for understanding the century's art since only a translucent membrane separates and unites the bold renewal of forms at work in these two separate worlds.
It would be too simple and too self-indulgent to suppose that the conditions were already in place to enable artists and couturiers to meet and work together, to take an interest in each other's work and share a passion for the tensions between lines and surfaces, the interplay between colour and light or the coordination between pose and movement.
There is certainly a common passion at work, even if Jacques Doucet took great pains to describe himself as an art collector rather than a couturier.
Indeed, the two activities frequently enrich each other: in certain activities such as painting or sewing, taste and visual acuity share the feeling for experimentation with lines and for handling contrasts between materials and volumes. Similarly, when discovering or rediscovering the evident genius of Yves Saint Laurent's models, we do not merely appreciate his borrowings or tributes but rather, explore a more essential relationship born out of dialogue, that is to say exchange. The couturier's immense admiration for artists so early on in his life - particularly artists of the twentieth century - goes some way to explaining this dialogue and the quiet unimposing boldness with which he brings Picasso's guitars to life in the sway of a shoulder, evokes Braque's birds in a plunging, vertiginous décolleté, or uses Matisse's colourful incisions to transform the bottom of an ample dress, resolving the puzzle of the original mosaic.
Of course, Yves Saint Laurent was continuing a tradition in which artists themselves first distinguished themselves. Sonia Delaunay, Giacomo Balla, Lucio Fontana, or Alexandre Rodchenko, among others, would map out the road towards Haute Couture. Paul Poiret drew inspiration from Raoul Dufy for the motifs of his fabrics, Coco Chanel benefited from the advice of Jean Cocteau, and Elsa Schiaparelli appropriated Dali's lobsters and drawers for her dresses. However, Yves Saint Laurent would open up another chapter, combining his admiration for modern masters and his own personal interpretation.
The originality of the dialogue lies in the interpretation. It is a dialogue forged by tensions between practices (to contemplate and to clothe), a clash between different states (the static nature of painting and the movement of the garment), conflicts between materials (the uniformly painted canvas and the composite garment), contradictions in terms of volume (the flatness of the pictorial surface and the contours of the human body). When we look again at these now historic models, be it in photographic or video form or even on static display, the tensions, clashes, conflicts and contradictions are all the more striking, almost as if they were recent models. For Yves Saint Laurent has always raised true artistic questions going beyond the occasionally whimsical Picasso guitars, Braque birds or Matisse coloured strips. Indeed, these dialogues are works whose complexity and boldness stand out even today.
Now on display, what do these capes, skirts, dresses, jackets, sheaths or these billowing clouds of fabric tell us? Beyond all other effect or feeling, they help to blur the very origin of certain acts. Who paints? Who sews? In essence, could the artist sew? Could the couturier paint?
Yves Saint Laurent was particularly attached to Picasso and Braque, his two legendary heroes. Clearly, this is for reasons which go beyond mere fame. In effect, the inaugural moment of modern art came with Cubism when the basic act associated with painting was to combine with other "alien" gestures: gluing, tacking, pinning, stapling... stitching. In this sense, Picasso and Braque were both couturiers: their bold assemblages of heterogeneous materials, the illusionary effects of tension between softness and rigidity, the brutal interplay of colours, the shameless assault against material harmony... all helped lay the foundations of the insolent elegance of Yves Saint Laurent's Haute Couture. From this point of view, the 1988 cape, the one that stole Braque's "l'Aria de Bach," is a double masterpiece: the reference work faithfully cited and then captured.
Haute Couture, or at least its memory, carried the Cubist innovation through the century, long after the avant-garde movement had faded into oblivion. Haute Couture is a living depository of art, a parallel memory metamorphosed through the creation of a garment, consecrated and brought back to life on the catwalk.
If such a memory was interpretative, it was always executed in an erudite way. In 1988, for example, did we recall that the construction of the jackets rising above those delightfully tight black skirts could be compared to the adaptation that Picasso himself used in the shapes he created for the ballet Parade in 1917? This was both a tribute to Picasso and a tribute to his method - a method which presumed that art was all about movements, adaptations and variations.
Literal adaptations yet interpretations at the same time: the hips, the arabesque of the waist, underscored by the sinuous contours of the guitar. Although Picasso's guitar never played a note, it nevertheless absorbed as much as it generated in terms of the body's own music. And therein lie the uncompromising obviousness and the studied simplicity of Yves Saint Laurent.
The couturier never forgot that artists were obsessed by movement. And the very raison d'être of the cape, the jacket or the dress, is movement - movement to the point of extravagance. The incredible series of dresses adorned with a variety of birds invites us to other memories and other dreams beyond the realms of the pictorial. The tribute to Braque brought back visions of Tippi Hedren surrounded by Hitchcock's birds. The vision of these women skimming angel-like across the floor and carried away on wings that beat in time to their steps has to be one the most astonishing apparitions that contemporary haute couture has ever witnessed. And the reference to Hitchcock becomes irresistible when one remembers that the master of suspense sought to acquire Braque's 1956 masterpiece Les Oiseaux noirs from Aimé Maeght and finally had it recreated in mosaic in the entrance hall of his Santa Monica villa. An extraordinary circle of references that reminds us that we should never be surprised that the dialogue with art knows no limits.
Irrespective of whether the eye scrutinizes them from near or afar, Yves Saint Laurent's creations do not easily give up their secrets. Upon close examination, the fabrics, panels and folds structuring the garment reveal an exceptional technical mastery.
The uninitiated layman - and that includes me- is dazzled by the dresses with the Pop Art references. In the first place, one is taken aback by the vibrant contrast of green and dark pink almost, though not quite, verging on strident. Here is truly intelligent and playful sensitivity. A geometrically-designed heart evokes the same motif abundantly reproduced by Jim Dine. The heart beats thanks to its colour. Its colour gives it its pulse.
In the second place, if the eye focuses on the details, one discovers a delicate network of alveoli in fine weft jersey into which the pink-red heart seems to sink ever deeper embedded in the green surface. One is further surprised that jersey was chosen for drawing with colour, since it is a material that does not lend itself easily to precision cutting, due to its minuscule "honeycomb" quality. If the problem is nevertheless resolved by technique, one still has to admire the dialectic of using a material that seems to defy the desired effect. The resolution of this technical and aesthetic contradiction is proof of a dialogue with art: are not the artist and the couturier both confronted by the same dilemma?
Jersey, whilst retaining its finesse, also possessed mass and a light rigidity that ensured a regular line on the model's contours. This effectively echoed the era's taste for clinging materials, the preference for pantyhose over stockings, and even plastic chairs...
In addition, how can we explain the balance - in every sense of the word- of the uncompromising use of a Mondrian grid for a sheath tailored straight dress? It was inconceivable during the summer of 1965. Is it any more conceivable today? No doubt, no, but the dress undeniably remains what it was when it was first unveiled: not only elegant- that is patently clear- but also whimsically charming.
References to Matisse gave rise to other exchanges. One can rightly still question the similarities between the painter's gestures and those of the couturier. Is it enough to remember the legendary Romany blouse or the majestic 1937 work Femme en bleu in the Philadelphia Museum of Art to justify a tribute to Matisse? We should however notice the similarity in the gestures when the couturier cuts through the colour of fabric or voile and the painter carves out a bright colour as it soaks into the paper.
If it is the technique which ultimately impresses us when the eye examines the models, something entirely different comes into play when the eye observes from a distance, embracing all the variations that Yves Saint Laurent imagined as a tribute to art. That "something" has nothing immanent about it. It is visible, as visible as it is intangible. It is a line.
Beyond the obvious, it may seem somewhat cliched to remember what has been so often repeated. But it is not a simple question of style as popular opinion may imply: "What is a line? A line is life. A line must live at each point of its journey and it needs to do so in a way that asserts the artist's presence more than the model's ... By line I mean permanence of personality". It was Jean Cocteau who frequently enjoyed reflecting on the profound coherence of a designer beyond the diversity of his creations.
For Yves Saint Laurent, the line is the force which combines the painter's permeable accessibility to art and an ultimately Baudelaire-like notion of woman: "A woman is no doubt a light, a glance, an invitation to happiness, a word sometimes. But above all, she is an overall harmony, not only in her appearance or the way she moves her limbs, but also in the chiffons, gauzes, and the vast, shimmering clouds of fabric that envelop her and which are like the attributes and pedestal of her divinity. What poet would dare, while painting the pleasure caused by the appearance of a beauty, separate a woman from her costume"1.
For the woman of the second half of the twentieth century Yves Saint Laurent was the painter of modern life.
1 Le peintre de la vie moderne, Pléiade NRF 1999, p.714
Dominique Païni. Photo Bernard Plossu. / Dominique Païni. Photo Bernard Plossu.