Opium for the Masses (Kouroi for the Few)


Left: The scene at the Grand Palais. (Photo: Lillian Davies) Right: Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.

IT CANNOT HAVE BEEN A COINCIDENCE that the public viewing of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Collection was slated for the height of what in Roman Catholic Europe is widely celebrated as Carnival Week, and that the auction itself, which began last Monday evening and continued day and night through Mardi Gras, concluded on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent—which in France is the perfumey-sounding Carême.

As news reports have proclaimed, this was an extraordinary event in terms of its demographics (more than thirty-three thousand people waited as long as five hours to wind their way around the Grand Palais during the presale weekend) and its proceeds (at close to five hundred million dollars, the record for an auction of a single collection). But it had extraordinary emotive and theatrical aspects to be reckoned with as well.

Produced by Christie’s in collaboration with Pierre Bergé & Associés (Bergé’s own smaller firm), this sale and its elaborate trappings (loosely reconstituted “rooms” from YSL’s revered rue de Babylone apartment; dramatically lit, museum-style installations of works of art from both YSL’s somnambulist’s lair and Bergé’s grander and more Apollonian two-floor apartment on the rue Bonaparte) were an almost-ecclesiastical ceremony for pilgrims from the realms of fashion, design, and art and a virtual affair of state for France, like some new kind of multimedia “La Marseillaise.”

At a brief press conference that followed last Monday night’s very successful sale of Impressionist and modern art, the rather likably pugnacious, left-leaning Bergé, now seventy-eight, issued a veritable call to arms for the resurgence of Paris as a commercial and cultural center. With tears in his eyes and a catch in his throat, he invoked the sight of “le peuple parisien” lined up outside the palace as if at the barricades of marketable taste in art—all of which seemed at once poignant and quizzical in light of the fact that international auction houses have only been licensed to hold sales in protectionist France since 2001.

The cavernous, glass-domed central hall of the late-nineteenth-century cathedral of industry that is the recently renovated Grand Palais (also the annual site of FIAC, Paris’s preeminent art fair) was rigged in such a way as to evoke an actual Gothic cathedral, with perhaps two dozen eight-branched heat-lamp chandeliers dropped low between dome and floor; an abstracted, yellow-green rosette suggesting stained glass projected onto the arched wall behind the auctioneers’ “altar” podium; sales representatives on a hundred phones split into two long “choir” stalls on either side of the “sacred” dais; and a pair of “pulpit” lookouts hovering over wide, deep rows of straight-backed chairs at midpoint in the salesroom “sanctuary.”

At roughly fifteen-minute intervals during the viewing period, the sound of Maria Callas singing “Casta diva” wafted out of a three-screen-slide-show enclosure, and the same double-diva theme heralded the arrival of the auctioneers before each of the six sessions, beginning with Monday evening’s, for which the quicksilver Francois de Ricqlès served as high priest of the gavel.

Left: Francois de Ricqlès, Christie's vice president France. Right: Ricqlès (third from left) with others during the YSL/Bergé sale. (Photos: Lillian Davies)

Most otherworldly of all was the unaccountable yet unmistakable sensation, during the Callas-accompanied course of a last-minute ladies’-room dash past the black-sheathed outer walls of the deserted viewing galleries full of things, of being in the vicinity of a corpse—as if YSL had through some divine and/or decadent process of . . . transubstantiation? . . . slipped into the objects one last time before they were to be scattered. It seems germane to point out here that in French the word dépouilles means bodily “remains” but also material “spoils,” as in booty or “the spoils of war.”

But enough of that, says Brooks: The event got going for us here on terra more or less firma at the Friday-night invitational preview with the sight, at about 11 PM, of one live French bulldog. Sarkozy had in fact already left the building, but there he was, Moujik IV, the designer’s last pet—a leggy, lightly brindled, anxiously sniffing fellow on a leash held by a handsome young man. They were in the entourage of Francois and Betty Catrouxes—the well-known decorator of 1970s “tough chic” fame and his ageless wife, the meta-blond, haute-glam-rock YSL alter ego and muse. (Moujik IV, along with his walker and the Catroux, was present at some point during every day of the sales. The last time we saw him, after Wednesday night’s closing session, he had just drawn a small crowd while slurping water from a cup at a stand of coolers and was sniffing sadly at a Greco-Roman Minotaur that on its peed-on plinth had once presided in his master’s garden.†)

The milling crowd was echt-urbane in the Paris way: lots of streaky, ratted hair and streaky, ratty furs; ephebic young men in gossipy thrall; pretty young women of unclear purpose; deranged-looking dowagers being steered about; and, of course, dealers and clients. Then, round midnight, Larry Gagosian whisked in on what seemed to be . . . a date?

At it again bright and early Saturday morning, along with fellow members of the press and a first wave of le peuple parisien, we headed straight for the biggest room, the ersatz grand salon of the rue Babylone, wherein were displayed some of the most highly estimated modern works of art: Matisse’s Le Coucous, tapis bleu et rose, 1911, Léger’s La Tasse de thé, 1921, and Brancusi’s Madame L. R., circa 1914–17, along with many of the outstanding Déco objects.

Left: The scene at the Grand Palais. (Photo: Lillian Davies) Right: Fernand Léger, La Tasse de thé, 1921.

There we spied the Dublin-London-Paris-based big-league collector-patrons Marie and Joe Donnelly, chatting with a Christies’s expert. Joe was busy asking questions about a very big brown 1930s rug by Ivan Da Silva Bruhns (1881–1980) spread out on a platform in the middle of the room. Marie, however, seemed the whole time to be eyeing one of the major stars of the collection, the uniquely weird and wonderful fauteuil aux dragons, circa 1918, by the great, also Anglo-Irish Eileen Gray (1878–1976), who also lived in Paris—on the rue Bonaparte, like Bergé. (The chair was estimated at around three million dollars but went for almost ten times that amount—to the Paris dealers Robert and Cheska Vallois, we heard, who had already once before owned and sold it. Still: the look in the eyes of Marie . . . Might she, could she, did she, will she somehow get it after all?)

An aside about upholstery and tastes: Walking out of that heady room, Brooks recognized Peter Adam, the prolific Anglo-German BBC producer, filmmaker, and author whose definitive 1987 biography of Gray is about to be reissued. (That book, together with the French designer Andrée Putman’s 1978 re-editions of Gray’s later, more industrial models, was instrumental to the Gray revival.) “You should know,” said he, pointing toward the chocolate-brown-leather-covered fauteuil aux dragons, “that that chair was originally covered in silk that was salmon-colored . . . and it was much better that way.”

The Trachten-clad Adam, who was pushing a companion in a wheelchair, seemed to grow a tad impatient as we queried him about another of Gray’s remarkable works on nearby display, a twelve-legged enfilade, or sideboard table, with funky lacquer veneers, heraldic hardware, and discernible signs of wear. One of Gray’s earliest-known pieces, from circa 1916, this odd-looking lot evoked at once the Chippendale style and what one might think of as its opposite, the late-nineteenth-century reformist-aesthetic movement known as Arts and Crafts: “Eileen hated all that stuff,” he snarled. “She wanted chrome!” (It sold for about $4,500,000.)

The scene at the Grand Palais.

NOTES AND HALF THOUGHTS about some of the major modern artworks: We agreed that the rare, wooden Brancusi, which went for over thirty-three million dollars, was fabulous—more direct and raw and atavistic than the better-known bronze and marble smoothies—though difficult to focus on in a cluttered room: like an African artifact from Freud’s study. And the three classic Mondrians—from 1918 (but cleaned and “turned 180 degrees by the artist” in 1942), 1920, and 1922—side by side in a furniture-free gallery on a light wooden wall, were, to say the least, impressive: three sublime Mondrians, all bought between 1978 and 1987! (Each, and the Brancusi, too, had been acquired through the dealer Alain Tarica.) It may interest some to be reminded here that this was, for YSL, an instance of art following fashion following art: The designer’s famous Mondrian Collection hit the runway in 1965.

At one point in the Monday-night sale, the Centre Georges Pompidou exercised its preemptive right to acquire a work at public auction by matching another buyer’s winning bid—$12.5 million, for de Chirico’s Il ritornante, or “The Ghost,” from 1917–18. (That the artist repudiated this work in 1972, perhaps puckishly, is in any case not mentioned in the catalogue.)

The Musée d’Orsay acted twice on its preemptive right: first, to obtain Édouard Vuillard’s Les Lilas, 1900–1908, a big, moody tableau of two women gathering branches in a bosky setting (at four hundred thousand dollars, a pretty good deal); second, and of greater interest to us (as well as to our acquaintance Patrick Derom, a Brussels collector-turned-dealer who bid on it for a while), to purchase what was generally considered the lesser, but to us more interesting, of two paintings by the Belgian Symbolist James Ensor: Au Conservatoire, 1902, a small, hieratic work depicting a rogue’s gallery of music school denizens (another smart buy at six hundred thousand dollars).

The larger, big-ticket work by Ensor, Le Désespoir de Pierrot (Pierrot le jaloux), a Watteau-like subject painted in 1892 (which Brooks found a bit sappy but Lisa quite adored), sold for a not-unreasonable six million dollars. Indeed, the cranky and erratic Ensor remains something of a bargain: An early, gutsy, if unimportant academic male nude, for example, from 1878–79, sold for under fifty thousand dollars.

We noted that all these Ensors (like the Mondrians and the Brancusi) had been acquired through Tarica, who furthermore sold YSL and Bergé their one Oskar Schlemmer: a stage-set study for Die Glückliche Hand (The Happy Hand) by Arnold Schönberg. (It sold for approximately fifty thousand dollars.) We, in turn, were happy to find the Schlemmer on hand, only in part because we came across it in the company of our old friend Raman Schlemmer, the great Bauhaus figure’s grandson, who many moons ago worked for . . . Artforum!

Contemporary art: Strictly speaking, there was no contemporary fine art in the sale. (The big four-panel Andy Warhol portrait of the designer, positioned fetchingly near a sales desk, belongs to the YSL/Bergé Foundation.) But an honorary-exception case might be made for the still-radical conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp’s 1921 Belle Haleine-Eau de Voilette (no really good translation seems possible, but “Beautiful Breath—Eau de Gauzette” is Lisa’s best shot), in essence a perfume bottle with a punning label, which sold for a cheer-provoking ten million plus. (Hardly the first fortune Bergé has reaped from perfume!)

Another exception should be made for work by the wife-and-husband duo Claude and the late François-Xavier Lalanne, who died at eighty-one in December. In particular, François-Xavier’s metal-and-glass wet bar—commissioned by YSL in 1964 and produced a year later—is nothing if not a tough, hip 1960s sculpture, and his irresistible group of white-marble garden thrones, big and small, shaped like dovelike birds, are the worthy descendants of Max Ernst’s talismanic Loplop.

Animal spirits/geopolitics: The exhibition was agog with animal animus: python-and-leopard-skin covered 1920s furniture, along with a more benignly begotten myriad of objects, in many media and from many centuries, representing bulls, horses, stags, toads, dragons, bears, parrots, dogs, and, of course, king cobra, ruler of Deco vases and lamps.

The alpha beasts, however, were without doubt the two powerful Chinese bronze heads, of a rat and a rabbit, from circa 1755, that were once part of a twelve-figure zodiac fountain realized after drawings by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary, for the summer retreat of the Qianlong emperor. The fountain, plundered by French and British soldiers in 1860, during the second Opium War, remains a very sore point for China, which wants them back, encouraged protests, tried to block their sale, failed to do so by French law, and possibly encouraged Cai Mingchao, a respected Chinese collector and auction-house entrepreneur, to issue the winning bid (eighteen million dollars each) for them by phone last Wednesday and then, in Monday morning’s Le Monde and elsewhere, refuse publicly to pay.

What clever strategy it was not to have staged any obvious, guerrilla-theater-type action during the sale itself, in manifestation-saturated Paris. During his second and last press conference immediately following that final, initially jittery, then deceptively tranquil session, Bergé airily announced that he would gladly give the heads back to China, pending encouraging developments on human rights and Tibet. At the time he spoke, they were presumably no longer really his to give. Now, who knows, he might have his chance. Licking his wounds this morning in Le Figaro, Bergé declared himself to be perfectly happy to bring the bronzes back to the rue Bonaparte and install them on either side of the melancholic 1914 Picasso that also failed to find a buyer.

AND SO TO BED, WITH REVENANTS: Apart from YSL himself, who seems still to be in bardo, the Grand Palais seemed for a few days to be haunted by some restless spirits drawn to the place by their former creations or possessions. There was Marie-Laure de Noailles (1902–1970), the legendary hostess and artists’ patron, whose tabletop arrangements of rare objects seen in a photograph drove YSL straight into the Kugel family’s opulent shop; and Jean-Michel Frank (1895–1941), the neurasthenic genius so often likened to YSL, whose elegant and exquisitely ephemeral cabinets and folding screens graced the de Noailles’s fabled interiors, as they did this event. Then, quite an apparition in his old bespoke smoking, came the Maharaja of Indore (1905–1956), who in 1930 had the German architect Eckart Muthesius design him a modernist palace in the state of Mahratta: a handful of elements from that project—floor lamp and sconces—among the more recherché hits of the sale.

Casting the biggest shade of all, perhaps, was Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), the original gentleman couturier and consummate collector—one more involved with the various arts of his own time than he whose tastes were so spectacularly on display here. Doucet was the original purchaser of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, for instance, and hired a young André Breton to help him develop his famous library, now a national treasure of France. The famous 1972 sale, at Drouot, of many of Doucet’s former possessions was the provenance, as well, for several of the more coveted works in this auction, including Il ritornante, the tricky de Chirico. Doucet, it would appear, gave his nod to this exhaustive and exhausting event.

Our long-admired colleague Guy Trebay mentioned seeing Moujik lifting his leg on that plinth in his suave February 12 article in the New York Times. This dog owner’s vision somehow came to us before we read Trebay’s piece, but we’re delighted nevertheless to credit him.