Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées, Paris, review: high art meets haute couture, with real flair

Six simultaneous exhibitions celebrating one fashion designer in six great French museums – it sounds like the kind of stunt that Emily in Paris might dream up after too many almond croissants. But the name “Yves Saint Laurent” opens all doors, including those of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay.

This month sees the 60th anniversary of the first Yves Saint Laurent couture show, and each institution is celebrating the designer’s magpie eye as much as his talent. It’s a chic way of jazzing up under-visited permanent collections. The idea is to sprinkle a little fashion stardust onto rooms dotted with faintly familiar works of art, and Madison Cox of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent hopes that the couture clothes will tempt younger visitors through the door. He may well be right: a sharp cocktail dress does wonders for a roomful of the Ellsworth Kellys that inspired it.

There’s no set itinerary for the different shows: you can see one, or all, in any order you choose. Some, such as the display at the Musée Picasso, are tiny – two masterpieces by the Spanish artist, paired with three jackets and a dress by the French designer – right at the top of the main stairs. In the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, and the Centre Pompidou, the clothes are scattered among the different rooms. It’s a treasure hunt to find them all, one that turns a museum visit into a game of “spot the frock”. 

Saint Laurent was a borrower: you just have to look at the Mondrian shift dress or the beaded Van Gogh sunflower jacket, both on show in Paris, to realise that. But he also inspired art and created it. At the Centre Pompidou, a 1966 Saint Laurent creation with a pink body snaking down a black dress stands next to a Gary Hume picture, The Moon, from 2009, with a similar pink limb bisecting the black background. Hard to believe that Hume hadn’t seen the gown. Four pictures by Etel Adnan, a Lebanese contemporary artist, hang next to a 1966 dress that predates them by 44 years and looks intriguingly similar. 

At the Musée YSL, the wooden moulds for hats made for the catwalk and couture customers are arranged like abstract sculptures, and could be works by Constantin Brâncuși. And then there are the actual drawings that Saint Laurent sketched for his seamstresses to copy. These are on view at the Musée d’Orsay and at the Musée YSL, and are as skilled and impressionistic as any Picasso costume design for the Ballets Russes. 

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