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Exhibition Review: Yves Saint Laurent at The De Young Museum, San Francisco

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The work of most artists is not much recognized. Those who are recognized usually have to wait a while, often a long while, to come into the notoriety they have always been seeking. But in November 1957, when Yves Saint Laurent was 21-years-old, he was named chief fashion designer for the House of Dior, at the time one of the premier couture firms in the world, after the death of its founder Christian Dior. He had been named to the post by Dior himself a few days before his passing. Saint Laurent’s ascendancy was therefore almost immediate, and he remained world-famous until his death on June 1, 2008


The De Young Museum in San Francisco is currently showing an exhibition of Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture fashion, through April 5, 2009. The show was organized by The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (under Director John Buchanan) and The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. It is simply a stunning show, in which the astonishing range of Saint Laurent’s esthetic sensibility is amply displayed.

He was capable of designing the simplest of black mini-dresses as well as the most complicated of formal evening gowns, and of many thousands of articles of dress — all of revolutionary design — in between, of whole lines based on Russian themes, beatnik themes, peasant themes, African themes, and countless others. His sense of color and cloth allowed him to show how profound beauty can be shown through the placing of disparate — not to say clashing — values, one next to the other. Sometimes his designs were spare, almost Chanel-like in their simplicity. Other times, there was an over-the-top theatricality to his work — shot through with pattern, mad color and deft, breath-taking nerve — that nonetheless never crosses the line into bombast or cheap thrills.


Daytime ensemble. Fall-Winter 1989. Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.
Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger.

It is unnerving to consider that the same person who designed straight-forward clothing, in which a fashion-conscious woman could sit down for lunch with a friend, also was capable of a chiffon gown and a coat that is a firework-display of feathers, all put together for the most formal of occasions. In the one outfit she is elegant, controlled, clear-minded, and reserved. In the other, when she walks into a room, she seems to flame and roil in browns, yellows, reds, and golds. She is utterly fantastic in the true sense of the word.

Saint Laurent did all this with clothing that was eminently wearable. He said, “It pains me physically to see a woman victimized, rendered pathetic, by fashion… What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.” The fashion editor Diana Vreeland noted the inevitable result of this care for comfort on the part of the greatest clothing designer of the twentieth century. “Whatever he does,” she said, “women of all ages, from all over the world, follow.”


Multicolor feather coat, chiffon dress with tiger print. Fall-Winter 1990.
Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.

The notion of fine arts museums showing fashion and other “design” is controversial — at least among certain offended critics attempting to hold to some rigid notion of the difference between “fine art” and whatever else there is — but there are many such exhibitions now. This Saint Laurent show precedes another exhibition entitled “Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique,” originally mounted at the Cleveland Museum of Art, that will open in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor later this year. “Bedazzled: 5,000 Years of Jewelry,” is currently on view at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. An exhibition of Paul Poiret’s designs and clothing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2007 drew large crowds to view an extraordinary artistic temperament. The Costume Institute at The Met houses one of the greatest collections of the history of fashion in the world. Its exhibition a few years ago, “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century”, caused a critical and public sensation.


Yves Saint Laurent and models, 1972

Many critics question the value of fashion design and fashion itself as real art. They see the current museum interest in such things as pandering to a public consciousness rather than a strictly artistic one. Fashion is artisan craftsmanship, perhaps of a high order, but it is not art. It is self-serving in its pursuit of riches. It dresses shallow, rich women in clothing that costs way too much and is of little value after the ball is over – and so, we must look down our noses at it.

Similar criticisms were once leveled at architecture, printmaking, jazz, the movies, tapestry art, rock and roll, tango, novels, and many other forms by the same sort of aghast critics, offended by what they saw as a cheapening of the artistic consciousness. Those art forms are all quite publicly accepted as real art now, and the criticisms have quieted significantly, if not gone away. I believe that the same slow demise will befall the brickbats now being hurled at museums that dare to show haute couture, especially if more shows like this by Saint Laurent are mounted.


Marina Schiano in evening gown.
Fall-Winter, 1970. Copyright: The estate of Jean Loup Sieff.

The trouble is that, as with all arts, most of what is made is way inferior to the best that is made. Many are called; few are chosen. We know who Salieri was, but we listen to Mozart. There were many playwrights in Elizabethan London whose names we’ve forgotten, but one such playwright was Wil Shakespeare. here was only one Beethoven, one Vermeer,and one Yves Saint Laurent. He was a serious artist who also had a profound esthetic commitment. After the famous 1976 “peasant” collection was shown in Paris, he remarked, “[these] clothes incorporated all my dreams, all my heroines in the novels, the operas, the paintings. It was my heart – everything I love that I gave to this collection.”

Yves Saint Laurent’s life was not without significant demons. Like many other artists of every persuasion, he was fearful, self-destructive, anxiety-ridden, and occasionally lost. Also like many such artists, those troubles seemed to go hand-in-hand with his exceptional talent and training, perhaps even energizing them. His heavy drug and alcohol use was often noted, even by himself. Upon his retirement, he said, “Every man needs aesthetic phantoms in order to exist. I have known fear and the terrors of solitude. I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs. I have known the prison of depression and the confinement of hospital. But one day, I was able to come through all of that, dazzled yet sober.”


The operative word there is “dazzled.” It is also one of the words I would use to describe my own reactions to this exhibition and to Yves Saint Laurent’s fine art.

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About Terence Clarke