Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Chanel at Galignani

I'm so behind with the blog -- have been jotting notes, and taking pictures, and there's much more I want to tell you -- but midnight is approaching, so very briefly, for now, here's a quick update on the launch of the French edition of my Chanel biography, with lots of new drawings by Karl Lagerfeld. It was held at the wonderful Galignani bookshop in Paris, on the Rue de Rivoli, just along from Angelina's, where Chanel dropped in for tea in the afternoon. Galignani was the first English bookshop established on the Continent, and has been a printing press since 1520, so its history is extraordinary, as are the premises in Paris, which have hosted everyone from Proust to Hemingway (and was Chanel's favourite bookshop, as well). It's one of those places where the past feels palpably present, and I wandered around in amazement, admiring first editions of Lord Byron and letters from Hemingway and Jung, in between doing some interviews with remarkably patient French journalists... Oh, and Karl Lagerfeld came, which caused a great stir -- great crowds of fans and paparazzi outside -- though he seemed very much at home in these bookish surroundings (his own library is immense), and signed my book, along with those of his myriad admirers. So it was all rather dreamlike, and very enjoyable -- much less fraught than being published in one's own country...
Inevitably, perhaps, I came back to London with a bumpy crash-landing... even though the blossoms are so beautiful here, and it's lovely to be back home. I feel guilty about the moments of gloom that have overtaken me -- how lucky I am to be alive in a glorious spring -- but one's mind swoops high and low, from the mundane to greater matters and then back to the fragility of magnolia petals in this morning's sudden downpour of rain.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Playing Kiki: Le Violon d'Ingres

I've always been intrigued by Man Ray's picture of Alice Prin (see above) -- the artist's model otherwise known as Kiki de Montparnasse -- even before coming across her as a figure in Chanel's Paris. I'm rarely tempted by graphic novels, but very much enjoyed this one, and am therefore posting the unedited version of a review I originally wrote for the Guardian: Kiki de Montparnasse: The Graphic Biography by Jose-Luis Bocquet and Catel Muller. [translated by Nora Mahony, published by Self Made Hero, £14.99].

If Montparnasse was the beating heart of avant garde Paris in the 1920s, then Alice Prin was its celebrated body, as the model known as Kiki, immortalised by a myriad artists including Fernand Leger, Jean Cocteau, and her lover, Man Ray. It therefore seems fitting that Kiki’s latest biography should take a graphic form, in which she swoops across the pages, alongside her friends and contemporaries, Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp and Hemingway.

The story of Alice Prin could be told as a grim and cautionary tale – born illegitimate in Châtillon-sur-Seine in 1901, she died in equal poverty in 1953, after a lifetime of drink and drugs and debauchery. But this ribald comic strip version of her biography is as tender as it is witty, and a far more complex portrait of the model and muse than might be expected. Its author and artist, Jose-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller – whose collaboration has already won several awards for the original French edition – resist the temptation to turn Kiki into either an emblematic victim of male objectification or the proud symbol of female emancipation. Instead, Kiki’s contradictions emerge from the cartoons: her liberated sexual freedom is shadowed by a masochistic tendency to forgive abusive lovers; while her joyous embrace of the pleasures of life (food, art, wine, song, sunshine) is enmeshed with drug addiction and alcoholism.

When Kiki’s own memoirs were published in 1929 (and promptly banned in the United States), her friend Ernest Hemingway wrote an introduction that acknowledged her capacity for self-invention. ‘Having a fine face to start with she made of it a work of art… she certainly dominated that era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.’ Kiki’s creativity was also apparent in the illustrations she sketched for her memoir, black and white drawings that shade between childlike innocence and something darker; and despite their surface naiveté, her status as an artist, as well as a model, had already been consolidated with a sold-out exhibition of paintings in Paris in 1927.

Nevertheless, the most enduringly famous image of Kiki is Man Ray’s Le Violon d'Ingres, a photograph of her naked from behind, her signature bobbed hair hidden in a turban, her remarkable face almost hidden, and her voluptuous body transformed into a musical instrument by the addition of the ‘f-holes’ of a violin. The title suggests Man Ray’s inspiration came from the paintings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; and also, perhaps, that he fingered Kiki as a plaything, just as Ingres played the violin.

Catel and Bocquet’s cover is something of an uncovering for Kiki: for although the drawing is a reflection of Man Ray’s portrait, this version has her head free of the turban, and her profile clearer than the original. You can see her charismatic features – big nose and playful eyes framed by the black sharpness of her hair – as a beguiling invitation to look inside. The pages that follow are filled with legendary men, the Surrealists and Cubists and Dadaists who shaped Bohemian Paris; all of them presented here as fighting and eating and jostling to make a living, as well as making love, just like Kiki herself. But she is centre stage, the queen of Montparnasse, whether posing silently for Man Ray, or as a bawdy nightclub act, lifting her skirts and showing her bottom whenever the mood took her. (After a fashionable dinner given by Coco Chanel in June 1929, one of the guests, Maurice Sachs, noted in his diary that ‘Kiki, who had too much to drink, sang very obscene songs.’)

In the end, she was too much for Man Ray to handle; not least when the instrument of his art and pleasure was noisily arrested, after she got into a fight in a Nice bar, and hit the policeman who called her a whore. Man Ray employed a lawyer to represent Kiki, who could only get her out of prison by declaring that she had a ‘nervous disorder’; thereafter the relationship between artist and model was sporadic, and ended when Man Ray fell in love with his protégée, Lee Miller, in 1929, by which point Kiki was already involved in another affair.

Kiki’s career subsequently veered between cabaret and drug addiction, and by the time Man Ray returned to Paris in the spring of 1951 (having left the city at the outbreak of the Second World War), she was swollen with alcoholism and dropsy. Man Ray offered her help, to which she gave her renowned reply – ‘No! A raw onion, a heel of bread and some red wine is enough for me’ – and after he pressed money on her, she promptly handed it over to a beggar. That, at least, is the comic strip version, but it has the ring of truth, as does the last page of the story, in which Man Ray weeps when he hears that Kiki is dead at the age of 51; the artist alone in his studio, but surrounded by the artwork he had made of the woman who finally slipped out of his grasp.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

March blossoms and birdsong...

I've just been out in the garden, admiring the new petals and primroses, hoping the magnolia buds will survive the cold nights, and looking forward to the blooming of my favourite scented clematis. The evergreen clematis was one of the first plants that I put in the garden when we moved here, nearly eight years ago, when the borders were still very bare, and I'm so glad it's thriving.
A blackbird is singing from atop a chimney pot, and there's a small chorus of song-thrushes, too... I wish you could hear them right now...
But here is Emily Dickinson to read instead:

DEAR March, come in!
How glad I am!
I looked for you before.
Put down your hat—
You must have walked—
How out of breath you are!
Dear March, how are you?
And the rest?
Did you leave Nature well?
Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,
I have so much to tell!

I got your letter, and the bird’s;
The maples never knew
That you were coming,—I declare,
How red their faces grew!
But, March, forgive me—
And all those hills
You left for me to hue;
There was no purple suitable,
You took it all with you.

Who knocks? That April!
Lock the door!
I will not be pursued!
He stayed away a year, to call
When I am occupied.
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come,
That blame is just as dear as praise
And praise as mere as blame.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Coco in Keswick.

Just back from Keswick, and you can watch a little of it here on Sky Arts.
I'd had a misguidedly romantic idea that I would go for a windswept walk around the lake, but it was such a dark and stormy night that a ramble might have ended in disaster. Instead, I had dinner with the lovely team from Ways with Words, and several other writers, including Juliet Barker, Francis Spufford, Matthew Rice and Luke Jennings. So the conversation ranged from stolen Bronte manuscripts to the lost jewels of Stoke on Trent... needless to say, a very good time was had by all...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Ways with Words... Paris to the Lake District.

Sunday evening, and I'm feeling slightly daunted at the prospect of the week to come (much rushing hither and thither). But looking forward to speaking at the Words by the Water Literature Festival in Keswick on Wednesday, at the Theatre by the Lake. My talk is at 7pm, and tickets include a screening of Coco & Igor later that evening. The film is worth seeing, if only for the re-staging of the first night of the Rite of Spring, when a riot broke out in Paris. Here's hoping a good time will be had by all...
PS. If anyone is in Keswick today (Wednesday), they should definitely try to see Juliet Barker talking about the Brontes. She is a brilliant historian, and the consummate Bronte expert.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Beauty and the beast

Keep thinking about the rise and fall of John Galliano, and I remembered the Dior spring 2005 couture show. I wrote about it in 'My Mother's Wedding Dress', but the story goes something like this:

In 1932, Colette wrote an intriguing portrait of Gabrielle Chanel (published in ‘Prisons et Paradis’), that suggests something of the conflicting impulses at work in fashion:
“Mademoiselle Chanel is engaged in sculpting an angel 6 feet tall. A golden-blond angel, impersonal, seraphically beautiful, providing one disregards the rudimentary carving, the paucity of flesh, and the cheerlessness – one of those angels who brought the devil to earth.
“The angel – still incomplete – totters occasionally under the two creative, severe, kneading arms that press against it. Chanel works with ten fingers, nails, the edge of the hand, the palms, with pins and scissors right on the garment, which is a white vapour with long pleats, splashed with crushed crystal. Sometimes she falls to her knees before her work and grasps it, not to worship but to punish it again, to tighten over the angel’s long legs – to constrain – some expansion of tulle...”
It’s a description that might still be applied to the making of the white wedding dresses which have traditionally provided a finale to the Paris couture shows; splendid bridal confections that provide substantial orders for some of the most prestigious fashion houses, yet which are also expected to reveal a new or unexpected design twist. For example, the closing sequence of John Galliano’s couture show for Dior in January 2005, featured a series of ethereal white or ivory gowns – a reminder, perhaps, of the concurrent publicity coup which had seen Donald Trump’s newest wife in Dior bridal couture on the front cover of American Vogue – but on the catwalk, the designer had added what looked like pregnant or malignant swellings beneath his floor-length, empire-line creations. At the end, Galliano appeared to take the final bow, looking devilish in piratical black.
At the time, other fashion commentators praised the show as being a perfect embodiment of the poetry of couture. But I felt it was less straightforward than that, as if the smeared rouge on the models' faces was a suggestion of abuse, of the loss of innocence. It's interesting how often contemporary fashion reporting ignores that twist between beauty and horror on the catwalk: perhaps because when you’re close to those dresses, you can see only the rarified art and exquisite work that has gone into their making; it is only from a distance that they look so much more sinister.