Friday, February 27, 2009

Bergé ne bouge pas. Vive la décadence!

When it comes to cultural objects, it seems that invoking the 'universal' is asking for trouble.

When the American writer Edmund White visited Yves Saint Laurent at his home in Paris in the early 1990s, the designer spoke warmly of his erstwhile companion and business partner Pierre Bergé:

"A marvellous man — an intimate friend. We started the house together. He's very artistic, he reads everything — he has a universal culture, he's a universal man. Poor thing, he became a businessman for my sake. [...] The business is an eagle with two heads. [...] Even dead an eagle would frighten me. I'm terrified of predators." (Edmund White, Arts & Letters, Cleis Press, 2004, p315).

Ironic, then, that it was two quite different heads that cast a shadow over the Yves Saint Laurent sale in Paris this week.

Much has been written about the pair of mid-18th century Qing Dynasty bronze heads (above left) which formed part of the elaborate 'Zodiac' water fountain in the Emperor Qianlong's Summer Palace until reportedly looted by British and French troops in 1860 at the end of the Opium Wars. One of the most helpful recent articles on the topic came from the blog of Richard Spencer, the Daily Telegraph's China correspondent (So who did loot those French/Italian animal heads?).

As Spencer's piece made clear, the story of how the two animal heads ended up in Europe is a long and tortuous one, the exact historical details of which remain shrouded in mystery.

In 2007, the billionaire Hong Kong financier Stanley Ho donated a horse's head sculpture from the Zodiac fountain to the Chinese government after reportedly acquiring it from a Taiwanese businessman for $8.84 million. Another was said to have ended up in a Beverly Hills swimming pool, which is an interesting variation on the bunny in the boiler, the rat up the drainpipe and the horse's head in the bed.

Bergé seemed loftily unmoved by Chinese attempts to stop the sale (Don Corleone would have known how to call a halt to it). Yesterday I read that Chinese Kung Fu action film star Jackie Chan has now entered the fray, condemning the sale as "shameful", adding, "Now we have lost two more pieces. This has made me really angry." If someone had told him about it before the sale we might have been treated to a Bruce Lee-style Cultural Heritage Rescue Drama in which Chan storms into the Grand Palais and aims a few well-aimed kung fu chops and high kicks to liberate the rat and rabbit from the clutches of the evil collector.

But sadly not. Instead the sale demonstrated once again that when the genteel realm of cultural heritage squares up to the art market it is usually the latter that comes out on top.

That said, having incurred the wrath of the Chinese cultural authorities, Christie's business dealings in China will henceforth be subjected to greater levels of forensic scrutiny by Beijing. So China may yet have the last word in this curious cultural stand-off.

Away from all the unseemly wrangling, the rest of the YSL sale saw some extraordinary prices changing hands. London commuters could be heard muttering in astonishment this week on reading in their newspapers of the staggering €21.9 million (£19.5m; $28m) which changed hands for the 'Dragon' armchair (right) by the Irish-born modernist designer Eileen Gray. That price was a real marmalade-dropper, even to jaded art market commentators like me.

This iconic object (already dubbed 'the Turd Chair' by philistine hacks) enjoyed pride of place in Yves Saint Laurent's rue de Babylone sitting room and may even have been the chair in which he languished like a Proustian neurasthenic while being interviewed by Edmund White.

"Decadence attracts me," Saint Laurent told White. "It signals a new world, and for me the struggle of a society caught between life and death is absolutely magnificent to behold."

How prescient.