Thursday, February 05, 2009

Yves Saint Laurent's De Chirico

Back in the 1980s, Igor Kopytoff wrote an influential essay on the transmission of value when material culture changes hands and becomes a commodity. Although fine art is not what Kopytoff had in mind, I believe that the ownership of a work of art becomes part of the original's cultural biography. In an earlier posting, I considered the significance of a contemporary archaeologist's ownership of an early modern masterpiece, the portrait of Carlo Cirelli by Giorgio de Chirico (1915) belonging to Charles K. Williams, II. Carlo Cirelli will be on display along with Mr. Williams' art collection at a dedicated exhibition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art July-September 2009. On the collection of another important archaeologist, see interview of Colin Renfrew in the Financial Times (Nov. 29, 2008). Renfrew began collecting in the 1950s and developed a taste for contemporary British artists (Andy Goldsworthy, William Turnbull, Barry Flanagan, Richard Long). Renfrew has been a campaigner against the illegal trade of antiquities and naturally owns nothing ancient.

Carlo Cirelli's portrait shows a man with a beautiful mustache and sinuous long fingers. Another De Chirico, also painted in Ferrara three years later, has entered the news (see Economist). Il Ritornate (1918) will go on sale at Christie's on February 23, for an estimated $9-13m. See Christie's auction web-site to read about the work's historical significance. Its last owner was Yves Saint Laurent, who sadly died last summer at the age of 71. With his partner Pierre Berge, he had acquired a spectacular art collection, including works by Leger, Brancusi, Ingres and Gerricault. The entire collection is estimated for $94.8m, perhaps the single largest single-owner sale in auction history. Berge decided to split up the collection for financial and emotional reasons. Half of the proceeds will go to the Pierre-Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and the other half will go to charity, including medical research on AIDS.

Il Ritornate shows a tailor's dummy and a standing marble male with a long black mustache and sinuous fingers similar to Carlo Cirelli's. The figure is ambiguously petrified with eyes closed. His torso turns into a draped classical female, stomach revealed through the fabric, which hangs below like a Doric column. Il Ritornate becomes particularly moving considering its profession of its owner. As the son of a seamstress, I am drawn into the dreamscape; when my mother's customers came to our home for fittings, they would undress in our very living room. The family was banished for the visit. When the client left and the living room returned to us, the dress would hang freshly warm but inert on the fitting dummy, watching over our daily lives.

It's fortunate that Berge did not take up Abu Dhabi's offer to buy the collection wholesale. It's also fortunate that after the collection disperses, it will survive in the form of a 5-volume catalog with essays by prominent art historians like Yve-Alain Bois.

Finally, archaeologists may be interested in the antiquities that surrounded de Chirico's painting in the Saint Laurent/Berge collection. These have received less attention and include a Roman marble Minotaur (
1st/2nd-c. CE) and an Egyptian bronze Mahes (664-343 BCE), both statues with icongruent heads, thus perfectly in tune with Il Ritornate. As one might expect, sexy male torsos abound (5 total); there is also a head of Dionysus and lots of stunning cameos.


Christie's, Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé - Sculptures, Objets d'art, Art d'Asie, Archéologie et Mobilier (Paris, 2009)

Igor Kopytoff, "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process," in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, 1986) pp. 64-94.

"Scattered to the Winds: The Yves Saint Saurent/Pierre Berge Sale," Economist (January 31, 2009), p. 92.

Ann Marie Schiro, "Yves Saint Laurent, Fashion Icon Dies at 71, New York Times (June 1, 2008).

Sarah Jane Checkland, "My Favorite Things," Financial Times (November 29, 2008).

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States