Monday, 30 January 2012

Remembering the "Voyage en Capitale" - Louis Vuitton et Paris - Exhibition at Musée Carnavalet ...

Louis Vuitton At Musée Carnavalet
Text: Emily Sands-Bonin
Image: Jacques-Henri Lartigue / Ministry of Culture – France / AAJHL

The curators of 'Voyage en Capitale: Louis Vuitton & Paris', which runs until February next year at the Musée Carnavalet, could not have chosen a more illustrious Parisian setting. Nestled in the chic Marais district, the Musée is comprised of the ancien Hôtel Carnavalet, where Madame de Sévigné penned her letters (later quoted to Marcel Proust by his literary grandmother), and the ancien Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau. Once the seat of the ill-fated Michel-Étienne Le Peletier, a noble with revolutionary pretensions (an early bobo), who voted enthusiastically for the execution of Louis XVI in 1793. His fatal stabbing by a royalist sympathizer, as he sat peacefully at a café, earned him eternal glory, as well as his depiction in a pieta-like drawing by Jacques-Louis David.

Hosting 'Voyage en Capitale' is a golden opportunity for the Carnavalet, which, like most museums, is probably sorely in need of a blockbuster exhibition. As indeed it is for Louis Vuitton, for whom association with one of the most stately and venerable of the smaller Parisian museums, with the holiday season in full swing, can only be a good thing. For Vuitton the exhibition represents a further chance to lump the history of the company, which began with the opening of Louis Vuitton’s first boutique in 1854, in with the history of Paris and France.

The entrance to the exhibition illuminates the grey November afternoon light, its white glow like an open Macbook glimpsed in a dark café. It beckons to the throngs of Louis Vuitton fans and curious tourists, drawing them into a world of luxury, ambition and timeless elegance. Inside the visitor is confronted by a long corridor of 18th century Parisian street signs that once hung over wine shops and butchers, as well as a musty model of the quartier Saint Merri pre-Centre Pompidou.

The pedagogical aspects of the exhibition serve to illustrate Louis Vuitton’s central place in the artistic and social trends of late 19th and 20th century French society. On display are the crinoline hoop-skirts of the Empress Eugenie, the original “It Girl”, who commissioned Vuitton to make her travelling cases. At the Expositions Universelles that took place four times in Paris between 1867 and 1900, as well as the World’s Fair held in Paris in 1925, Vuitton’s company was recognized as unsurpassed in quality and style. The curators of the exhibition detail Vuitton’s stylistic inspirations, from Viollet-le-Duc’s cathedral restorations, which influenced his Gothic sketches of trunks, to japonisme at the end of the 19th century, which brought us Vuitton’s iconic LV-et-fleur motif. The popular interest in art primitif inspired the glass perfume bottles engraved with geometric shapes found in central African art and decoration.

The invention and distribution of the automobile led to custom-made trunks, as the very rich made use of this new, luxurious mode of transport. A trunk containing a foldable camp bed reflected the interest in travel to exotic places outside the capitale, namely the wilds of Central Africa, at that time considered part of “la plus grande France". Indeed Vuitton had its own pavilion at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale, held in Paris in 1931.

The exhibition is most interesting and effective when illustrating the Belle Époque at the end of the 19th century, when France and its capital Paris represented the pinnacle of elegance and sophistication, with Louis Vuitton at their centre. The eye dazzles at the hatboxes and vanity cases filled with ornate sterling silver topped glass bottles, not to mention the trunks, many opened to display leather drawers and beautiful bronze buckles and latches. One large trunk for ladies’ shoes contains little drawers, each fastidiously labeled in pencil on yellowed handwritten cards: “gris foncé,” “noir,” and, in an excited, eager scrawl: “rouge.” Some lucky little girl growing up in the 1930s even had a Louis Vuitton case for her doll.

The exhibition conveniently skips the unglamorous and potentially embarrassing Occupation period, during which the Vuitton family collaborated with the puppet Vichy government. Towards the end the beautifully preserved trunks give way to more contemporary objects, such as the rather garish silver duffle bag, architect Zaha Hadid’s resin and leather Icon Bucket (2006), adorned with the LV insignia, and Karl Lagerfeld’s customized, red-lined Louis Vuitton iPod case. Lagerfeld’s white, five-year-old iPod inside it looks oddly quaint. The grainy black and white movies with ladies in white dresses and big hats and men on horses trotting jerkily to marching band music are replaced by today’s LV promotional videos, which look like trippy screen savers.

We meandered through the gilded rooms upstairs before heading out into the cold night. An imposing bronze statue of Louis XIV, the Sun King, standing in the middle of courtyard of the hotel surveyed our departure with equanimity. After all this time, he seemed to nod approvingly, France still sells.
By VINGT Paris on December 2, 2010

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