The Musée Cognacq-Jay is one of those secret Paris museums that dozes away in a hidden corner. Established in 1928 by Ernest Cognacq, who founded La Samaritaine, the museum moved quite recently to the recently renovated 16th Century Hôtel Donon in the trendy Marais. What is it a museum of? The answer is a collection of emblematic 18th Century art selected by its founder to be displayed in wood-panelled rooms representative of the ‘artistic décor of French life’.
To make the most of their move, the clever Cognacq-Jay folk asked Christian Lacroix to explore the concept of the Age of Enlightenment with which he has always been fascinated. For Lumières: carte-blanche à Christian Lacroix (which is on until 19 April), he commissioned over 40 contemporary artists to turn their 21st century eyes upon key themes in Ernest Cognacq’s original collections.
There could not have been a better choice for this sort of narrative curation and I ought to know, because I’ve admired Christian (he’s charming) and his work (he’s one of the very best fashion designers of the 20th Century in my opinion) since I met him in the late 1970s when we were both working in the empty attics of Number 7, rue St. Florentin, a grand 18th Century six storey edifice, formerly owned by Talleyrand, which was then the home of Jean Patou, the couture house.
Christian, a virtually unknown designer who had been given carte-blanche to raise Patou from the fashion ashes, was sketching away and I was an unknown biographer researching my first book in the archives housed in a former maid’s bedroom. The rest, as far as Christian is concerned at any rate, is history — the puffball dresses he sent out as a result of his attic sojourn took the entire fashion world by storm, so did his startlingly chic grey-haired, bee-hived model, Marie Sezenec, who wore them. So did the sheer fabulousness of his colour combinations and his passementerie. I can remember it all now, vividly. And I miss it!
But fashion’s massive loss is the Musée Cognacq-Jay’s gain, for Christian has curated a fascinating exhibition around 10 key themes, pairing art of the time and contemporary art, each developed in its own room. Always a man of enormous culture and knowledge, he explains that, beyond his appreciation and respect for the Age of Enlightenment, he is not impervious to all the ‘rococo froth’ it created and inspired in the second half of the 19th Century and beyond with the somewhat risqué ‘marquise shepherdess style’ which was basically bourgeois and borderline kitsch.
‘Contemporary artists often look back upon the 18th Century from this angle,’ he says, going on to prove it in his witty pairings of ancient and modern. You must go and see it. Why? Because it is fun, visually fascinating and highly original.
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