This weekend sees the launch of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, the first ever to showcase the work of indigenous artists from around the world. I’ll be taking a look at the Biennale next week, while keeping my fingers crossed. I’ve learned in the past that it’s best not to go into this event with exalted expectations.
While the Biennale was setting up I’ve been in Paris on other business. Even without the coronavirus to think about, the timing wasn’t great. Most of the major venues were between shows or closed for renovations, but there was one bright light in the museum gloom. Christian Louboutin: The Exhibitionist at the Palais de la Porte Dorée, might have been nothing more than row upon row of fancy shoes. Instead, Louboutin, who is probably the world’s most famous living shoe designer, has created a show that tells his life story not by shoes alone, but also through a diverse collection of art and artefacts.
The curator of the show is Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD), which is currently hosting its own enormous shoe show. The MAD exhibition is bigger, but far less engaging, as one becomes wearied by the sheer volume of footwear, dating back to a set of sandals worn by an ancient Greek.
It’s as if Gabet has kept his best ideas for the Loubotin show, although one presumes the subject made a decisive contribution. Even the choice of venue is deeply personal, as Louboutin spend his childhood in the Palais de la Port Dorée, when it was the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. Today this marvellous art deco building is a museum of immigration, but it retains the basement acquarium that has enthralled generations of children.
The Louboutin survey is an entirely novel form – a one-man show which is also a group exhibition. As a shoemaker with the highest cultural aspirations, Louboutin is a precocious egotist but a generous admirer of talent. His comments on the show included in the Rizzoli book that passes for a catalogue, are acutely intelligent. What he has to say about Marlene Dietrich or Yves Saint-Laurent is worth anthologising.
Louboutin’s success has allowed him to indulge his passions as a traveller and a collector, but then of course one needs somewhere to store one’s treasures. In the book, Éric Reinhardt writes: “to accommodate these new objects, which he likes to be surrounded with in everyday life, he buys houses and apartments in various countries he is fond of.” Presumably saving heaps on shipping charges.
Where Louboutin is different from a shopaholic such as Elton John is that most of his purchases seem to be a matter of calculation rather than impulse. Although the exhibition is full of disparate items, Louboutin can explain everything. Some invoke childhood memories, others might be called ‘inspirational objects’. This propensity to analyse and rationalise is typically French, but the show has enough visual dynamism to keep viewers on the hook from one room to the next.
Fashion is notorious for what it lifts from the world of art, although many artists are now actively collaborating with fashion houses. Gabet accounts for Louboutin’s willingness to borrow motifs and ideas by making a case for eclecticism, which he sees as “a humanism, a capacity to be passionate about more than one thing, the opposite of monomania, drabness, or mediocrity.”
Louboutin has approached the entire exhibition as a set of stages upon which he plays out aspects of his life and art. One may sit in a “Bhutanese theatre” and watch a hologram of a shoe transforming itself into Dita von Teese, who proceeds to do a burlesque routine. This is a nod to a lifelong love of music hall and cabaret.
Another room is made to resemble an English middle-class lounge room, albeit with an unusual sprinkling of designer shoes. An ‘adults-only’ room presents fetish images of women clad only in shoes, made by Loubotin’s buddy, filmmaker, David Lynch. This is also in line with Louboutin’s thoughts on Helmut Newton, that “a woman is even more naked when she’s wearing shoes.” Fetishism may be an inevitable part of any shoemaker’s life, although Louboutin, in his wide-ranging interests, is the very opposite of a fetishist.
A room devoted to a step-by-step explication of how shoes are made, is presented as a series of videos in which a tiny Louboutin, in a bright red suit, clowns around like an elf. Red, as every fashionista knows, is Louboutin’s signature colour, found on the soles of all his shoes.
He loves rocks, shells, crowns and crosses. He admires contemporary African art; the architect, Oscar Niemeyer; the renowned window dresser, Janine Janet; and a long line of actresses and pop stars – from Mae West (whom he describes as “the ultimate Pop grandmother”), to Cher and Tina Turner. This may be in line with the gay subcultural adoration of strong, iconic female celebrities, but Louboutin is no mere fan. He has reasons for everything.
Among the artists he has commissioned to make new work, there’s the rising star of Pakistani contemporary art, Imran Qureshi, and New Zealander, Lisa Reihana. Like the rest of the world, Louboutin was smitten by Reihana’s panoramic video, In Pursuit of Venus [infected] at the 2017 Venice Biennale. For this exhibition she has produced a room-sized projection called A reverie, which blends indoor and outdoor scenes with the occasional designer shoe, in a mesmeric, psychedelic procession.
At this point we may leave Louboutin’s fantasy world and return to Sydney, where Reihana will be showing a work called Nomads of the Sea at Cockatoo Island, as part of the Biennale; and stills from the film with Gallery Sally Dann-Cuthbert (until 12 April). One suspects there’ll be no Parisian designers flying in for the show this time, but that’s OK. Reihana’s reputation has already escaped the Antipodean quarantine.
Christian Louboutin: The Exhibitionist
Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris, 26 February – 26 July, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March, 2020