Reading
with
Coco
Exhibition curator Jean-Louis Froment.
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Croisière collection, 2009-2010
Handwritten note by Gabrielle Chanel: “The life we lead always amounts to so little, the life we dream of, that’s the great existence because it will continue beyond death.”
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, fall-winter haute couture, 1983-1984.

Jean-Louis Froment’s show at Venice’s Ca’ Pesaro on Coco Chanel as a cultured, well-read woman speaks eloquently of a modern style under construction and probes the wider theme of the book as a symbol.

The young woman’s head is tilted slightly, as if she has nodded off. Her body seems to be slipping down the wicker garden chair, without having completely succumbed to sleep. Her eyes are closed and her thoughts elsewhere, linked to the book she holds in her hand. This small photograph could be said to encapsulate the library of Gabrielle Chanel. It was taken in around 1908, when the young woman, on the cusp of fame, was moving from the intellectual austerity of her years at an orphanage to the cultural effervescence of a world she chose to be adopted by. So here is Coco, convent-educated like Emma Bovary, poised to take her social revenge, masking her modest background, trumping fate in a hunger for knowledge. To build her identity, she constructed her own walls, using collections of books, all bound in series by Germaine Schroeder. An armor of graphic repetition shielding the intimacy of what lay within. Starting with the mark she left like a kiss, a C softly drawn in pencil.

Let’s open the bookthese books. This is what Jean-Louis Froment, who has delved insatiably into the mythological architecture of the house of Chanel, proposes by bringing together a large part of Mademoiselle’s library at the Ca’ Pesaro in Venice. He first had to track them down and make what he hoped would be a complete inventory; then reassemble a corpus split between what remained at the designer’s historic apartment on Rue Cambon and the volumes distributed among her heirs. Some of them existed in several copies, a collector’s edition and one that could be properly read, handled and spoiled. Verlaine and Stendhal appear in duplicate, the Bible in triplicate. Froment noted a pronounced penchant for poetry, which makes up half the library. The designer was familiar with the classics and their superlative women, like Catherine de’ Medici, Antigone and Jocasta, but she also had a passion for contemporary literatureso much so that she fell in love with its authors, developing a close friendship with Cocteau, and a physical one with Pierre Reverdy.

This is the exact moment when Froment opens the door to a dreamworld, leaving behind the bookshelves to portray an era. Gabrielle Chanel’s library suddenly resonates with her times. Scattered about the space, like compass needles, are paintings by Picasso, including the enigmatic Woman Reading (1916-1917). The curator weaves a web, bringing in the Dada artists, Joan Miró, Iliazd, Igor Stravinsky and the Giacometti brothers; building bridges; throwing you off course the better to bring you back. This is not a passive reading experience. Here, you read between the lines and mix them up. Because these books were constructing Coco Chanel, and the vocabulary of the couture house to this day.

Froment goes on to juxtapose these resonances, superimposing them like palimpsests. In among these multilayered readings are clothes designed by Karl Lagerfeld; Paul Morand’s Venises, opposite Lagerfeld’s Venetian-inspired creations; and Russian authors, echoed in the Paris-Moscow collection (2008-2009). The visitor is left to absorb the rich interweaving of images and words. This is not an exhibition that can be skimmed over in a few minutes. Nobody gives you the keys to the display, and this is intentional. There are no signposted itineraries, no explanatory panels, no opening words: “It is an exhibition that’s structured like a poem: an open space that visitors can penetrate through its verses or its silences, compose their own narrative, even reinterpret the whole.”

In addition to the quality of the tomes acquired by the designer, we take in the sentimental dimension of books, passed from one hand to another, through the words scribbled on them, the dedications. Chanel inherited Boy Capel’s books and received others from Misia Sert. Some became letters, declarations (including one from Reverdy, which can be translated thus: “Times change / Time passes / Time flies / In my obscure life I lost track / But found it again darker than the night / But what remains clear is that with all my heart I embrace you / No matter what is to come”). A book is given like a gift, something the exhibition underscores in the most eloquent of ways with an enormous library of contemporary works, mirroring those of Gabrielle Chanel. There are no instructions on the walls, but this room is an invitation to read. La Vagabonde, The Merchant of Venice, Mallarmé’s Poésieseach visitor is invited to select their own book. Just as Coco might have done.

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