‘If you were to open a book today on the history of literature, you’d find the name of a new classic author: Coco Chanel. Chanel doesn’t write with paper and ink (except in her spare time), but with fabric, shapes and colours. However, this doesn’t limit her from being commonly attributed with the authority and style of a Grand Siècle writer – as elegant as Racine, as Jansenist as Pascal (whom she quotes), as philosopical as La Rochefoucauld (whom she imitated by coining her own sayings), and as sensitive as Madame de Sévigné…’
This quote from 1967 by Roland Barthes in a now famous article placed the work of Gabrielle Chanel in the great library of metaphors in the history of classic authors.
Prompted by Roland Barthes’ words, this new ‘Culture Chanel’ event has been created for Venice, which was a source of inspiration for Gabrielle Chanel.
Gabrielle Chanel was a solitary person and loved to read. Books guided her life. As a source of dreams, prayers, poetic and artistic journeys and amorous desires, they measured out her time. In her youth, each character from a novel became the mirror of a life of dreams; each book title challenged her intimate thoughts.
Reading intensified her competitive spirit.
Although it was the psalms at the orphanage of the Cistercian abbey of Aubazine that painfully and ingenuously set her on her path, later on it was the poets who introduced her to the secrets of the invisible.
But above all, each author revealed to her how a work might be constructed, the way to write a vision of the world in time. Each author also taught her the amount of work there was to be done to make her own life into a novel. Throughout her life, books were her closest companions. Still today in her famous apartment on rue Cambon in Paris, the large calm landscapes on her library walls alternate with the much livelier images (and words) of her Coromandel screens. Here, the smell of polished leather bindings still mingles with the fragrance of her favourite perfume: Chanel N°5. Unabashed by the sense of stealing someone else’s intimate moments, I let my eyes wander over the titles of her books, their authors and their narratives. By intruding between the gaze of ‘the reading woman’ and the pages she read, I realised how much this world of books had offered answers to Gabrielle Chanel’s creative intuitions, and how much of her life (which she always refused to write) was written there on those shelves, laden with beliefs, doubts, desires, regrets, ambitions, anger and escapes… in that apartment with its walls coloured old gold, like the gilding on the old missals at the Aubazine abbey and on the Venetian objects she loved so much. The library the public will discover in Venice brings together a selection of authors who influenced Gabrielle Chanel’s life, but also books of the artists she met, admired, often loved, and with whom she shared a point of view on the history of modernity.
The dedications that accompany some of these works are both biographical statements by the great couturier and an artistic and historical testament. Art objects selected from Gabrielle Chanel’s collection in the apartment on rue Cambon in Paris will be on show to the public for the first time, as will paintings, drawings and written works by artists who enriched the great stylist’s life and enhance the intimate nature of The Reading Woman exhibition.
Curatorial text by Jean-Louis Froment