Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Elegant Dance of a Damselfly - Cléo de Mérode and the Villa Demoiselle

Cléo de Mérode
While everyone else seemed to be preoccupied by last-minute, frenzied Christmas Eve purchases, I decided this year, that I would redirect my attentions. And so it was that I went to visit the exhibition on ‘Les Passions Modernes' held in an incredible setting; La Villa Demoiselle of the Maison Pommery. The common link between this prestigious villa and the art collection being the great patron behind their creation; Henry Vasnier, it was interesting to note the aesthetic currents running through the artwork and architecture alike.

Henry Vasnier and the future Villa Demoiselle - photo from exhibition...
Vasnier (1832-1907), was the business associate of Madame Pommery, ‘femme d’affaires’ at the head of the Pommery champagne house. On Mme Pommery’s death 1890, he became director of the company with which he was integrally linked for over fifty years.

Vasnier’s lifetime coincided with the greatest advances in the production and commercialisation of the prestigious sparkling wine since the Industrial Revolution. More efficient fermentation techniques, pressure-resistant glass bottles, improved corks and the modification of sugar dosages, led to the creation of champagne, much as we know it today. Its consumption rose significantly as it assumed a unique position of prestige, marking epicurean refinement with social status. Far from being the preserve of king, court and aristocracy, as it had been from the mid-18th century, champagne became the drink of predilection for those with the means to indulge, and from the early 19th century they did indeed indulge.

The Industrial Revolution transformed the social and economic framework of many European countries, and huge gains were to be made by those with business acumen. As prosperous empires were built on the back of colonies, money circulated as never before, in a manner that etched the gulf between the rich and poor in an unprecedented manner. Just as the old fortunes wished to continue their lives of privilege and pleasure, many of the ever-growing numbers of nouveaux riches sought to display their social ascension and financial ease through material ostentation.

Sales of champagne shot up as it was drunk by an ever-wider public, yet fully maintained its image of exclusivity as a luxury product for an elite. Champagne became a universal value, its consumption admired and aspired to by all levels of society. The very name became synonymous with a particular culture and a certain status.

A  bottle of  (imitation!) Diamant champagne in front of Maison Pommery

Although advertising and marketing were initially somewhat rudimentary, champagne was promoted through wine merchants, backed up by travelling salesmen. Furthermore, the means to obtain the drink were facilitated as the French transport links were improved with the advent of the national railway network. Likewise, the international market itself was expanded as the merchants travelled far and wide and the clientele assumed a notably cosmopolitan flavour.

The champagne house Pommery fully understood the importance and opportunity offered by the influx of foreign trace and developed close commercial links with England. With their mock-Tudor style, the main buildings of Maison Pommery were in fact inspired by a 19th century English château. Furthermore, it was Madame Pommery’s desire to produce a specific champagne to satisfy the discerning English palate that led to the innovatory creation of a brut (extra dry) wine in 1874, adding a further dimension to the méthode champenoise.

Henry Vasnier’s initial task as representant of la Maison Pommery led him to travel around the Continent and above all across the Channel to England, a country already familiar to him due to a former career in banking. Vasnier was instrumental in the installation of an office in London, but his increasing obligations in the headquarters in Reims meant that his travelling diminished considerably.

Villa Demoiselle - complete with Christmas decorations...
Vasnier had an interest in the arts that never left him ; on the contrary this grew as his iife appeared rather more sedentary and he wished to surround himself with objects of beauty. Is was this pursuit of beauty that led him to become a considerable collector of art work – paintings, sculpture and furniture. Likewise, he was a generous benefactor on death, bequeathing his collection to the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Reims. Not only was he a collector of art ; Vasnier commissioned work too.

Stairwell in the Villa
The Villa Demoiselle, as it is known today, was commissioned in 1890 as a reception house to receive guests in an appropriate setting, according to his vision. That vision was inspired by the air of modernity and innovation that had set the tone of the furniture in the beautiful, yet troubling style of Art Nouveau, with its twisted, tortured natural forms and themes. This attraction for these same fluid contours, striking shapes and organic unity was shared by the architect, Louis Sorel, whom Vasnier commissioned for the construction of the villa.

Below the ornate floral forms, foliage, umbels, pine cones and the delicate dragonfly symbols that flourish in the décor of the villa lies an avant-garde metal and concrete structure. It was indeed this innovatory architectural approach that enabled the edifice to survive the war years and the wanton neglect prior to the Vranken’s intervention in 2005, when the couple set about restoring the villa so that it could re-emerge as the Villa Demoiselle.

Today, natural light pours into the rooms of the villa, illuminating the stained-glass windows, playing on the crystal and blown-glass chandeliers along with the Art Nouveau ceramics and glass ware. Light also brings out the colours and contours of the sculpted wood of furniture, flooring and panelling alike, just as it would have done on its completion in 1908. The Villa Demoiselle is a perfect Art Nouveau jewel, but sadly never to be honoured by Vasnier himself as he died in 1907.
The traces of this great patron, swept into oblivion in the 20th century, have been recovered and his name reinstated over the last few years, as his contribution to the city has been acknowledged.

Ombel feature above the great mantelpiece in the entrance hall
The villa has been reborn, as the Villa Demoiselle, an evocative title that reflects the symbolic damsel fly, refers to the champagne itself and seems to give flight back to essence of Vasnier’s project. Following Vasnier’s death, the villa was named after his successor, Louis Cochet, and the only reference to Vasnier was to indicate the boulevard running alongside the Pommery grounds.

The reappraisal and recognition of Vasnier’s work has been highlighted by the return to Reims of the patron’s treasured Emile Gallé dining ensemble - currently in the Villa Demoiselle. It had initially been commissioned by the patron for his private home, not the villa itself, and will ultimately end its journey in the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Reims. However, with the theme of the Champagne region, in Art Nouveau style, the chairs, table and cabinet seem to be in their rightful setting. Their recovery was no mean feat.

Most of Vasnier’s artwork had been left to the city of Reims in 1907, but the furniture did not fall into the category of art and was finally sold off in the 1960s. The Gallé ensemble passed into the hands of successive private owners in Japan and then America until being put up for auction in 2012 when the municipality of the city of Reims was successful in its bidding.

Feature from the Emile Gallé cabinet
Looking at the ensemble today, it is hard to imagine it gracing any dining room, other than the one here, but the same could be said for the rest of the furniture in the villa. From 2005, the Vrankens set about recovering suitable Art Nouveau pieces with which to refurnish La Demoiselle in the most appropriate manner, capturing the full spirit of Vasnier’s dream and Louis Sorel’s mission.

During the villa’s years of abandon, the wooden floors and wall panels had been ravaged and/or ripped out but all have been painstakingly replaced to recreate the original forms and overall mood. The warmth of the wood is set off by the general luminosity of the villa as light flows into the rooms and onto the impressive sculpted fireplaces and furniture with their strange Art Nouveau features and details of flora and fauna.

Feature on the mantelpiece with some unwanted fauna in the mirror !
Vasnier’s collection of artwork has found a perfect backcloth in the Villa Demoiselle and, as said, both reflect the same aspects that inspired the patron ; a sensual beauty, an air of innovation and modernity and a certain audaciousness.

Portrait of Arab Woman - René de Saint- Marceaux (1845-1915)

 In a present-day context, some of the pieces exhibited probably fail to charm the 21st century public, as they appear a little staid, dated or just plain ‘cheesey’. Nevertheless, none could ever be dismissed as vulgar or lacking in aesthetic sensitivity. Times have changed ; the advances in science and technology that were so avant-garde in Vasnier’s age have long since progressed beyond recognition and have moulded our lifestyles, aspirations and aesthetic taste as they did for Vasnier himself.

The members of his generation lived through huge social sea changes in a new age of discovery, led by technology, thriving economies, a growing need to educate, evolve and entertain and, above all, the means to spread information and open up the world.

Cléo de Mérode - Alexandre de Falguière

Amongst the paintings, sculptures and so on that were the basis of the Vasnier exhibition was a particular set of photographs that seem to highlight all of the above, and made me wonder what our position is today, faced with these same elements of change…
This was not the first time that I had seen the striking images of Cléo de Mérode, but I had never tried to put them into any context.
Incidentally, I should add that the photos that accompany this post weren't all in the exhibition, ...

Initially a dancer, La Mérode metamorphosed into an icon of chaste beauty – an ethereal vision of the Belle Epoque, much like a damsel fly – la demoiselle - ephmeral and delicate.

Unlike a mere démoiselle, however, whose lifespan typically lasts little more than a season, in the same setting, Cléo de Mérode had an image built to last and fly far beyond the confines of France. She was indeed very much a beautiful product of her time, a construct of the advances in photography, marketing and the extensive diffusion of information and images alike. As any iconic figure, the fact and fiction in her life were somewhat blurred, leading to the creation of a legend. Born in Paris in 1875, Cléopâtre Diane was rumoured to be an illegitimate descendant of the Austrian branch of the aristocractic Mérode family of Belgium. This would certainly have set her apart from the other greatly celebrated women of Parisian society  – Mata-Hari, Sarah Bernhardt, La Belle Otero, Cora Pearl, Liane de Pougy and Emilienne d’Alençon - whose backgrounds were far more modest. Furthermore, whilst the loves and lifestyles of her famous female contempories were the object of fervid speculation and the subject of many a racy conversation, Cléo cultivated an aura of dignified elegance and untainted purity.

La Mérode - Album Reutlinger ( tome 2, view 40, Gallica/BnF)

How much of this chaste image was orchestrated is now difficult to determine, since Cléo sought to preserve it to the very end of her life, in 1966. Even her autobiography – Le Ballet de Ma Vie (1955) – revealed nothing new, and continued to defend her honourable name, notably against any slanderous titles that would tarnish her reputation. Cléo had no apparent desire to be associated with the ‘grandes horizontales’, demi-mondaines and courtesans, even if their paths crossed as they frequented le Tout-Paris. When Simone de Beauvoir did indeed group Cléo with the ‘grandes cocottes’ of the period, in her book Le Deuxième Sexe in the 1950s, legal action was swiftly taken.

Whether Cléo’s virtuous image was myth or largely reality was of little significance to her actual renown since it gave her a marked succès de scandale, even if she had not actively pursued this. The paths of the women who were members of the haute bicherie from the Second Empire onwards fascinated and shocked high society in equal measure, inspiring writers such as Zola and Alexandre Dumas fils to charter their blinding ascent.

Album Reutlinger (tome 5, view 35, Gallica/BnF)
For men of power and wealth, being publically seen in all the right places of the City of Light with these beautiful women in their extravagant toilettes and surrounded by ostentatious trappings was the seal of their success. Any alpha male who could afford to keep such a glittering prize in the public eye, whilst maintaining an honourable married life away from the vulgar glare of le Tout-Paris was a male of rank. Unlike the virtuous wife, the worth of such a trophy was measured by the wealth of notches on her bedstead – the more, the better. Should his means fail him, or another male deemed more worthy of the attentions of the biche ( = a doe) in question, he would be left behind. Successful courtisans would move ‘on’ and ‘up’, their names associated with royalty, aristocrats and captains of industry for an undetermined period.

With their stunning jewellery, costumes and carriages the queens of the demi-monde could hardly be missed as they paraded themselves in the opera, concert halls, great restaurants and les jardins. Life was a perpetual theatre stage and they were consumate actresses. Their need for appropriate costumes for the role coincided with the rise of the maisons de haute-couture and the grands magasins (cf Emile Zola – Au Bonheur des Dames of 1883). There were indeed great couturiers before Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent… That Paris should be the centre of the universe of style and fashion was nothing new, but now those who aspired to follow current tastes were able to do so with newly acclaimed fashion designers and dress-makers such as Worth. Lavish gowns worn by this demi-monde with the means to finance such wardrobes caught the attentions of the ‘audience’. This public gaze grew ever more intent due to the growth in image reproduction and later, cinematic film. Women of the world of le spectacle – whether they be performing artists in theatre, opera, cabaret or dance, or like the courtesans, acting out their own creation – would be photographed in all their finery. Paul Nadar, Léopold Reutlinger, Charles-Pierre Ogereau, Henri Manuel and the Atelier Benque were just some of the photographers whose work often represented such ‘artistes’. Cléo de Mérode was but one of the finely dressed women whose photogenic looks graced elegant black-and-white cardboard mounted images.

Album Reutlinger

The potential of Cléo was noticed at an early age, as a member of the junior ballet dancers (‘les petits rats’) of the Ecole de l’Opéra in Paris. Her beauty and elegance was remarked by Edgas Degas, although her actual presence in his ballet sketches and painting has not been identified. Thus began a long dialogue between Cléo and the artists and photographers who sought to use her captivating beauty to give body to their aesthetic vision or to act as muse to inspire their creativity.
Cléo may well have been famous for her dances, but these proved to be vehicles for the diffusion of her image. Her talent resided more in the decorative, evocative mood she conveyed by her dance, than in her actual, albeit real, dancing skills. More than simply interpreting a work of art – the ballet or thematic dance in question – La Mérode became her own work of art.

Her stage presence was certainly noted in the ballets in which she performed at the Opéra, but it was her image that carried her renown. While her first significant photographs had been taken in 1894 by Nadar, with a series of dramatic virginal poses, she soon turned to the studio of Léopold Reutlinger. Nadar was often the photographer of choice for the more intellectual public ; Reutlinger appeared to favour the world of the personnalité. The initial Reutlinger images created of Cléo seemed to follow the same line as those of Nadar ; chaste poses of the ballet dancer, hair demurely attached or more striking stances, with long hair flowing and a betwitching gaze towards the camera. Gradually, certain shots took on a more elegant sophistication whilst others explored the artist’s enigmatic, exotic air. Cléo de Mérode was the face of the day and she was indeed elected beauty queen in the weekly newspaper, L’Illustration in 1896.

Cléo by Charles Ogerau - 1895
Unfortunately, in the same year Cléo’s regal, quasi-spiritual image was troubled by the ‘physical’. Firstly, the sculptor Alexandre Falguière exhibited a full-length statue representing the ballerina nude for which, he claimed, she had knowingly posed. Cléo strongly denied this, affirming she had merely posed for the portrait of her face. Although the stance of this ‘Cléo’ was not vulgar or lascivious, it was far removed from her own art and image and it gained her a notoreity she may well have wished to avoid. Shortly after this drama, Cléo was again the subject of a succès de scandale from which she wanted to disassociate herself, up to her dying day. Indeed, at the age of 22, she had caught the roving eye of Léopold II, King of Belgium (some 61 years) during one of her ballet performances. Rumour would have it that Cléo, soon labelled ‘Cléopold’, became one of his mistresses. The press had a field day of speculation and the coverage and caricatures were inescapable.

Whether this legend was founded or not, it fed into the fin de siècle notion of the fairer sex. The troubling duality perceived in the very nature of Womankind was very much in vogue in the latter part of the 19th century. A virginal, angelic girl could indeed harbour a venal, vampiric female, ready to devour any male who had fallen prey to her diabolic charms. The influence of Decadentism, Symbolism and spirituality spread to all the arts and the femme fatale was a recurrent theme therein and became a symbol of the era. Not surprisingly, Cléo’s beguiling looks inspired artists such as Gustav Klimt. La Mérode may not have sought to play on a dark, predatory Salomé figure, but the eternal enigma of her life seemed to fuel this image nevertheless.

Cléo as a Cambodian dancer - Album Reutlinger
Little by little, Cléo moved away from classical ballet and explored other avenues of dance and travelled internationally – most notably in America and Russia. The public’s thirst for the exotic led her to perform Cambodian dances at the Exposition Universelle in 1900 and even to dance at Les Folies Bergères. It seemed that whatever she undertook or underwent, Cléo’s success was assured. Her name could fill performances hall for weeks on end. Not only did she sell good copy in the ever-growing illustrated press, for stories that may or may not have been to her liking, her image was everywhere. The rise of the postcard meant that this could be reproduced in a multitude of manners. As advertising was also becoming ever-more widespread, Cléo’s face would promote the sale of cigarettes, chocolate, perfume and the like. In an emergent culture of celebrity, Cléo de Mérode was commercial gold; her image could be marketed for itself or used to market other goods. Although Cléo never, or rarely smiled openly in her photographic images, in many of these marketing ventures, she resembles the playful beauties whose joie de vivre illuminated the Belle Epoque right up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

From 1900, Cléo cultivated the look for which she became famous – notably her characteristic hairstyle à bandeaux. Covering her ears with the bands of hair parted centrally in a manner reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with the Ermine (1490), Cléo set a new fashion. At one stage, there was even speculation that the performer had actually lost her ears…. Certainly, the photographs taken of her in striking haute-couture costume are stunning. As such Cléo, as many of the grandes dames of the time, acted as muse and model for the great fashion houses such as Worth, Rouff, Callot and Jacques Doucet. A few of Audrey Hepburn famous poses even seem to be à la Mérode….

Cléo continued to perform her dances and pose for photographs, staying in Bordeaux during the war years. Although ever-popular, she lost interest and perhaps the audience started to do so too. The studio of Reutlinger no longer ran as before and Cléo gradually retired from the centre stage and public view. I don’t know if Henry Vasnier actually met La Mérode socially or saw her perform, but he obviously appreciated her beauty, as the photographs and sculpted bust attest.

Einer Nerman
Unlike many of the courtesans to whom she was rightly or wrongly linked, Cléo de Mérode did not die destitute, in dire poverty. She must surely have had an astute sense of business, or finances at least which perhaps makes of her a modern independant, since she never actually married. Looking at her image now, it is hard to stay how far she was largely a success in a specific context, a set period of time. Her illuminating beauty was real but could she outshine what we label as beautiful today when everyone wants to be in a gaudy limelight, whatever the cost? Her art was her evocative image and graceful gesture so I wonder how this would defend itself in our era of noisy, ever-vocal self-expression. How would Cléo have reacted to tweets, selfies and the like? Would she have rejected these en masse, or would she have become a highly-proficient selfie queen, carefully tailoring her image to the expectations of the day? With her sensuality, how would Cléo respond to the rabid quasi-porn sexuality of today’s great female performers ? Similarly, what would Henry Vasnier think of the art world today ? Would he still like what is avant-garde ? Well, we’ll never know, but I do wonder when the flight of this curious demoiselle will be brought to life. A film, maybe, of Cléo de Mérode’s life and the times she lived in? I ended my visit with a glass of champagne - Diamant – which was the perfect end to a marvellous visit, but marked the beginning of a shaky bike ride back home once those bubbles had taken effect.

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