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Indepth Arts News:

"Robert de Montesquiou or the art of showing off"
1999-10-12 until 2000-01-23
Musee d'Orsay
Paris, , FR France

If dandyism was a nineteenth century invention, Robert de Montesquiou was no doubt in France its most accomplished representative. An artistocrat and an aesthete, he organised his self-celebration with a refined talent and he posed for numerous portraits : this modern Narcissus wanted his image to be immortal. As his eccentricity made him ressemble a character out of a novel, he inspired Huysmans and above all Proust, who chose him as a model for his Baron Charlus.

often befalls a few selected characters to embody the social and cultural background of a precise period in time through their tastes, aspirations and fame, and also through their excess and outrageousness. One name in particular encapsulates society life in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century: that of an aristocrat, scholar, aesthete and dandy, the Count Robert de Monstesquiou (Paris 1855-Menton 1921).

His place in contemporary literature is well-known: indeed, some of his physiological and psychological traits have been immortalised in the shape of Joris-Karl Huysmans's character des Esseintes (A Rebours, 1884), Jean Lorrain's Comte de Muzarett (Monsieur de Phocas, 1901), Henri de Régnier's Vicomte de Serpigny (Le Mariage de Minuit, 1903), Edmond Rostand's Peacock (Chanteclerc, 1907), and naturally Marcel Proust's Baron de Charlus (Remembrance of Things Past).

These are only the most famous examples, but the unmistakable staged representation of himself - elaborate outfits, a incredibly large vocal register, unsettling calligraphy, impressive impertinence, disarming vanity etc -constantly drew the attention of chroniclers and observers in the form of admiration, irritation or sarcasm. Over a period of twenty years he became an undisputed judge of taste, in particular for the parties he organised, designed as true works of art.

During his life much ink was spilt over him and he also initiated a varied and abundant iconography. If he is remembered specifically today it is thanks in particular to the talent and intuition of the pioneer Philippe Julian (Robert de Montesquiou, un prince 1900, Paris, 1965).

It is part of this iconography that the exhibition displays. The Musée d'Orsay owns two important pictures of the count: the famous portrait painted in 1897 by Giovanni Boldini and the bronze, dated ten years earlier, made by the sculptor Paul Troubetzkoy, which have in common their highlighting the model's haughty profile, his slender fingers, his smart, very arched silhouette, and the elaborate design of his outfit. These works, like others signed Paul Helleu, Antonio de la Gandara, Philip de Laszlo, belong to the mundane genre. But Montesquiou was also a favourite target for caricaturists. He is perhaps best immortalised by Sem and Leonetto Cappiello, whose irony and insolence the count, who wrote several essays on the art of caricature, highly valued. These artists captured his most chiefly remarked-upon characteristic: an unparalleled smartness, in spite of affected manners, poses full of vanity and his famous voice, voluble and high pitched to the point of being falsetto.

An important group of photographs is also displayed, thanks to the generosity of a private collector and the Département des Manuscrits of the Bibiothèque Nationale de France. It includes a number of prints from Parisian workshops specialised in mundane poses but above all a large number of pictures devised by the count himself. In these, he constructed a form of unique self celebration: he decided upon the costume, the expression, the gesture, the angle of the shot and sometimes he even determined a reading of the picture by means of a written commentary. This enterprise, which he summed up under the significant title Ego Imago, in a series of four albums, irresistibly recalls to mind the Comtesse de Castiglione whom he worshipped and to whom he devoted a remarkable study.

This celebration of Robert de Montesquiou constitutes a matching piece to the exhibition set up by the Musée d'Orsay about the divine comtesse and an echo to the exhibition on Proust presented at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

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