Over the weekend, we had the pleasure of watching Coco Avant Chanel (subtitled, bien sur). Those of you who are interested in fashion, vintage clothing or Chanel herself will probably enjoy this movie, as will anyone who enjoys period dramas, complete with lovely sets and costumes. The performances were very good and I liked that the story often alluded to images and influences that helped to shape Chanel’s aesthetic, which kept this from being just another movie about the personal life and romantic entanglements of some historical figure. (Whether the specific circumstances shown are historically accurate is doubtful; there’s a lot of play with timelines and condensing for the sake of good filmmaking. This is not a documentary.) Those same stylistic elements that drew me to classic Chanel designs are emphasized: simplicity, function, comfort, elegance. And of course lots of black, black, black. The movie does not downplay her opportunism or the calculating way she set out to find and seduce wealthy men in order to better her own circumstances. Of course, l’amour happens too. The story leaves off once she’s opened her Paris atelier, then picks up with an epilogue which seems to be set sometime in the early 1960’s from the look of the clothing.
Chanel’s opportunism did not end once she achieved success as a designer and businesswoman though, and what’s often glossed over today was her cozy relationship with the Nazis during the WWII German occupation of France.
Paris during the occupation was a compromising and uncomfortable place for other artists and writers, who tended to keep their heads down: “Oh, I am not looking for risks to take,” said Picasso, her friend, “but in a sort of passive way I do not care to yield to either force or terror.”
Edith Piaf sang in nightclubs for the Nazis. Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Everything we did was equivocal. We never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong. A subtle poison corrupted even our best actions.”
But Chanel was unequivocal. She decided to place herself snugly in the enemy’s bosom, conveniently near to her shop. After the Paris invasion she fled to the country, but returned a year later to demand back her room at the Ritz, which had been commandeered by the Germans. There, aged 56, she shacked up with von Dincklage, a German playboy officer 13 years her junior, who may have been a spy and was known frivolously as “Spatz” or sparrow.
…[after the war] Chanel was arrested and soon released, though no one knows exactly who among the Allies protected her.
…Chanel and her perfume royalties went into exile in Switzerland for a decade, because she was most definitely not wanted at home.
Chanel made a comeback in 1956. The French papers panned her collection as old hat: she was not forgiven. But across the Atlantic, the Americans just loved those bags and little black dresses. Sales grew, Chanel was rehabilitated, and history faded away. Now she is merely a brand in Karl Lagerfeld’s hands.
Knowing this, I’ve been at times a bit conflicted about loving (and buying) accessories, perfumes, and maquillage bearing the name Chanel, and with being so perpetually entranced with her designs and vision. On the other hand, she is long dead, and the business continues to be owned and run by the Wertheimer family who initally financed Parfums Chanel in 1920’s and successfully quashed her attempt to take over the company during the Nazi occupation.
But it begs the larger question, at what point do the foibles, failings or even crimes of the artist outweigh the value of their art? Coco Chanel. Elia Kazan. Miles Davis. Picasso. Woody Allen. These are just a few of the people whose work I have loved, depsite knowing things about their personal lives and choices that I find disturbing. I don’t have an answer for this. Creative genius often seems to go hand-in-hand with being, well…a self-involved asshole. (And yes, astounding assholery can be present even when discernable talent is absent, see Mayer, John.) As Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie “The Big Chill” says, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations.”
Does the personal/public life of the artist impact how you view their art? Have you ever found an action or attitude so unforgiveable that it forever sways your view of the work? Or do you keep the two separate?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License.