Olivier Berggruen, curator and art historian, on a late eighteenth century Italian gilded chair.
GB Tell me why you chose the chair.
OB Well one is reason is that I chose something gilded to go on your website, Gilded Birds! But actually I have four of these chairs and I like them a lot and I live with them in New York. Allegedly they were originally bought by Napoleon as a gift for one of his sisters. This is an oral tradition. There’s no proof but he did have all three of his sisters installed as princesses in various parts of Italy. They were made around 1800 and much later in the early 1900s they were owned by a woman named Rose O’Neill, an illustrator who designed Kewpie dolls. She travelled all over the world and was great friends with August Rodin. Eventually she built a castle in Connecticut and the chairs were part of this. Being an art historian, I’m interested in design in general. This chair may not qualify as fine art but I think there’s a link between all fields of artistic activity, a continuity between design, decorative art and so-called fine art. So if I spoke to you about Vienna around 1900 what the workshops were producing was as significant as what Klimt was producing. This chair is neo-classical. It’s gilded but at the same time not too opulent. It’s not signed or stamped so we don’t know who made it. The proportion makes me think of a lecture by Wittgenstein in which he explained good design through an analogy with going to a tailor. The proportions of a suit may change over time with fashion but there are fixed proportions to a human body. Wittgenstein might not approve of the lavish decoration but I think he would see that the proportions are right.
GB Do you think it’s more beautiful taken out of its 18th Century context?
OB Neo-classicism could be very restrained. Robert Adam in England for instance made very elegant, almost severe decorative schemes. These are Italian and I have a suspicion that the Italians around 1795 weren’t as willing to relinquish some of the more baroque elements of their craft. But I think part of the success of this design is that there are contradictory impulses within the scheme. The winged figures are exuberant and yet the overall design is restrained. When I see them in Rose O’Neill’s house, everything is opulent and there’s too much visual excess in a way. Now we live in a world that is about diversity. I feel that a chair like this deserves to be seen on its own.
GB So you see this chair as a work of art. Do you think that someone like Picasso would have seen this as a work of art?
OB I know many artists who are very keen on the decorative arts. Picasso was a friend of my father’s and lived in a rather bohemian fashion in various big houses. He was very keen on French Louis XIII furniture. It appears in some of his paintings. The same is true of Matisse. He was very fond of certain chairs and painted them again and again. Matisse especially had a decorative emphasis in his work.
GB But in the 18th century when your chair was made art and aesthetics were so concerned with beauty. Do you think there’s more of a divide now, since artists such as Duchamp rejected beauty?
OB I think you have to remember that there’s so much diversity now you can’t categorise anything any more. It’s true that the influence of Duchamp has taken art into completely new territory and that is part of today’s artistic landscape. But take an American minimalist artist like Donald Judd whose work is related to design and is conceptual and minimal. He bridges all these divisions and there are other artists like this. There’s a lot of movement and all these connections are being constantly redefined. The decorative arts and the visual arts are the emanation of a single aesthetic and formal conception, whether neo-classical or Jugendstil, and therefore the division between applied and higher arts is not absolute, to say the least.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
OB I think there’s an element of being surprised by something that makes us feel alive. I think we want to be surprised by something extraordinary and at peace with ourselves at the same time.
GB It seems as though you also look for an intellectual element such as the history of your chairs?
OB I think that unfortunately there is no such thing as a completely innocent eye. It’s impossible to have a real purity of vision. Our concept of beauty is shaped by intellectual, cultural, political and social considerations. I think there’s such a thing as aesthetic sense, which is difficult to define but is definitely a cultural product.