Yves Saint Laurent famously punctured the wall between art and fashion in 1965 when he designed a stunning line of prêt-a-porter dresses based on the colorful geometric creations of Dutch-born abstract painter Piet Mondrian. Seven years later, Saint Laurent and his then companion and lifelong business partner Pierre Bergé would buy the first of three Mondrian paintings as they began building one of the great art collections of modern times. On Feb. 23-25, eight months after Saint Laurent's death at age 71, Christie's will sell off the pair's entire collection paintings and sculptures, antiquities and furniture in an unprecedented auction at Paris' Grand Palais. Despite the economic crisis, experts say the rarity and quality of the works virtually ensures the sale will shatter the all-time auction record for a private collection: $206 million hauled in for the estate of Victor and Sally Ganz in 1997.
But beyond its final dollar tally, the disassembling of the Saint Laurent-Bergé collection is significant as a chance to mine the last vestiges of the 20th century aesthetic, and reflect on those same walls that divide and sometimes unite the artist and artisan, taste and knowledge, sense of style and pursuit of the sublime. (See pictures from Yves Saint Laurent's art auction.)
On a blustery January afternoon, I was one of the last people to get a peek inside the three-story apartment on Rue de Babylone where Saint Laurent lived from 1972 until his death. Stepping into the Grand Salon, visitors are met with a mind-bogglingly eclectic display of art that somehow achieves a visual harmony. An imposing Fernand Léger dominates the far wall with a Matisse nude tucked away nearby; on the other side of the broad rectangular room, where Renaissance objects of bronze and silver intermingle with sumptuous art-deco furniture, an elaborate cubist Picasso masterpiece Instruments de musique sur un guéridon, 1914 hangs above a Cézanne watercolor of a French landscape, which hangs over a sleek, black bookcase hosting a perfect little female portrait by the 19th-century master Ingres.
One can only imagine the legendarily timid designer holding court here in his heyday as the avatar of the new classic aesthetic. But with Saint Laurent's death, and the dispersing of his collection, the Salon stands as a fleeting study of how one of the great designers of our time continually rediscovered beauty. Jonathan Rendell, Christie's point man on the auction, says Saint Laurent's collecting quest undoubtedly helped feed his vision of couture. "The textures and the structure are the first thing you notice," he says as he tours the apartment, singling out several cubist works, a 1928 leopard-skin bench by Gustave Miklos, and a 15th century tapestry. "And then you see how fundamental the colors are. He was greatly influenced by Matisse." Known for his precision in his atelier, at home Saint Laurent would constantly make tiny adjustments to where certain paintings hung or where a footstool stood. "This is how he lived," says Rendell. "Then you think about his work it's all one thing." (Read TIME's China Blog on the controversy surrounding the sale.)
Bergé moved out of the Rue de Babylone apartment 20 years ago, though the pair continued to collect together. The entire collection was bequeathed to Bergé when Saint Laurent died, and he knew almost right away that he would sell it all, with the proceeds estimated to top $250 million destined for AIDS research and a Saint Laurent museum. "Since Yves died, the collection has lost its sense," says Bergé.
Still, he remembers when, where and why they bought the wooden Brancusi and the Matisse still life and the antique Roman bust. "The goal was to buy the best painting, the best sculpture," Bergé explains. "If you are a collector, it's not a question of taste. You have to love the work of art, yes, but first is to understand what you are looking at, to know what the painting means in the life of the painter."
Even when elements of the work on his walls found their way into his sketchbook, Saint Laurent drew a distinction between the two. "Yves and I were convinced that fashion is not an art, but fashion needs art to exist," Bergé says. And so, to keep Saint Laurent inspired, their collection grew into a mixture of styles and epochs. "Works that are on speaking terms with each other," is how Bergé explains it. "A blend. It is the quality of the blend that is important in a collection." And, as Yves Saint Laurent proved time and time again, in a wardrobe, too.