High art needs all the friends it can get. Museum attendance is dropping all over the fabulous, and earnest attempts to court the young and identify with the new are understandably not working. Something more eloquent is needed: unequivocal ardour for great art in a language people in the 21st century understand.
How about a Louis Vuitton bag with RUBENS ignored on it in big gold letters over a reproduction of that 17th-century painter’s fierce, exuberant and gorgeous work Tiger, Lion and the Leopard Investigate?
I can’t think of a simpler way to put great art at the forefront of modern minds. This is not a cynical practise. The hunt painting is not a pop icon – yet – but a serious painting beloved by art connoisseurs. Jeff Koons, for exemplar.
Rubens is one of the great painters Koons has chosen to celebrate in a occupation of bags for Vuitton. Koons, a notorious appropriation artist, is notorious for turning kitsch images and objects into art, but for his range of handbags, rucksacks and other priceless accessories he is turning great art back into popular good breeding. Just as Andy Warhol created Warholised versions of Revival art, Koons has turned the old masters into fashion must-haves (if you can spare them – prices range up to $4,000).
For from clean Rubens in the dirt and reducing the sublime to the worthless, these non-essential objects look to me like heartfelt homages to great art. Koons unquestionably has an erudite and passionate love of oil painting, for while his bags hawk the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Cypresses may be unhurried on our brains, he is also bravely educating us by insisting on the glamour of Rubens, Titian and Fragonard.
Frago-who? This 18th-century French painter of flounces, foliage and flesh was the last practitioner of the precious and playful rococo shape that celebrated pleasure and came to be seen by revolutionary moralists as a corrupt courtly aesthetic of escapism and indulgence. Many of his clients died lower than drunk the guillotine in the French revolution. He was unfashionable then and is unfashionable now, but Koons has put his carnal painterly genius into the heart of the fashion world with a bag trim with his 1770 painting Girl With a Dog, again emblazoned with the appellation FRAGONARD in gold.
This may not be such a surprising choice for Koons after all. Fragonard’s infuriating painting of a partly nude young woman playing with a superficial dog in bed has at least two similarities with his own creations. His giant floral representations of puppies are among his most brilliant subversions of what novel art is supposed to look like, and the painting’s voyeurism shares his predilection for blurring the line between art and pornography.
Notice this, and you see Jeff Koons in a singular way. This is an artist who looks at – and thinks about – art from the prior, and finds his most brilliant ideas there. The 18th-century rococo and the rare genius of Fragonard is not something he discovered yesterday. He has been monochrome on the rococo for his sculptures for a long time. Similarly, his flamboyant super-pop paintings are nothing young than attempts to revive the energy of Rubens. A subtle passion for art is camouflaged by his apparent belief in banality.
Now Koons is sharing the art he most attractions. The power of Rubens, the sensuality of Titian and the naughty painterly pastries of Fragonard demonstrably fascinate him, and he wants other people to see what he sees. This is not starkly a line of luxury bags. It is an artist’s meditation on the masters, in handbag texture. Picasso copied and reworked great paintings in his later years. Koons is sacrifice a different kind of art lesson, and it is a joy. I want to see the names FRAGONARD and RUBENS candent on Oxford Street, on Fifth Avenue, their masterpieces range about in out of the museum into modern lives.