Coco and Cabellut
“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”
There are many parallels between the lives of empress of fashion, Coco Chanel, and the expressionist artist Lita Cabellut. Both women began their lives in poverty, both found a core of expression that raised the stature of the feminine mystique, both fearlessly confronted a world in the arts controlled by men and inexorably changed that vantage with their own style and temerity: both are exceptional voices in their chosen expressive fields. Though the words may be Chanel’s, they could as easily be Cabellut’s – “My life didn’t please me, so I created my life”.
Lita Cabellut is a painter and a conjurer. Her paintings capture that interior mysterious space within the minds of her subjects, a complex brew of imagination and the compulsion to deal with occult dreams and longings as well as the terror and fragility of the human condition. Her genius lies in her ability to make visible the invisible: passion pours forth from her large-scale portraits that demand our attention and invite us into the process of her creative mind. Cabellut is a Spanish painter, born a gypsy in the earthy streets of Barcelona, her father unknown, deserted by her prostitute mother at the tender age of three months, nurtured by her grandmother who sequestered her as a gypsy from schools until her death. Cabellut at age eight was placed in an orphanage. Hungry for knowledge, she spent her hours at the Prado Museum, drinking deeply the works of the masters of the past – Rembrandt, Velázquez, El Greco, Ribera, Gallego and Goya. Once accepted into school, she rapidly rose through the ranks of education, ultimately being accepted into the Fine Arts School in Amsterdam, where instead of embracing the current obsession with abstract art, she connected with Francis Bacon’s tortured figurative paintings and fellow Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies’ abstract expressionism, with an emphasis on his pintura matérica – incorporating mixed media such as detritus, earth, rags and stone into his paintings.
Cabellut’s works serve as a bridge between classical tradition and contemporary painting, a bridge from which she creates faces and figures from the past, infusing her own history as a street gypsy into understanding the beginnings of the focused model she brings to life in this collection – Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. From her own experiences, the artist is able to see through the eyes and cautious stares of her subjects, and to engage her audience with a sense of challenge mixed carefully with compassion.
The life of Coco Chanel (1883 -1971) has been the subject of many books, films and plays: the details of her rise from her orphanage years where she was raised by nuns who taught her the sewing skills that would lead to her life’s obsession for creating fashion, her fleeting experience as a singer in clubs where she earned her nickname ‘Coco’ (a name she insisted was derived from the word cocotte – or ‘kept woman’), her dalliance with Etienne Balsan who financed her move to Paris at age 26 to try her millinery ideas, and her affair with the wealthy Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel whose influence on her sense of fashion as well as onher heart led to the opening of her famous shop on Rue Cambon in 1910. Capel was killed in an automobile accident in 1919 and Coco continued to leave flowers at the site of the tragedyfor years afterward. Coco Chanel will forever beremembered as the person who freed women’s clothing from confining corsets, introduced the simple comfort of fashion influenced by men’s wear, created the 1920’s little black dress and added the innovative concept of her own designer perfume as an accessory. She found acceptance in the world of fine art as the costume designer for Les Ballets Russes (Chanel created the costumes for the Stravinsky and Balanchine L’Apollon Musagète and the Milhaud, Nijinska, Cocteau and Picasso ballet Le Train Bleu) and became friends with the likes of Picasso, Dalí, Diaghilev, Cocteau, and Stravinsky (another passing affair). In 1925 she began a love affair with the wealthiest man in Europe, Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, who lavished her with jewels and gifts but who failed to make her his wife. At the peak of her influence, she created the legendary Chanel suit and the look that was unmistakably Coco Chanel, complete with her costume pearls andinsistence on the subtlety of a monochromatic palette. World War II led tothe closure of her shop in part due to the German occupation of France andthe subsequent controversies that followed. But with the resolution of the adverse effects of World War II, Coco Chanel once again forged a new life with her mid-1950s return to the fashion industry; even in the face of negative reviews from critics, she still appealed to women all around the world with her fashionable and feminine, comfortable and subtly sensuous designs. Despite her numerous affairs with a variety of men (some would say she used men, but she took from each of them inspiration that would increase her knowledge and repertoire), Coco Chanel never married – “It’s probably not just by chance that I’m alone. It would be very hard for a man to live with me, unless he’s terribly strong. And if he’s stronger than I, I’m the one who can’t live with him… I’m neither smart nor stupid, but I don’t think I’m a run-of-the-mill person. I’ve been in business without being a businesswoman; I’ve loved without being a woman made only for love. The two men I’ve loved, I think, will remember me, on earth or in heaven, because men always remember a woman who caused them concern and uneasiness. I’ve done my best, in regard to people and to life, without precepts, but with a taste for justice”. And further,“I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” She died in 1971, but her legend lives on – in influencing fashion, in her role as a feminist, in her instinctive sense of style, and as a woman who changed the world in her own way. ‘Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. “Fashion is in the air, borne upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road.”“Fashion passes, style remains.“
Lita Cabellut offers us her responses to the history of Coco Chanel with her large scale portraits of the fashion icon as well as some images of one of Chanel’s models. She heeds the icon’s rules of monochromaticity not only in the fashions she paints but also in the variations of grey as the matrix for each work. In titling this exhibition Coco: The Testimony of Black and White she echoes the thoughts of Renaissance artist, poet and architect Leon Battista Alberti: “I would have artists be convinced that the supreme skill and art in painting consists in knowing how to use black and white…because it is light and shade that make objects appear in relief.”Some of the paintings follow a chronological order: Coco as a young girl in simpler, reflective garb; Coco growing into her new concepts; the ultimate, complete Coco with strands of costume pearls and hats and accoutrements. And in each of these visits with the spirit of Coco Chanel, Cabellut seems to channel allthe emotion, drive and control of a woman who would alter the world in her unique way. Cabellut’s uncanny method of capturing the direct gaze of the Coco in her paintings as she peers at the viewer, while revealing the symbiosis of the fragility and strength that so characterized her controversial life, is one reason these paintings are so powerful. She brings to the canvas her perception of the Coco who is “queen of the moon, black, white, sharp and far away”. Compare the ‘informed innocence’ of Coco Numero 3 with the successful grandeur of Coco Numero 2, and Numero 14 with the mysterious, near masculine Coco Numero 6 – the portraits with dark glasses and averted glance ponderingthe fear of something that is hidden – and the virtuosity of Lita Cabellut is dramatically impressive. Just as Coco Chanel built her fashions, so Lita Cabellut builds her paintings. Working on large-scale canvases with oil and plaster on linen, she combines the visceral surface texture with passionate brushstrokes, a painterly technique that aims for emotional release instead of precise re-creation. Itis this approach to expressing the inner character that she brings to life.
It would be difficult indeed to imagine any other artist with as much access to the emotional life of Coco Chanel as Lita Cabellut. The artist honors the fashion gifts of the iconic figure of Coco Chanel but she doesn’t stop at surface appearances, just as Chanel’s inspirations came from intrinsic responses to her abandonment as a child, her courage to overcome the fashion concepts of her day, her balance between the fragility of her affairs and her determination to belong to no one, her transient defeat in the eyes of her public to her resurgence as one of history’smost important womenof business and of style. The Coco Chanel presented in this collection is a brew of the artist’s insight, similar life experiences and technical facility; this is what makes these magnificent paintings so substantial, so thrilling, so rich in psychological impact. In Coco’s words: “Arrogance is in everything I do. It is in my gestures, the harshness of my voice, in the glow of my gaze, in my sinewy, tormented face”.
Women think of all colors except the absence of color. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.
Biography for Grady Harp
Grady Harp is a champion of Representational Art in the roles of curator, lecturer, panelist, writer of art essays, poetry, critical reviews of literature, art and music, and as a gallerist. He has produced exhibitions and contributed to catalogue essays for the Arnot Art Museum in New York, the Fresno Museum of Art, the Laguna College of Art and Design, the Nevada Museum of Art, the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, and the Cleveland State University Art Gallery and has served as a contributing artistic advisor for universities and colleges throughout California, in Berlin, in Madrid for the Centro Cultural de Conde Duque, and in Oslo. His collaborative exhibition with sculptor Stephen Freedman, WAR SONGS: Metaphors in Clay and Poetry from the Vietnam Experience toured the United States from 1996 – 1998. He has provided essays, chapters and introductions to numerous books such as the recent Powerfully Beautiful and 100 Artists of the Male Figure. He is the art reviewer for Poets & Artists magazine and the art historian for The Art of Man Quarterly Journal.