I want to be a living work of art!

January 27, 2012

  This was the life philosophy of one of world’s most flamboyant characters, Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) , who spent more than 70 years trying to become a walking, talking, breathing Mona Lisa. She was such a muse artists would roam around her from dawn to dusk, nourished by the luxurious scent Luisa emanated, her utterly amazing charisma and magnetic personality which fascinated everybody lucky enough to relish her presence. “Infinite Variety” presents Casati’s biography in colorful hues, with great savorous details evoking her time, and is a must-read if you want more of the wacko Marchesa.

Marchesa Luisa Casati

She was a masterpiece, after all. Having nude male servants gilded with gold (trick borrowed from da Vinci), walking around with poisonous snakes instead of jewels, naked under her many fur coats, dining with wax mannequins,  strolling down the narrow lanes of Venice with tamed cheetahs whose collars had expensive diamonds, on a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your surprise if I said that, despite all these,  she was still not the top eccentric of her age, being outshone by a couple of persona a tad crazier than her?

Marchesa Luisa Casati

Let’s take the Divine, for example. Commonly known as French luvvie Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), the subject of delicious Belle Époque gossip, her behavior definitely eclipses Casati and not necessarily for good. Considered world’s greatest actress ever, with a golden voice most memorial novels of the period appreciate as being movingly dramatic (ask Proust), notorious lover of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), she had her share of bizarre habits. White lions, flying in a hot-air ballooon over outraged Paris, waring some white trousers (oh, the horror! how could she dare show her legs?!) whilst sculpting (one well-paid hobby), having a natural blond, curly (so curly!) hair smug French people found insulting (wonder why?)… Her American experiences became legendary and Divine’s simplest actions were publicly criticized.

Sleeping in the coffin

And what do you think of sleeping in a coffin? Really cozy, isn’t it? Many of her lovers complained about her odd replacement of a bed (though it’s weird she only spoken normally of this in her memoirs…).

the Divine

The Divine could have been easily awarded the status of “living masterpiece”. Painters fought to capture her on canvas, writers, sculptors, dancers, fellow-actors, middle-class men begged her attention, searched her company, and she used to offer everything willingly, like the kind, caring woman she surprisingly was.

But another Belle Époque  stunner I view as the top fruitcake in my list, a true French dandy supposedly homosexual whose deeds influenced Oscar Wilde to write “Dorian Gray“, gave Marcel Proust a figure for the Baron de Charlus  and inspired J.K. Huysmans’ most famous novel, “À rebours” (“Against the Grain“). Ladies and gentlemen, pulled from the hazes of modern history,  Comte Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921), infamous aesthete and mediocre poet.

Robert de Montesquiou

“Tall, black-haired, rouged, Kaiser-moustached, he cackled and screamed in weird attitudes, giggling in high soprano, hiding his little black teeth behind an exquisitely gloved hand – the poseur absolute.” describes him one author.

Montesquiou calmly records a poet’s astonishment at the sight of his home which he called “Ali-Baba’s Cave”, where the door-bell was in fact a sanctus-bell (taken from a cathedral), some rooms furnished as the cabins of a yacht, some as church interiors, containing even a strip of original altar railing and a decorative shell coated with precious stones belonged to an unfortunate tortoise that died from the weight.

His eccentricity always succeeded in finding another gear.  Drag Queen for a night? Done! Duels galore, from the most minuscule motive? Thick that on the list!

Robert de Montesquiou

Rich and unconventional but highly respected in society, de Montesquiou revolved in the artistic circles of Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Alphonse Daudet. Antonio de la Gandara painted a few portraits of him, as well as Whistler and Giovanni Boldini.

A notable happening caused by his extravagant parties at Versailles, where his guests were dressed in Louis XVI costumes or tableaux vivants, is the Moberly-Jourdain incident in which two Edwardian female academics, Charlotte Anne Moberly (1846–1937) and Eleanor Jourdain (1863–1924), getting lost in the area of Petit Trianon, mistook de Montesquiou’s friends for aristocrats of Marie Antoinette’s period. The ladies stupidly though they had experienced a time slip and published the book “An Adventure“, target of harsh ridicule (meaning fine material for anecdotes), to eternalize the episode.

the count

During his life, the Comte met both Casati and Bernhardt, the first one buying his Palais Rose du Vésinet (place of his stylish celebration alongside Colette, Rodin, Debussy or Cocteau) and the latter being an intimate whom he used to offer splendid jewels “fitted for a queen”.

Palais Rose du Vesinet

In the end, I think all of them succeeded to become  living works of art, passing the centuries as icons and continuing to be perpetual sources of creativity for the contemporaneous masters.

Most impressive, they’ve secured a place in eternity just by daring to be themselves.


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