“Little events, ordinary things…imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story”– Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Haunting, evocative and profoundly intimate, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s series of photographs of the private apartment of Coco Chanel, exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, is a visual biography of emotion conveyed through the poignant rendering of objects, and the moments and memories of a life preserved in talismanic form. Although it is closed to the public, the Paris apartment, located above the Chanel boutique at 31 Rue Cambon, has long been the fabric of legend. Forming the ornate backdrop to iconic photographic portraits by Man Ray and Horst, it also regularly played host to gatherings of Chanel’s illustrious social circle and provided her with rare moments of solitude away from her atelier. Today, the apartment, which has stood untouched since Chanel’s death in 1971, is only frequented by a privileged few, such as Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld, who frequently draws inspiration from its famous Coromandel screens and décor saturated with symbolism. A mysterious, closely guarded shrine to its former inhabitant, the exotic opulence of the apartment’s interior stands as a living, breathing contradiction to the streamlined simplicity of the couturiere’s clothing designs. Yet look for the signs and they are there: the symbols and the spirit which form the beating heart of both Chanel the brand and Chanel the woman.
Familiar and recurring Chanel design emblems appear in the form of gilded lions (Chanel’s astrological sign), a chandelier of tumbling glass ‘5’ and interlocking double ‘C’ motifs and beige suede cushions which bear the same quilted effect of the iconic ‘2.55’ handbag. More personal and emotionally metaphoric objects, such as Buddhas, tarot cards, a smoky crystal ball and sheaves of wheat, sit alongside, hinting at a deep inner life characterized by intense spirituality, superstition and profound loss. A particularly poignant close-up image of a miniature jewelled cage containing two tiny pearl lovebirds serves not only as a tangible reminder of Chanel’s great love of precious materials but as, in the words of Harper’s Bazaar editor Justine Picardie, a ‘treasured amulet of a coupledom that was to elude Chanel’.
This photographic series was inspired by a conversation between Taylor-Johnson and Picardie, who wrote part of her acclaimed Chanel biography in the apartment and who, like the artist, has come to develop a very personal connection with the designer. For both photographer and writer, what appears to be the most striking and profound element of being immersed in the Chanel interior is its undeniably ethereal overtones, and its overwhelming and almost uncomfortable sensation of coming too close. Chanel herself described the interior of a home as ‘the natural projection of the soul’ and, indeed, it is within this intimate setting that her spirit still lingers, her loves, passions and even heartbreaks crystallized within the now abandoned collections of rare books, art and objects. What strikes Picardie most about Taylor-Johnson’s remarkable images ‘is that they capture absence, at the same time as presence’. Looking at these photographs, one suspects that Chanel’s own image may be glimpsed at any moment in the smoked glass mirror, whose octagonal form echoes the familiar shape of a Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle stopper, yet, simultaneously, the famous cream silk chair in which she reclined for many a portrait, its cushion worn from constant sitting, stands eerily empty.
For many, the glossy chiaroscuro of these large-scale photographs will be the closest they will come to experiencing this secret inner sanctum. Taylor-Johnson’s powerful and intriguing rendering of Chanel’s most cherished items, however, undoubtedly succeeds in drawing its viewers deeper into the authentic and indissoluble aura of Chanel, forming a portrait of a woman and the narrative of a life told through objects that is, at once, both elusive and inescapable.
Second Floor: The Private Apartment of Coco Chanel by Sam Taylor-Johnson was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, London in September 2014.
The book Sam Taylor-Johnson: Second Floor will be published by Steidl on 24th November 2014.
Morand, P. (1976), The Allure of Chanel, trans. E. Cameron, London: Pushkin.
Picardie, J. (2014), ‘Kindred Spirits’ in Harper’s Bazaar, London: September 2014.
Picardie, J. (2011), Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life, London: HarperCollins.