Jeff Koons' Louis Vuitton bags: a joyous art history lesson

In championing the likes of Fragonard, Rubens and Titian, Jeff Koons’ line of Louis Vuitton accessories brings high art to the high street – and shows off his sincere passion for painting

High art needs all the friends it can get. Museum attendance is dropping all over the world, and earnest attempts to court the young and identify with the new are clearly not working. Something more eloquent is needed: unequivocal enthusiasm for great art in a language people in the 21st century understand.

How about a Louis Vuitton bag with RUBENS written on it in big gold letters over a reproduction of that 17th-century painter’s violent, exuberant and gorgeous work Tiger, Lion and the Leopard Hunt?

I can’t think of a simpler way to put great art at the forefront of modern minds. This is not a cynical exercise. The hunt painting is not a pop icon – yet – but a serious painting beloved by art connoisseurs. Jeff Koons, for instance.

Rubens is one of the great painters Koons has chosen to celebrate in a line of bags for Vuitton. Koons, a notorious appropriation artist, is infamous for turning kitsch images and objects into art, but for his range of handbags, rucksacks and other expensive accessories he is turning great art back into popular culture. Just as Andy Warhol created Warholised versions of Renaissance art, Koons has turned the old masters into fashion must-haves (if you can afford them – prices range up to $4,000).

Frills, foliage and flesh … Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s work adorns a Vuitton bag designed by Jeff Koons.
Frills, foliage and flesh … Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s work adorns a Vuitton bag designed by Jeff Koons. Photograph: Louis Vuitton

For from rubbing Rubens in the dirt and reducing the sublime to the worthless, these luxury objects look to me like heartfelt homages to great art. Koons clearly has an erudite and passionate love of oil painting, for while his bags touting the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Cypresses may be easy 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 frills, foliage and flesh was the last practitioner of the precious and playful rococo style that celebrated pleasure and came to be seen by revolutionary moralists as a decadent courtly aesthetic of escapism and indulgence. Many of his clients died under the guillotine in the French revolution. He was unfashionable then and is unfashionable now, but Koons has put his sensual painterly genius into the heart of the fashion world with a bag decorated with his 1770 painting Girl With a Dog, again emblazoned with the name FRAGONARD in gold.

Jeff Koons’s Dirty - Jeff on Top (1991) with Made in Heaven (1989) behind it.
Jeff Koons’s Dirty – Jeff on Top (1991) with Made in Heaven (1989) behind it. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

This may not be such a surprising choice for Koons after all. Fragonard’s provocative painting of a partly nude young woman playing with a fluffy dog in bed has at least two similarities with his own creations. His giant floral statues of puppies are among his most brilliant subversions of what modern art is supposed to look like, and the painting’s voyeurism shares his appetite for blurring the line between art and pornography.

Notice this, and you see Jeff Koons in a different way. This is an artist who looks at – and thinks about – art from the past, and finds his most brilliant ideas there. The 18th-century rococo and the strange genius of Fragonard is not something he discovered yesterday. He has been drawing on the rococo for his sculptures for a long time. Similarly, his flamboyant super-pop paintings are nothing less than attempts to revive the energy of Rubens. A subtle passion for art is concealed by his apparent belief in banality.

Now Koons is sharing the art he most loves. The power of Rubens, the sensuality of Titian and the naughty painterly pastries of Fragonard clearly fascinate him, and he wants other people to see what he sees. This is not simply a line of luxury bags. It is an artist’s meditation on the masters, in handbag form. Picasso copied and reworked great paintings in his later years. Koons is offering a different kind of art lesson, and it is a joy. I want to see the names FRAGONARD and RUBENS glowing on Oxford Street, on Fifth Avenue, their masterpieces walking out of the museum into modern lives.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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