If you’ve been reading Strange Flowers for a while you will know that certain types predominate: wayward aristocrats, precious aesthetes, sartorial self-actualisers, poetic mavericks, eccentric decorators, the real-life inspirations for fictional characters and above all, those whose very lives constituted their greatest work, inspiring individuals driven by an inner need to make of existence something odd, rare and wonderful.
So many aspects of the count’s life could prove instructive for devotees of the recherché, the refined, the recondite, but unpacking Montesquiou is not a task to undertake lightly; a French study of “the aesthetic curiosities of Robert de Montesquiou” runs to over 900 pages in two volumes.
Even narrowing down his occupation is problematic. The most frequent label is “poet”, but Montesquiou didn’t so much write as curate poetry, picking the most precious images and arranging them artfully with other unusual specimens to produce an overall effect, much as he did with objets d’clutter in his famed interiors. It wasn’t an approach calculated to ensure his literary immortality, and the few today who find their way to his verse tend to do so out of fascination for the man, rather than the other way round.
One of the ironies surrounding Montesquiou is that for all the effort he invested in art directing, costuming and producing his own life, his presence is most effectively and lastingly evoked by others. Whistler and Boldini were each inspired by their sitter’s magnetic self-possession to produce timeless portraits, and he famously served as the model for two literary barons: Charlus in Proust’s slim page-turner À la recherche du temps perdu and des Esseintes in J.K. Huysmans’ À rebours.
We’ve already examined Montesquiou’s own fascination with his spiritual ancestor, the Countess de Castiglione, and her self-staged photographs. The images here are his response, an attempt to capture, more or less unmediated, the slim, superbly dressed figure he presented to his contemporaries. They were justly fascinated and impressed, if sometimes bemused or even amused. One writer maintained that even if the count wore cabbage leaves he would retain “un chic suprême“.
While Montesquiou’s embrace of artifice and worshipful devotion to his own presentation were in part a decadent’s interpretation of dandyism, he did not share the dandies’ belief that masculine elegance should never draw attention to itself. Montesquiou dressed to match his mood, to impersonate historical or literary figures, to share with the world some aspect of his boundless aesthetic curiosity, but above all to be seen.