Entertainment & Arts

A glimpse of '60s Paris through a collector's eyes

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The installation includes a mass of copies of Paris Match, all dated to fit in with the era

Head to one corner of this year's Frieze Masters art fair in London and you'll find yourself in a time and place you didn't expect.

Designer Robin Brown has been given full rein to recreate the packed Paris apartment of art collector Corrado N exactly as it was in 1968. The fact that no such collector existed has not prevented Brown from making his installation with astonishing attention to detail.

Robin Brown has long been a production designer for music videos. With the release of Northern Soul this week, he's made a move in to feature films.

But the installation The Collector came as a unique and irresistible commission from the Helly Nahmad gallery.

"The installation investigates the passion for collecting. Helly Nahmad told me about an obsession with collecting in some members of his family and the physical manifestations that can have in the place where a person lives. For some people there's a fine line between collecting and outright hoarding."

Image copyright Frieze Art Fair
Image caption The installation forms part of this year's Frieze Art Fair

Brown has imagined how an intellectual's flat would have looked in Montparnasse, Paris in 1968. The year was chosen because of the political unrest prominent in France and elsewhere.

"But it's also possible that back then a serious collector could still have owned first-rate art, even though he wasn't massively rich," explains Brown.

The collaborators invented a basic biography for him: "He's from Milan, but has moved to Paris. He speaks good English and has a passion for literature and music, as well as visual art."

It's clear that Corrado N isn't much bothered about being able to move freely about his flat. Almost every vertical surface is covered with paintings and photographs, and every horizontal surface with books and letters.

On one desk is his correspondence with actual galleries and art dealers, all with letterheads appropriate to 1968. Sotheby's catalogues stand ready to be perused and envelopes look as though they have just been opened. Some of the printed matter is from the era, while other items have been painstakingly recreated.

On a '60s television set, programmes and news reports play on a loop; intermittently music plays which Corrado N might have enjoyed, ranging from pop to Francis Poulenc.

Brown studied properties in London which he thought might inspire him, such as the architect Erno Goldfinger's house in Willow Road, Hampstead. "But I wanted the inspiration to be general, not specific. Eventually you turn off the internet and close your magazines and reference books, and you let your imagination do the work."

The installation consists of an utterly convincing living room, bedroom and a small kitchen. Robin Brown had hoped to include a working bathroom too - he loved the idea of the shower running all the time - but eventually the space was used to house the computers which run the lighting, audio effects and TV.

Image copyright Frieze Art Fair
Image caption French visitors have even claimed to recognise people in photos on the wall

"For the bedroom I was delighted to track down a huge 1950s 'lit traineau' - a sleigh bed. In fact, we were able to hire it from an antique dealer in London. Most of the bedding is from a props house in London. And above the bed I hung an enormous picture by Alberto Burri, an Italian artist Corrado N might have been familiar with. It was important that all the art work is genuine. Lots of the painting are a bit too big for the flat - because he's had to downsize.

There are pictures on the walls from Picasso, Twombly, Dali, Miro and many others.

"Other stuff, such as piles and piles of Paris Match magazines, we got from Le Bon Coin which is sort of the French eBay. They go back years because he's a hoarder - but 1968 is the cut-off point."

It's obvious that real thought has gone into what Corrado N would have amassed in his lifetime. So there are piles of old brown-covered Penguin Classics in English - but they're from the 1950s because that's when he would have bought them. There are plentiful ashtrays too.

So far, Robin Brown reports, visitors to Frieze have been respectful and not tried to make off with souvenirs.

On one wall of the living room are posters of student protests from the Paris riots of 1968. Several are genuine but it's one area where Robin Brown had to permit himself to reconstruct certain items.

"By their nature, political posters are quite ephemeral - one or two of those we do have were literally ripped off walls in Paris. One thing I've learnt doing this, is that student posters were generally colourful because the state printed in black and white and they had to be different."

Brief encounter

Brown says his favourite item is a small black and white picture of an unknown teenage girl. "I saw it in a flea-market in Angers and the moment I saw it I knew I had to include it. It hints at a family or at his private life in a way I like."

"We've had French visitors come and stare at the installation. Somebody said they recognised a family friend in one of the snaps on the wall.

"People say you must take The Collector to New York or wherever. But lots of the stuff is leased and it has to go back to the owners."

So, for now, Brown's superb evocation of Paris in 1968 is destined to be torn up after this week. It's a thought which would leave the great collector Corrado N in despair, if only he existed.

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