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One of the most captivating paintings at the Dries Van Noten “Inspirations” exhibition currently on at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris—and there are many—is a 2011 seascape by Belgian artist Thierry De Cordier. It’s Van Noten’s favorite work in the vast show, which displays more than 400 items that shed light on the designer’s creative process at various stages of his career.
“Every time I see it, I see it in a different way,” the Antwerp-based designer mused of the De Cordier. “You have to be a very good painter to use only gray and black colors. It’s a fascinating work.”
It also reveals that Van Noten—best known for his colorful, embellished fashions and his penchant for gardening and flowers—also shelters a darker, more melancholic side, telegraphed powerfully in De Cordier’s depiction of roiling waters under a leaden sky. “It’s about unexpected beauty,” he observed.
Van Noten noted that while the sea can be calming and reassuring, “sometimes you are swallowed by the sea, sometimes it scares you.”
The De Cordier work, titled Mer Montée, is the centerpiece of a case explaining how The Piano was the main inspiration behind Van Noten’s spring 1999 women’s collection. That 1993 film by Jane Campion—who is president of the jury at next month’s 67th Cannes Film Festival, incidentally—yielded slender, vaguely Victorian silhouettes clinging to the models as if they were drenched, and watery prints. The fashions recall the climactic scene, broadcast in a loop on a small monitor, when the main character deliberately tangles her foot in the rope attached to her piano as it is cast into the sea, ultimately rejecting the watery grave and kicking free.
The sea painting shares the case with several stands of dress and two more works of art: a pot of mussels sculpture from 1968 by Marcel Broodthaers, and a 1915 portrait by Léon Spilliaert, who, like De Cordier, hails from Ostend on the Belgian coast.
The commanding painting was made more than a decade after Van Noten’s collection, but it “reflects the mood and the idea,” the designer said, signaling that inspiring ideas are not always literal, but ebb and flow over time.