Ariella Wolens is a curator and writer from London. She is currently based in New York and in Savannah, Georgia, where she serves as assistant curator at the SCAD Museum of Art, in addition to working independently. Her writings appear regularly in magazines such as Spike, Flash Art, and Elephant.
The fever dream of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 celluloid nightmare Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet) climbs to a bathetic crescendo when a party of louche, decadent onlookers applaud the suicide of a lone figure on an operatic stage. Within this cabal of spectators is a sumptuously festooned, raven-haired woman of jolie laide charm, distinguished by her aquiline profile and razor-sharp cupid’s bow. This is Marie-Laure de Noailles, a childhood friend and patron of Cocteau’s—also a Surrealist co-conspirator, a devoted collectionneuse, and an artist in her own right.
Noailles’s credentials as cynosure to the bizzarerie of Paris’s années folles are only rivaled by her aristocratic lineage. Born on Halloween in 1903, she was the daughter of Maurice Bischoffsheim—scion of an epically wealthy German banking family—and Marie-Thérèse de Chevigné, whose ancestry links luminaries such as the Marquis de Sade, that original icon of depravity; the Comtesse de Chevigné, a model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in À la recherche du temps perdu (“Proust? We read it to get news of friends”1 ); and Laure de Noves, the medieval noblewoman whom Petrarch apotheosized as his muse.
Marie-Laure’s already semimythic status was solidified through matrimony, her lifelong pas de deux with the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, a dashing ambisexual whose unlimited fortune was well served by his impeccable taste. The couple’s deep-pocketed refinement and Marie-Laure’s lust for the visual imaginary guided them toward artists whose spirits delighted in chaos and controversy. In 1930, Charles funded Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dalí’s deliciously sacrilegious film L’âge d’or to the tune of a million francs. A birthday present for Marie-Laure, the film also acted as an ironic gift to the viscount himself when the scandal around it led to his exile from the elite and ultraconservative Paris Jockey Club.
To enter the Noailles’ Paris quarters, at 11 place des États-Unis, was to encounter a cacophony of treasures from both the academy and the avant-garde: Goya and Rubens rubbed up against Yves Tanguy and Joan Miró, and Cellini bronzes stood guard over portraits of Marie-Laure by the likes of Balthus, Man Ray, Dora Maar, and Pablo Picasso. While the room glittered with the beauty afforded by wealth, its importance lay in its reverence to the creed of originality; as Philippe Jullian wrote, “From the vault, a tall Max Ernst and a car compressed by [the Nouveau Réalisme artist] César shout: ‘You are not entering here to evoke the splendours of capitalism or the elegance of the aristocracy, you are with curious minds who will play you more than one trick.’”2 Between works by Delacroix, Watteau, and Alberto Giacometti lay those by Marie-Laure’s own hand. Painted on an eighteenth-century easel while the artist perched on a Louis XV fauteuil, these “blurred visionary tone poems” are abstract dreamscapes in which approximations of figures emerge from dilute earthen washes.3 As an artist Noailles may not have risen to the heights of those she patronized, but her painterly pursuits underline her passion for creativity.
Marie-Laure’s lust for the visual imaginary guided [the Noailles] toward artists whose spirits delighted in chaos and controversy.
Within the Noailles’ Paris Wunderkammer, guests could handle the manuscript of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, a relic that set the tone for transgressive discourse. Among the sundry who attended were masters of art, music, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and literature such as Jacques Lacan, Kurt Weill, and Michel Leiris, figures whose intellectual innovations are still being reckoned with today. The public dissemination of such thinkers’ radical ideas owes something to the Noailles, whose funding supported, for just two examples, the publication of Georges Bataille’s journal Documents (1929–30) and the establishment, in 1937, of Paris’s Musée de l’Homme.
Each summer the Noailles’ cadre decamped to the Midi, where the couple created a pastoral modernist citadel upon the ruins of the medieval castle of Hyères. Built between 1923 and 1927, this edifice of concrete, glass, and chrome was the architectural chef d’oeuvre of Robert Mallet-Stevens, a master of Streamline Moderne. The Villa Noailles was made legend by Man Ray’s 1929 film Les mystères du Château du Dé , which documents the pilgrimage of two travelers played by the director and the French Surrealist photographer Jacques-André Boiffard. Deciding their fate with a dice roll, they make their way from Paris to the Noailles’ villa and proceed in a clandestine exploration of its curiosities, which included bespoke fixtures by modern-design darlings Marcel Breuer, Charlotte Perriand, Jean Prouvé, and Theo van Doesburg. Here the Noailles lived and entertained a Surrealist cabal with baroque decadence. Of those who came and went, the presences of Surrealist leader André Breton, poet Louis Aragon, fashion doyen Cecil Beaton, and Nobel Prize winner and self-professed pederast André Gide were all components of the heady miasma in the air.
Today, the Villa Noailles is an art center in which the patronage of this visionary couple unfurls into public view through exhibitions and scholarship. Investing personally as well as monetarily, Marie-Laure de Noailles was the consummate patron, standing with modest grace behind fearless artists such as Cocteau, Dalí, Ernst, and Picasso, whom she faithfully followed as a tacit muse throughout their careers, unfettered by the desire to cast her own shadow into posterity. She lived without fear of social condemnation or loss of power, but rather in the embrace of words, images, and song.
1Charles de Noailles (Marie-Laure de Noailles’s husband), quoted in Alexandre Mare and Stéphane Boudin-Lestienne, Charles et Marie-Laure de Noailles: Mécènes du XXe Siècle (Paris: Bernard Chauveau, 2018), p. 36.
2Philippe Jullian, “Une des maisons clés pour l’histoire du goût au XXe siècle,” Connaissance des arts, no. 152 (October 1964), p. 71.
3Philip Core, The Original Eye: Arbiters of Twentieth-Century Taste (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984), p. 136.