The Joan Mitchell Foundation has accused luxury fashion company Louis Vuitton of reproducing without permission of at least three works by the Abstract Expressionist for an advertising campaign featuring actress Léa Seydoux for handbags that retail up to $10,500.
On Tuesday, the foundation, which stewards Mitchell’s legacy as well as providing millions in direct artist support in the decades since Mitchell’s death, sent a cease and desist letter to Louis Vuitton Malletier demanding the company withdraw the campaign, a full accounting of where the advertisements appeared, and an apology.
“It’s important for folks to understand that this wasn’t something we agreed to,” Christa Blatchford, the foundation’s executive director, told ARTnews. “How did it even happen, is my question. I honestly don’t understand how it happened on their side. I really don’t.”
Prior to the campaign’s launch, Blatchford said Louis Vuitton had reached out to Mitchell Foundation, which manages the licensing of all images of artwork by the artist, several times, starting last December, about requesting permission to use the artist’s works in an upcoming series of ads. The foundation, however, repeatedly turned the luxury fashion company down due to a long-standing policy that images of Mitchell’s work were only used for educational purposes and for extremely limited commercial use, such as merchandise for an exhibition.
“We really believe in scholarship,” Blatchford said. “We want to make sure Mitchell’s images are available freely to scholars to museums as they’re using them. That has been our emphasis.”
According to Blatchford, Jean-Paul Claverie, the art advisor to ARTnews Top 200 Collector and LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault, even offered the foundation a donation in exchange for permission to use the photos in the ad campaign. The foundation continued to say no.
The company went ahead with the campaign, which first appeared in the New York Times‘ Sunday Style section on February 12, as well as online. Advertisements for the company’s Capucines handbags feature Seydoux holding the bags in front of three Mitchell paintings: La Grande Vallée XIV (For A Little While), a triptych from 1983; Quatuor II for Betsy Jolas (1976); and Edrita Fried” (1981).
“It’s one of those [situations] where the attorneys are so clear about it just being black and white,” Blatchford said. “We have documentation of the request. We have all of our agreements, all spelled out, and it was just disregarded.”
In an email, LVMH, Louis Vuitton Malletier’s parent company, told the New York Times, which first reported the news that “Louis Vuitton will not comment.” ARTnews‘s request for comment on the situation to Fondation Louis Vuitton were redirected to LVMH, which in turn did not respond to ARTnews by press time.
The advertisements feature cropped images of the artworks and appear to be taken during a major exhibition that paired Mitchell’s work with that Impressionist Claude Monet, and that appeared at none other than the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a private museum on the outskirts of Paris. The images do not credit Mitchell or her foundation. Blatchford pointed out February 12 is also Mitchell’s birthday.
In a statement addressing the unauthorized use of Mitchell’s art, the foundation said, “By permitting these works to be photographed for this purpose and in this manner, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is in violation of its agreement with JMF.”
The Fondation Louis Vuitton’s lauded “Monet — Mitchell” exhibitioin, which closes on February 27, features 35 paintings by Monet, including works from his famed “Water Lillies,” in a dialogue with 35 of Mitchell’s paintings and pastels.
Though the Fondation Louis Vuitton is a legally separate nonprofit from Louis Vuitton Malletier, both are owned by LVMH, the French multinational luxury conglomerate.
“It is disheartening to realize that what we thought of as distance between the two entities doesn’t seem to be in existence, in the ways that we would have expected,” Blatchford said, referring to the Fondation and the Malletier. “There’s some hope I have that distance actually gets solidified so that Fondation Louis Vuitton could do its work in the right way.”
Blatchford said the Joan Mitchell Foundation may change its stance on commercial use of Mitchell’s artwork in the future, but this experience with Louis Vuitton has put a damper on that possibility. “What’s problematic is that opportunity to have a first commercial partnership was completely taken away,” she said.
For its own part, Louis Vuitton, as a company, takes the intellectual property and protection of its own visual trademarks, like its iconic logo, seriously. Its website reads that the company has a “zero-tolerance policy” regarding counterfeiting, and its intellectual property department “initiated more than 38,000 anti-counterfeiting procedures worldwide” in 2017. The website continues, “Preserving the creativity and the rights of designers, artists, and brands is vital to their long-term survival.”
Louis Vuitton is also no stranger to high-profile collaborations with major contemporary artists, having previously sold handbags featuring the work of Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons.
Because the Capucin handbags featured in the advertisements sell for up to $10,500, Blatchford found that detail to be “incongruent” with the mission of the late artist’s foundation to support living artists, adding “It’s shocking to us that they’re using Mitchell’s artwork for luxury in that way.”