‘I Want Passersby to Feel Like They’re Butterflies’: French Artist Charlotte Gastaut Transforms New York’s 5th Avenue With 10 Blossom-Filled Sculptures
Manhattan's famed thoroughfare is a joyous vision as "Fifth Avenue Blooms" returns courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.
Last week the French illustrator Charlotte Gastaut, jetlagged but ecstatic, was walking down 5th Avenue just below Central Park. The torrential downpour had shifted to a drizzle, and it wasn’t stopping her from checking out the first day of her installation. “I’m completely astonished!” she said. “I just arrived last night, and it looks magical under the rain.” It wasn’t long before a mother posed her young son underneath her illustrated emerald arches festooned with pink and crimson geraniums to take his photo.
“We’ve done the job, amazing!” she exclaimed. “I want passersby to feel like they’re butterflies or little birds going through fields of flowers and vegetation. It’s important to see the flowers and the buildings and feel alive. I wanted to do something joyful for New York.” Gastaut has brung a ravishing lawn and garden to Manhattan as part of “Fifth Avenue Blooms.” It’s the second year that the luxury jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels has partnered with the Fifth Avenue Association for the immersive sidewalk experience that combines art with flora (on view til May 31, the installation spans the famous thoroughfare from 50th Street up until 59th Street.). Each year, the initiative commissions an artist to create floral-inspired structures that double as planters.
Some of the 10 works have been designed to be sat on, leaned on, or just factor elegantly into daily city life. And yes, these sculptures do make perfect backdrops for photo ops and selfies. Gastaut paused in front of a boat-like basket of bountiful blue hydrangeas. As spring reaches its peak, the flowers will grow transforming the sculptures’ aesthetics. Her larger-scaled decorative vessels near Pulitzer Fountain house blooming dogwoods. Gastaut’s Elysian vision extends to the stately Van Cleef flagship, too, as her flowers fill the vitrines and surround the grand entranceway (her illustrations have also taken over the website design at the moment). Gastaut says it was a fulfilling collaboration.
“It was total freedom,” she said. “Van Cleef let me do what I want. They let me work with what I feel.” (Her other big Van Cleef project for the season was designing the décor for the recent Tribeca Ball honoring Amy Sherald which was sponsored by the brand).
Gastuat was wearing a sedate, studious overcoat adorned with a riotous bouquet of acid yellow, brown, and white plumes. “Oh, it’s my fluffy flowers,” she said of the handmade faux-feather brooch. “A friend made it and when I don’t know what to wear, I put some fluffy flowers on, and I think I’m very chic.”
Gastaut isn’t attracted to artificial flowers so much as flowers’ fantastical associations. The designs she created for the arches, platforms, and decorative sculptural stands lining 5th Avenue aren’t based on actual floral varieties. “I don’t like reality,” she explains. “That’s not my cup of tea.”
Born in Marseille but based in the eastern suburbs of Paris, Gastaut lives with her three children. While in New York, she plans to visit Neu Gallery, the High Line, and the Karl Lagerfeld exhibition at the Met. She collaborated with the German designer on a remarkable 2016 Fendi haute couture collection, her design fantasia filtered onto the entire selection of dresses and coats. Fashion still interests Gastaut, and she created her own line of silk scarves in 2015 and is working on a collection of dresses with a friend. But her main focus has always been the 2D realm of creation.
Gastaut has illustrated over 80 children’s books and is now working on a book about the surrealist French poet Paul Éluard. Gastaut grew up infatuated with Scandinavian illustrators from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Kay Nielsen and John Bauer are my kings!” she said. “They are the two people in the whole world that I love most. They’re the best, most beautiful illustrators that I know.”
These illustrators’ sense of magic, mystery, and timelessness pervades Gastaut’s work as well, but she thinks her foremost inspiration was familial. “I was raised by my grandmother who was Swedish,” she says. “I’m very classical, looking at the Scandinavian illustrators for inspiration and Klimt and Vienna,” she says. “I’m very old school. I’m an old soul.”
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