Ole! The New Balenciaga Exhibit Brings the Pulse of Spain to the de Young Museum
From the recent ruffle trend to voluminous trapeze silhouettes to intricate embroideries & detailing (during the daytime!), the influence of the mega-talented 20th century Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) still resonates decades after his death, continuing to add zest en Espanol to modern fashion. "Balenciaga was the true son of a strong country filled with style, vibrant color, and a fine history," legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland once said of him. "He remained forever a Spaniard...His inspiration came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the fishermen in their boots and loose blouses, the glories of the church, and the cool of the cloisters and monasteries. He took their colors, their cuts, then festooned them to his own taste."
Designer Oscar de la Renta actually began his career in Balenciaga's Madrid couture casa in the 1950s, and in 2010, created a presentation at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in NYC entitled "Balenciaga: Spanish Master." On March, 26 through July 4, 2011 it will be expanded dramatically by the de Young Museum in San Francisco as "BALENCIAGA AND SPAIN" and guest-curated by Vogue's European editor at large, Hamish Bowles. The exhibition will include nearly 120 of the designers haute couture couture garments, hats, and headdresses, including an unprecedented loan of 30 pieces from the House of Balenciaga in Paris, which opened its archives of historically significant Cristóbal Balenciaga garments, iconography, and related materials; a trove of sartorial treasures and never-before-exhibited goodies from private collections (such as that of Sandy Schreier) and museums around the world will also be on display, including items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile and the Musée Galliera in Paris, the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Hispanic Society of America, LACMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Texas Fashion Collection, five garments from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's own significant collection of Balenciaga, and 17 pieces from the collection of Hamish Bowles, who notes: "Balenciaga's ceaseless explorations and innovations ensured that his work was as intriguing and influential in his final collection as it had been in his first."
"Balenciaga and Spain" illustrates his expansive creative vision, beginning with an introductory gallery featuring three decades of Balenciaga's signature silhouettes, all in tones of black that demonstrate his mastery of volume, his sophisticated use of fabric and embellishments, and his supreme technical innovations; it then moves onto his signature references to Spanish art, bullfighting, dance, regional costume, and the pageantry of the royal court and religious ceremonies. Cecil Beaton hailed him as "Fashion's Picasso," and Balenciaga's impeccable tailoring, innovative fabric choices, and technical mastery transformed the way the world’s most stylish women dressed. Exhibition highlights include ensembles commissioned and worn by some of the world’s most iconic tastemakers, among them Doris Duke, Baroness Pauline de Rothschild, Countess Mona Bismarck, Gloria Guinness, Thelma Chrysler Foy, Claudia Heard de Osborne, and the Bay Area's Eleanor Christensen de Guigne and Elise Haas.
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From the atmospheric color palette of Goya, to Velázquez's portraits of courtiers and royalty, and the draped volumes of fabric in El Greco’s and Zurbarán’s haunting seventeenth-century images of saints, Balenciaga drew inspiration from the great artists of Spain, notably with his iconic 1939 "Infanta dress, a modernist interpretation of the voluminous frocks worn by the Infanta Margarita in Velázquez's celebrated portraits. "The dress of Spain's monarchs, their families, and their courtiers, depicted in some of the most striking portraiture in the history of art, exerted a powerful effect on Balenciaga’s creative imagination," explains Bowles. Along with the embroideries, ermine tails, pearl details, and signature silhouette of Spanish court dress - and, in particular, the exaggerated, farthingale-enhanced hips of the early 17th century which the couturier abstracted later in his career as distinctive six-pointed peplums adorning evening gowns - he also looked to contemporary Spanish art, favoring the abstraction of Joan Miró’s paintings and the modernist, monumental sculptures of Basque countryman Eduardo Chilida.
And like Ernest Hemingway, Balenciaga liked bullfighting. "From his earliest collections, Balenciaga included designs that contained overt allusions to the costume of the matador," says Bowles. Using the traditional stiffened bolero of the matador decorated with sumptuous embroidery, alamar (frog and braid trimming), and distinctive borlones (pompom tassels) as a starting point during the 1940s & 50s, Balenciaga then softened the silhouette and collaborated with embroidery houses such as Bataille and Lesage to re-create the passmenterie, beading, and embroideries of the matador costumes (themselves almost as intricate as haute couture garments), and by the 1960s was using them to decorate eveningwear and millinery. Bright splashes of bright fuschia, deep red, and vibrant yellow also pay homage to the color palette of the matador's capes; even the carnation, the traditional flower thrown in tribute to matador at the end of a successful bullfight, appears in Balenciaga's embroideries and printed fabric - along with glittery paillette-studded embroidery conjuring a nineteenth-century matador's traje de luces (suit of lights). (photo: source)
Other elements of Spanish culture that permeated Balenciaga's work included the polka dots and ruffles of the bata de cola - the female flamenco dancer's traditional dress - as well as that of the males', with whimsical hats and floral headpieces, close-fitting cropped boleros, cummerbunds, and tight pants. Regional dress and folkloric costumes similarly fired the designer's imagination, as he translated the traditional fringed, floral shawl (the mantón de Manila) into haute couture embroideries by Lesage used on spectacular eveningwear. His shaggy vests of innovative mohair textiles recall the practical garments of a Navarran shepherd, while humble cloaks and capes reappeared in sumptuous fabrics with voluminous lines, and loose, unfitted cotton piqué blouses evoked the fishermen's shirts of his Basque homeland. A lifelong devout Catholic (he even once considered joining the priesthood), Balenciaga even "pilfered" (but in the best way possible) the look of religious vestments, translating into clean, simple, and technically perfect fashion the minimalist rythyms and volumes of nuns' habits & priests' embroidered chasubles & black cassocks, monks' hooded robes, and the spectacular, brilliantly colored and embellished robes that clad the statues of the Madonna carried through the streets of Spain during Holy Week. "It is here that Balenciaga’s technical mastery and tailoring shine as he plays with ideas of volume, structure, and linear purity, and reveals his technical brilliance in a garment he fabricates with a single seam," adds Bowles. "Balenciaga revolutionized fashion by referencing the sturdy, utilitarian garments worn by the Spanish laboring classes—as well as the attitude and philosophy that shaped them—to create a new paradigm of mid-century elegance." (image: source)
"BALENCIAGA AND SPAIN" will be on display at the de Young Museum from March 26, 2011 through July 4, 2011. Also on March 26, a symposium on the influence of Spanish culture on the work of Balenciaga will take place at the de Young featuring Hamish Bowles; Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre; Miren Arzalluz, curator of the Balenciaga Foundation and author of Cristóbal Balenciaga: La forja del Maestro (1895–1936); and Lourdes Font, associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
For more info or to buy tix, go to deYoungMuseum.org.
- Lesley Scott