The sumptuous exhibition “Balenciaga and Spanish Painting,” which opened this week at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid (through September 2019), places the great couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s creative and technical masterworks—along with his elegant client commissions—in dialogue with iconic Spanish paintings. And what paintings!
The clearly persuasive curator Eloy Martínez de la Pera also worked on the museum’s Hubert de Givenchy exhibition in 2014-15 and the 2017-18 exhibition at the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa in Getaria celebrating the style of Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon through some of the 660 pieces that the celebrated gardener and philanthropist bequeathed to the museum. For his latest masterwork, Eloy secured loans of spectacular art from the Prado and the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao as well as from distinguished private collections, along with clothes from museums, former Spanish clients and their families, and private collections—including a gratifying number from my own collection (@hamishbowlescollection).
When I was researching the first of two exhibitions that I curated on Balenciaga’s work and the impact of his Spanish homeland on it (“Balenciaga: Spanish Master,” initiated by Oscar de la Renta, at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York, and “Balenciaga and Spain” at the de Young Fine Art Museums in San Francisco), I began by making a pilgrimage to his birthplace—the medieval fishing village of Getaria on the Basque coast.On that trip I was beguiled by the Palacio Aldamar, sitting high on the hill overlooking the narrow, convoluted streets of the sea-walled village, where Balenciaga lived in the lower floors of a modest terraced house with his parents and siblings.
The villa’s turn of the century chatelaine, the Marchioness of Casa Torres, was a woman of immense Proustian elegance who dressed with the greatest Parisian dressmakers and milliners of the day. She employed Balenciaga’s mother as a seamstress—with responsibilities including helping the marchioness unpack the vast dress and hat boxes when they arrived containing her latest Parisian purchases. The aristocrat’s style had a profound influence on the young Balenciaga, who recalled that at the age of twelve he admired her one morning dressed in her Paris finery en route to mass—so much so, in fact, that he summoned the courage to tell her how elegant she was, boldly adding that he could make an outfit for her every bit as beautiful as the one she was wearing.
The marchioness was intrigued enough to provide him with the fabric to execute his boast, and was so pleased with the result that she wore it to mass a week later. She subsequently arranged for Balenciaga, whose father had recently died, to apprentice to a famous English-style tailor in the nearby city of San Sebastian—a fashionable watering hole for the Spanish royal family and other aristocrats—and thus be in a position to help support his family. Balenciaga later repaid the marchioness for her kindness by gifting her granddaughter Fabiola the magnificent mink-trimmed, white-ribbed silk gown she wore to marry King Baudoin of the Belgians in the winter of 1960 (a dress included in the current exhibition, although no clients—who also included Princess Grace of Monaco and Mona Bismark—are mentioned in the object texts, a deliberate attempt to not “fetishize” the objects, as Martínez de la Pera explained). Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Balenciaga’s friend and acolyte Hubert de Givenchy, the Palacio Aldamar is now the site of the dedicated Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, an institution that has loaned a number of pieces to this exhibition.
But it was not just to the latest fashions that Balenciaga was exposed chez the Casa Torres, for the Marquis de Casa Torres himself was a celebrated collector of historic Spanish art, with a notable collection that Balenciaga would have seen on his visits to the Palacio Aldamar. In a curatorial masterstroke, Eloy has assembled some of the pictures that once hung at the Casa Torres (and were subsequently given to the Prado, of which the marquis was a significant trustee) and arranged them in the first room of the exhibition. They include a breathtaking Saint Sebastian by El Greco, 1610-14 (cut down at some point in its life, and now reassembled in two pieces), Diego Velazquez’s Apostle’s Head, 1619-20; Francisco de Goya’s Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbon y Vallabriga, c. 1800, and Barolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Immaculate Conception, c. 1680. Setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition, Balenciaga garments are arranged in dialogue with these images, stylishly mounted to sing against black walls, and include one of the couturier’s iconic Infanta dresses from 1939 (from the collection of Madrid’s Museo del Traje), which helped to cement his reputation soon after he fled Spain’s Civil War and reestablished his already 20-year old couture house in Paris.
At the time he opened shop in Paris, Balenciaga was already a familiar figure on the city’s fashion scene, as for years he had bought clothes from the great designers there to copy and adapt for his own clients back in Spain. However, his talent soon garnered him the approbation of his peers. Christian Dior applauded his “creative genius” and crowned him “the master of us all,” whilst Coco Chanel averred that “Balenciaga alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the word… the others are simply fashion designers.” Elsa Schiaparelli would pay him the ultimate compliment when she said that “Balenciaga was the only couturier to dare to do what he loved”—a surprising homage from a designer who herself built a career on audacity. His work also commanded the plaudits of the press—Harper’s Bazaar’s influential editor Carmel Snow, for instance, felt that he was “the greatest name in fashion.”
As the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland noted, Balenciaga “brought the style of Spain into the lives of everyone who wore his designs.” He was, she continued, “the true son of a strong country filled with style, vibrant color, and a fine history,” and he “remained forever a Spaniard… his inspiration came from the bull rings, 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.”
When his work is juxtaposed with real life masterworks by Goya, Zurbarán, and El Greco, the effect can be spellbinding. The work of late nineteenth century Spanish genre artists and society portraitists also finds echoes in Balenciaga’s imaginative crinolined and bustled ball gowns and his dazzling wedding gowns, a number of which are assembled here (including his final design, for which he came out of retirement: the 1972 High Gothic wedding dress for General Franco’s eldest granddaughter, María del Carmen Martínez-Bordiú y Franco, to Alfonso de Borbón y Dampierre, also included in the exhibition).
Cecil Beaton noted that “Balenciaga is fashion’s Picasso … Dour, Spanish and ascetic, his touch has the rugged, peasant-like sureness of the great artist,” and my only regret about the exhibition is that there are no works by Picasso or Balenciaga’s friends Miró and the sculptor Chillida, a fellow Basque, in the exhibition. For by the end of Balenciaga’s career in the high 1960s, whilst he still continued to serve the needs of his clients (who were, on the whole, especially conservative in their tastes in Franco’s Spain, where Balenciaga maintained outposts, operating under the name Eisa—for his mother—in San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Madrid), he was also producing some of the most innovative and dramatic designs of his career, reflecting the innovations of these artist contemporaries.
However, it was profoundly moving for me as a collector to walk through room after room (each painted in a slightly different tone of black) and see my pieces in dialogue with the masterworks that were so resonant in Balenciaga’s mind. A 1939 evening coat, designed like a priest’s in austere black grosgrain with covered buttons down the front, and a 1962 ruffled ball gown and jacket of black gazar (a fabric developed for Balenciaga by his friend Gustav Zumsteg of Abraham), for instance, are shown with Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo’s 1665-6 portrait of the homely Margaret Theresa of Austria and Juan Carre?o de Miranda’s 1678 Portrait of Queen Mariana of Austria, dressed as a nun.
A jewel-like bolero of 1962 embroidered with brown velvet ribbons and bugle beads sewn by their ends to form a bristle effect is placed next to a drop-waisted evening gown of floral chine taffeta in shades of brown on ivory (from the Inès Carvajal collection) before Juan van der Hamen y Leon’s exquisite 1627 An Offering to Flora. A 1946 toreador bolero of crimson velvet, embroidered in black jet and passementerie, rests next to Ramón Casas y Carbó’s c. 1915 Julia, wearing a very similar garment. However, when I discovered that a searingly red lace 1960 baby doll shift dress and mantilla stole from my collection had been positioned next to Goya’s wondrous 1795 The Duchess of Alba in White (which usually hangs in the magnificent ducal Liria Palace, soon to open to the public for the first time in its history)—her own pale dress gashed with a sash and corsage bow in the same tone of red—my heart missed a beat.
For those unable to visit Madrid in the coming months, the catalogue accompanying the exhibition reproduces every wondrous picture and every garment in the show, all of which have been handsomely photographed by Jon Cazenave in Barcelona. But the exhibition itself presents a unique opportunity not only to applaud the work of this true master of design (including many garments that have never before been exhibited), but also to experience some of the wonders of Spanish art, dramatically assembled in a triumphant marriage.