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Balenciaga and the Spanish masters

In the world of high fashion, art has always played a pivotal role.  In this new exhibition at the El Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, haute couture designs by Spanish couturier, Balenciaga, are exhibited alongside the great masters of Spanish art from the 16th to the 20th century, showing how he harnessed their spirit to create his body of work.

Balenciaga was born in the Basque country in 1895 (he died in 1972) and opened his first boutique in San Sebastian in 1917. With the advent of the Civil War he moved the enterprise to Paris where he swiftly rose to legendary status dressing some of the world’s most beautiful women – Ava Gardener, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy among them - in his signature sculptural and silhouette-defining forms.

This latest retrospective shows a total of 90 pieces, each artfully hung alongside the paintings that inspired it, offering a unique opportunity to understand the extraordinary language between the two. Considered to be the only true couturier – Coco Chanel once famously described all others as ‘simply fashion designers’ – his great talent was that he could draw, pattern cut and sew, which gave him great freedom in recreating the architectural shapes and voluptuous forms, colour blocks and rich detailing, that he saw in art.

You’ll see echoes of this influence for example in a flowing gown that is the precise shade of the cape in Murillo’s ‘Immaculate Conception’, and in a crimson evening gown that recalls the papal robes of Cardinal Luis María Borbón y Vallabriga by Goya. Inspired by El Greco’s virgins, angels and saints, Balenciaga created frivolous pastel-coloured ball gowns, contrasted by the portrait of the Countess VI of Miranda in black – a pigment that he returned to time and again in the course of his career, and which he’d elevate with interesting textures or embellishments.

Balenciaga’s personal collection of antique apparel served as another influence, while references to popular cultures in the form of frilled flamenco dresses and the bullfighters ‘traje de luces’ (suit of lights) also made their mark. His oeuvre as a designer was as rich and varied as the four centuries of painted history that exhilarated him and this is one truly magnificent show.

18th June – 22nd September 2019, www.museothyssen.org/en/exhibitions/balenciaga-and-spanish-painting

June 23, 2020