Balenciaga and Spain: Exhibition Review

Pictured above:  Pink silk taffeta evening dress, Winter 1957, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, worn and given by Mrs. Peter Baumberger

Open now through June 17th at San Francisco’s deYoung Museum is the exhibition Balenciaga and Spain, curated by Vogue magazine European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles.  Showcasing about 130 pieces from a variety of sources around the world, including 19 from Bowles’s private collection, the exhibition focuses on the Parisian years (1938-1968) of Cristobál Balenciaga’s career as a couturier who drew inspiration from Spanish regional folk dress, the bull fight, dance (especially flamenco), the Catholic church, and Spanish royal court dress of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Pictured above:  Left:  Evening dress, Summer 1962, Brown silk gauze by Sekers, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Florence Van Der Kemp.  Right:  Eisa Evening dress, Winter 1952, Black wool jersey by H. Moreau et Cie, brown tulle by Combier, ivory silk flower, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. T.Wynyard Pasley.

This show, preceded by a much smaller exhibition at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York City, which Oscar de la Renta asked Bowles to curate (of which you can find a beautiful review at Habitually Chic), and a 2006-7 show at the Paris Musee de la Mode et du Textile, is the latest dress exhibition at the deYoung Museum.

As visitors enter the exhibit, they are met by the 1957 pink silk taffeta dress pictured at the top of this post, at the entry to a corridor of black dresses, day outfits and day suits, dating from 1938 at the earliest to the 1960s.  Bowles explained that with this display it was his intention to illustrate how timeless Balenciaga’s designs were, in that dresses from the 1940s could look equally at home with dresses from the 1960s.

Following the phalanx of black, visitors are dazzled by an array of bold, bright color.  In one display:  Reds, yellows, day suits, evening dress, cocktail dress.  In vitrines, dresses inspired by Miro, and more, in jewel-box colors, crafted from silk gazar, highlighting Balenciaga’s talent with the structure of fabrics.  As Bowles related, Balenciaga clients described how surprisingly comfortable his elaborate dresses were to wear, in contrast to Dior’s designs of the post-war period, whose gowns could be equally dramatic, but required elaborate underpinnings and internal construction, elements not utilized by Balenciaga to the same degrees.  Balenciaga instead used his ability for working with the fabrics themselves, relying on their inborn properties to create shape, using very precise draping and sculpting techniques, and allowing the dresses to do the work typically done by foundation garments.

Pictured above: Right: Evening ensemble with romper and bolero jacket,Winter 1960, Black silk charmeuse, pink silk faille, pink silk pampilles, transparent beads, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Baroness Philippe de Rothschild.

Pictured above:  Evening dress, Summer 1951,White silk, black beaded embellishment, Collection of Sandy Schreier

Pictured above:  Left:  Tunic, Summer 1964, Ivory linen, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, gift of Givenchy, Inc.; Right:  Dinner dress, Winter 1953, Black silk satin with chiné print of white polka dots by Petillault, Collection of Sandy Schreier.

In the main room of the gallery, the exhibit is arranged by theme:  Dance, bullfight, regional dress, religious life, and the Spanish royal court, some examples of which are pictured above.

Pictured above:  Balenciaga’s Infanta gown of 1939,  and Las meninas, by Velázquez, 1656.

Featured in the exhibition is Balenciaga’s 1939 Infanta evening dress, inspired, like many of Balenciaga’s works, by the seventeenth-century paintings of Diego Velázquez, official court painter of King Philip IV of Spain.  Be sure to examine the left shoulder of the Infanta gown closely.  The dress on display is a working toile and there are some visible stitches to be seen.

The criticisms that I have are few: some items, particularly those that were spangled and sparkly, with elaborate back interest, would have been shown to better advantage if they had been slowly rotating, like the sequined Van Gogh jackets in the deYoung’s Yves Saint Laurent exhibition of 2008.  There was also a regal purple silk evening dress from 1961, in the ‘religious life’ inspired designs, which was hidden and easy to overlook, because of its darker color and placement near the back, behind other garments.

I found Hamish Bowles a delight to speak with. Click here to see my video of his responses to a few questions I was lucky to present him (follow the link to also see my videos of the exhibition, which I was unable to embed in this post).  If you, like me are a Hamish Bowles fan, you will also enjoy listening to this hour-long interview about the exhibition, on San Francisco’s public radio station, KQED, from March 22, 2011.

Overall, I found this exhibition to be yet another must-see show, as many have come to expect from the deYoung in recent years.  Balenciaga’s designs are timeless and stunning in their elegance, and Bowles’s work as curator tells Balenciaga’s story beautifully.  This show is not to be missed.

June 17th, Picasso and Balenciaga at the deYoung

Coming to the deYoung Museum June 17, 2011, is a special lecture on Balenciaga and Picasso, tied in to the Picasso exhibition which opens June 11. ‘Spaniards in France: Cristóbal Balenciaga and Pablo Picasso’ by Dr. James Housefield, scholar of modern art and design, University of California, Davis, is scheduled for June 17, 2011 – 7:00 pm, and is free and open to the public.  For more information, visit the event page on the deYoung Museum’s web site.

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1 Comment

  • John May 13, 2011 07.30 am

    Enjoyed your post on this remarkable couturier. Thanks a lot for sharing ;o)


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