PARIS — I do not share the unbridled passion for haute couture fashion that some do, but I have gotten excited by certain arty creators like Rei Kawakubo, Alexander McQueen, and early Viktor & Rolf. Now, after seeing the exquisite Balenciaga, l’œuvre au noir show at the Musée Bourdelle, I place at the top of my short list their predecessor: Spanish-Basque couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s all-black oeuvre. Balenciaga’s creations, as curated by Véronique Belloir of the Palais Galliera, definitely roused and satisfied me the way the black darkness of Baroque painting does.
Balenciaga’s dark constructions do not appear the least bit dated, perhaps because black is the darkest value of all colors, and not a primary, secondary, or tertiary color — it isn’t even on the artist’s color wheel. As such, black suggests something of the raw energetic formlessness of the black hole or void, and so has something transcendent and timeless about it. That is why black has become a cultural signifier within noise black metal theory and transcendental black metal music. Black is associated with mourning and lunacy (as with Francisco Goya’s Pinturas negras series), power (consider judges’ and priests’ robes or, worse, Mussolini’s Fascist militia the “Blackshirts”), and sophistication (think tuxedos and limousines), but also with what is sharply cerebral and intellectual.
Balenciaga (1895–1972) matched that idea of the vivid intellect with his extraordinarily skill as a tailor, innovating the barrel line (1947), the balloon (1950), the semi-fitted suit (1951) — as seen here with “Tailleur” (1952–53) — the tunic dress (1955), and the sack dress (1957). Of course, Coco Chanel is credited for turning black into an essential for the modern woman’s wardrobe in the mid-1920s with her jersey black dress, which conveyed ideals of egalitarianism, efficiency, and modern industrial splendor. But Balenciaga’s idea to focus solely on the color black was brilliant. Shape, volume, and construction are highlighted, as all black reduces body shapes to solid, flat silhouettes. Some painters have learned this from Édouard Manet’s great oil painting “Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes” (“Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets,” 1872) at the Musée d’Orsay.
To accomplish that flattening reduction, Balenciaga would produce a ‘canvas’ that he would manipulate and adjust until he had worked out a perfect version of his drawing. These exceptionally black canvases, generally created in ecru cotton, were cut in light, dry percale or in heavier twill, or sometimes in tarlatan, depending on the model. Full bias or straight along the weft, each section was marked up with notes and crossed with lines whose positions, directions, and overlapping points defined the structure and the construction of the garment.
That is rather technically astute, but emotionally there is something insightful and inordinate here, too. In the late Middle Ages, black denoted humbleness as adopted by the Black Monks, the Benedictines. In that sense, Balenciaga’s monastic black pieces feel solemn and modest when displayed alongside Antoine Bourdelle’s flamboyant and almost hysterical plaster casts. To open the show, scenographer Olivier Saillard made the most of this dissimilarity in the museum’s Grand Hall by poling some slim dresses up high, bringing to mind the tall and skinny black sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. In other rooms, as counter-points to Bourdelle’s sculptures, Saillard also hid some delicate dresses in big black boxes behind black curtains, which viewers pull back.
Balenciaga, who opened his Paris couture house in 1937, was formally trained in tailoring, and it shows in the beautiful structuring of his silhouettes. Seeing his pure, stark, structured shapes in a sculpture museum makes sound sense. However, I imagine they would be better situated in Brancusi’s Studio in front of the Centre Pompidou, as Constantin Brâncuși’s reductive configurations are much closer to Balenciaga’s lyrical but unembellished, inky shapes than Bourdelle’s sculpture. Still, all couture and all sculpture have similar objectives concerning the balance of three-dimensional proportions.
Besides concerns with proportion, there’s a mysterious, indefinable quality here that lends spiritual underpinnings to Balenciaga’s bold black forms. Some even had me thinking of orchestra musicians, who wear all-black so as be invisible, and I think that mysterious quality is part of why Balenciaga is regarded as one of the most influential haute couturiers of the 20th century. He saw and used black as vibrant matter: by turns opaque or transparent, matte or shiny.
His material interest in black is particularly evident with his lace pieces like “Vest and Robe” (1965–66) or “Cocktail Dress” (1967), the latter of which is embroidered with plastic sequins and glass beads. They both present dazzling interplays of dark light on ‘dark matter.’ Other dresses with more solidly built silhouettes, such as the gazar “Evening Dress” (1963) — my favorite due to its remarkable sensitivity — owe as much to the luxurious quality of the fabrics as to the cut. Gazar was developed by the Swiss textile firm Alexander in collaboration with Balenciaga, who featured silk gazar in his collections between 1960 and 1968. Though I could circle this poetic dress in the museum, it was also wonderful to see its recto/verso differences as depicted in the accompanying “Evening Dress 1963 drawings from the Summer collection” (1963). The radically asymmetrical cut of the waist had me thinking of the way female flamenco dancers pull up their dresses in the front and also of the matador’s capote (cape) work in the opening section of the corrida.
Other documents and photos from private collections and the archives of Maison Balenciaga accompany the exhibition’s 60 or so finished day suits, jackets, and evening cocktail dresses, some lined with silk taffeta, edged with fringes, and decorated with satin ribbons and sequins. All these pieces are very beautiful, but my preference tilted towards the almost abstract constructions from the winter 1967 collection, as they are pretty far out in a post-human mode. For the head, there are beautiful black hat constructions, such as the floppy, masculine, Basque beret-influenced “Chapeau” (1962) and the elegant, dainty, satin “Calotte” (1960).
As we see with the drawings and photographs of “Evening Gown, Winter 1967 Collection” (1967), in the late 1960s Balenciaga’s experiments with structure, line, and proportion led him toward a reconstruction of traditional female curves into ever more geometrical and abstract forms — an aesthetic not all that far from the unconventional cyborg costumes of Oskar Schlemmer. The garments’ audacious shapes became more than wrappers, growing to be almost independent of the female bodies they cloaked. With such abstract audaciousness, one grasps why Balenciaga’s sculptural aesthetic — achieved through his perfection of pattern cuts, his explorations of volume, and his attention to detail — was revered by his contemporaries Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy. Audacity, skill, and adventure came together in something like artistic black magic.
Balenciaga, l’œuvre au noir continues through July 16 at the Musée Bourdelle (18 rue Antoine Bourdelle, 15th arrondissement, Paris). Balenciaga will also be the subject of the retrospective Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, which opens on May 27 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.