MADRID, Spain — Every Sunday he watched her emerge from her carriage and enter the church. He was fascinated by her long dresses and lace parasols, and one morning he summoned the courage to ask her if he could visit her closet. Amused, Micaela Elío y Magallón, the Marchioness of Casa Torres agreed. The boy apprenticed himself to the ironing staff at her palace after school, studying the Marchioness’s garments until she allowed him to design a dress for her. When she wore it to church the following Sunday, 12 year old Cristóbal Balenciaga entered the world of haute couture and high society. He would go on to become Spain’s most renowned fashion designer.
Balenciaga’s early days at the Marchioness’s palace provided a crucial education through her fashion magazines, books, and especially her painting collection. Some of the very same canvases that the designer saw there as a boy are now on display in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum’s exhibition Balenciaga and Spanish Painting, which pairs 56 works from the 16th to 20th centuries with 90 of Balenciaga’s designs — including 30 garments that have never been displayed publicly before. The comprehensive exhibition traces the undeniable influence that iconic Spanish painters like El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco Goya exerted on the designer’s remarkable visual universe throughout his career.
Born the son of a fisherman and a seamstress in 1895 in Getaria, in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, Spain, Balenciaga opened his first boutique in San Sebastián in 1919. When the Spanish Civil War broke out he moved to Paris, but he never forgot his roots. Balenciaga introduced Spanish fashion to a global audience through Manilla shawl-style embroidery, Spanish lace mantillas, bullfighter bolero jackets, and ruffles inspired by flamenco dresses. Fashion and high society photographer Cecil Beaton called Balenciaga “fashion’s Picasso.” Both artists came from the nation’s periphery (Picasso from Cataluña and Balenciaga from the Basque Country) rather than its center, both lived in exile during portions of its troubled history, and both made work that encompassed a more complex view of Spain.
Christian Dior once said, “We do what we can with fabric, but Balenciaga does anything he wants.” Balenciaga preferred heavier fabrics like wool, velvet, and stiff silk that he could fashion into unexpected forms and folds. His substantial, sculptural garments find their parallel in Zurbarán’s portraits of monks and saints, whose voluminous robes offer ample territory for the painter to explore the physical possibilities of fabric. Balenciaga’s streamlined, minimally embellished wedding dresses dialogue with Zurbarán’s life-size canvases, not only because they inject geometry into drapery, but also because they transmit purity through austerity.
It would seem impossible to replicate El Greco’s gravity-defying, gleaming fabrics in real life, but Balenciaga manages to do just that with his shimmering, sculpted evening gowns. Much has been said about Balenciaga’s use of the color black, which was popularized during El Greco’s lifetime by the court of Felipe II in 16th-century Spain. But Balenciaga’s super-saturated, jewel-toned colors seem to emit a supernatural glow like those in El Greco’s rapturous scenes. The exhibition’s most identical canvas-clothing pairing comes from Ignacio Zuloaga’s “Portrait of María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay, Duchess of Alba” (1921) and Balenciaga’s 1952 tiered taffeta gown in a lush, cherry red perfectly matched to the painting. Seeing them together is magical. Balenciaga truly brought the painting to life and made it real before our eyes.
In an interview with 25 Gramos, exhibition curator Eloy Martínez de la Pera compares the paintings in this exhibition to today’s catalogs and fashion editorials. Indeed, many of the paintings depict clothing embroidered with gold and silver thread, encrusted with jewels and pearls, and made with the finest imported cloth. At the time, the sitters’ clothing had more material value than the paintings themselves. And in this exhibition, the clothing has once again outpaced the paintings. I could hardly take my eyes off Balenciaga’s designs. After all, as Diane Vreeland once said, “If a woman came in a Balenciaga dress, no other woman in the room existed.” And in this show, it’s all Balenciaga dresses in every single room.