Balenciaga – L’Œuvre au Noir
With its new out-of-house exhibition “Balenciaga: L’Œuvre au Noir” at Musée Bourdelle, the Palais Galliera pays homage to “the couturier of couturiers.” The exhibition opened on March 8th and I was privileged to visit two days later, early morning when Musée Bourdelle was still very peaceful. Garments are unveiled alongside works by namesake sculptor Antoine Bourdelle in the heritage space where he lived, worked, and taught until his death in 1929.
The carefully preserved quarters, which encompass plaster casts, sculptures, drawings, and archival documents, underscore the sculptural nature of great fashion. This same juxtaposition worked beautifully for a 2011 exhibition highlighting the work of Madame Grès. The venue contrasts, “Balenciaga’s noir versus Bourdelle’s ivory; light, airy, mastered fabrics versus dense, heavy, and brut materials; the feminine versus massive bodies and nudes.” Moreover, Balenciaga’s dresses took shape on the dress form. The exhibition text declares: “In many respects, couture and sculpture have similar objectives. Harmony comes from balanced proportions, movement from the choice of materials. In French, the vocabulary of the two disciplines reveals a common approach.”
This exhibition pairing with Bourdelle’s oeuvre is a reminder of the label’s origins and pure craft. Today we may forget that couture is, first and foremost, a demanding métier, with a history of codes, techniques, and a rich and precise vocabulary
Balenciaga was founded in 1917 by Cristóbal Balenciaga (born in 1895 in the Basque country, to a fisherman father and seamstress mother); he apprenticed as a tailor and eventually opened his first boutique in 1919. The Spanish royal family and aristocracy sported his designs, but when the Spanish Civil War forced him to shutter his stores, Balenciaga moved to Paris, where he opened his Maison de couture at 10 Avenue George V in August 1937. In 1944, the German authorities shut down the business; après-guerre, he revived it to great — and swift — acclaim, making waves until retiring in 1968. Oscar de la Renta, André Courrèges, Hubert de Givenchy, and Emanuel Ungaro were all alumni of his studio. His last public appearance was at Chanel’s funeral in Paris; he faced his own mortality in 1972, buried in the town where he was born.
Of the sixty or so pieces on show, many still astonish. Among them: an atypical little black dress from 1960 with a wrap-around design and off-center shoulder straps. Another abstract construction from winter 1967 in custom-woven gazar is held up with simple bead straps. It may be 50 years old, but it would not have been out of place on the runway this season. In fact, many of the clothes and jewelry in the show look as covetable today as they must have been then. Veronique Belloir, director of haute-couture collections at the Palais Galliera and the exhibition’s curator explains in the catalogue that “Revisiting Balenciaga’s work without the distraction of color enables us to focus our gaze on the essentials, and enter into the subtlety of his materials and execution.”
Balenciaga made “no concessions, no effort to flatter the body or to be seductive.” Balenciaga created his own sinuous vision of womanhood using “a new silhouette far from all the facile and conventional effects that render the feminine morphology simply ‘pretty.’” A dress can look so simple, and yet the sensitivity is remarkable.” The late, famously tart-tongued Diana Vreeland lauded: “When a woman wearing Balenciaga enters a room, no other woman exists anymore.”
This exhibition will remain one of the most exquisite exhibitions I have seen, thanks Olivier Saillard’s scenography and the gorgeous surroundings of Musée Bourdelle. Noir has always been my favourite colour (or non-colour) as far as I can remember and I can only admire Balenciaga’s clever and complex use of the color black.