L’Oeuvre au Noir: Haute Couture Meets Sculpture

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 9. Art & Place, Uncategorized, Paris by Clara

I’ve found one of the best parts of people coming to visit is how much their interests force me out of my comfort zone and exploring aspects of the city I probably would not have otherwise. This past weekend, my boyfriend came to visit from New York where he studies design at Parsons. He was excited for exploring the Marais and go around to different shops, but he’s not much of a museum guy and I’m not much of a planner. So, we were planning to mostly explore neighborhoods and see where the wandering took us.

On his first day, we stumbled across a poster for the Balenciaga: L’Oeuvre au Noir exhibit at the Musee Bourdelle. The exhibit displays a collection of archived pieces from the fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga’s early work as well as many of his sketches and patterns and concentrates on Balenciaga’s imaginative use of black tones. He just finished a project on the history of fashion houses and was curious to check it out and off we went.

Located in the fifteenth arrondissement, the museum is pretty far away from all my usual haunts. Upon getting there though, I was taken aback by the beauty of the building and its gardens. The Musee Bourdelle has preserved studio of the nineteenth century sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and repurposed his apartments into an exhibit of his work. The museum chose to display Balenciaga’s couture works amongst the Bourdelle’s sculptures, merging the masterpieces of these contemporaries. Through creative combinations of fabric, strategic volume, and careful proportions, Balenciaga played on the innate simplicity of black while elevating it to the level of haute couture.

While Bourdelle and Balenciaga worked in very different mediums, it was impressive how natural the pairing seemed.The differences in the scales and aesthetics of their work balanced perfectly. The curves of the sculptures contrasted with the sharp lines of the clothing. The impressiveness of the massive ceiling-scraping sculptures was equalled by the minute details of Balenciaga’s painstaking attention to tailoring. Both artists also exerted incredible influence on later generations. Balenciaga mentored Oscar de la Renta and Hubert de Givenchy while Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti studied under Bourdelle.

Though the Musee Bourdelle is likely not the first place one would think of when thinking of the artistic offerings of Paris, I thought this exhibit captured the inspirational energy of the city and its influence over a diverse cross-section of artists While Balenciaga was from Spain originally, the Spanish Civil War forced him to move to Paris where he opened his fashion house in 1937. It was in these years that Balenciaga developed his signature style, becoming the prolific artist we know him to be today: the “King of Fashion.” Paris was also where Balenciaga joined the midsts of Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, and Coco Chanel, learning from his fellow designers and inspiring them with his structural and Victorian aesthetic references. The L’Oeuvre au Noir exhibit gave me a better understanding of the integrality of fashion to Paris. I understood on a layman’s level that fashion did and continues to draw influence from the city, but I took away a deeper appreciation for the history of Parisian ateliers and the incredible amount of expertise and practice that goes into fashion design.

Walking back from the museum, Ethan and I were discussing the debate over whether fashion ought to be classified as an art. To some, fashion is nothing more than a commercial industry and doesn’t deserve to be regarded on the same level as oil painting or marble sculpture. However, seeing the progression of Balenciaga’s work from notes, to drawings, to drafts, to final pieces alongside those of Bourdelle left me with no doubt that the artistry behind a couture dress or coat is no less impressive than that of a sculpture.

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