November 25, 2018

BLACK IS THE NEW BLACK

The Balenciaga exhibit at the Kimball brings darkness into the light

You saw the American Horror Story season finale (spoiler alert) when fashion-witch icon Myrtle Snow (Francis Conroy) was burned at the stake and bellowed “Balenciaga” right before her death, right? Thought so. That said, the new “Balenciaga In Black” exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth is to die for.

Cristóbal Balenciaga is arguably the most innovative, influential, admired, and recognized Spanish haute couture designer of the 20th century. Born in 1895 in a faraway Spanish fishing village, the future legend learned sewing and tailoring at his mother’s knee. By 1937, the gifted and determined designer had opened a salon in Paris, and in the years following World War II, he emerged as a couturier to be reckoned with. Kimball Curator Jennifer Casler Price takes us behind the scenes of this collection and its singular stateside debut that includes more than 100 carefully selected items that all share one major feature: they are all black, of course. —Holly Jefferson 

What was the inspiration for hosting this exhibition?
Our Deputy Director, George Shackelford, saw it in Paris last summer at the Museé Bourdelle and was very impressed and subsequently proposed hosting it here. The Kimbell has never done an exhibition strictly focused on fashion, but we felt that this was a unique opportunity to feature the absolutely superb and highly influential creations of a noted couturier whose garments are works of arts in their conception, construction, and vision—true masterpieces.

There’s also a good Spanish connection.
Balenciaga looked to the great masters of Spanish painting for inspiration in his designs. Ribera, El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya are all represented in the Kimbell collection, so it made a natural connection. We also saw it as a unique opportunity to populate Renzo Piano’s soaring gallery space. The clean and simple lines architectural lines of the Piano Pavilion gallery provide an elegant background for Balenciaga’ strong black silhouettes while highlighting the luxurious fabrics he used.

Why all black, save for some accents on the garments?
The concept for the exhibition was conceived by Olivier Saillard, former director of the Palais Galliera, and Véronique Belloir, director of haute couture collections at the Palais Galliera. Why black? Because of Balenciaga’s sources of inspiration—the spiritual underpinnings of his work—were the folklore and traditions of his Spanish childhood. The native costumes of the maja dress (with its black lace), the bullfighter’s costumes, flamenco dress, peasant dress… Black was the traditional color worn by Spanish royalty, the monasticism of the Catholic religion, and a great influence of the Spanish painting masters and the dark color palettes they often worked in.

Why is it important for major museums to host fashion exhibitions?
I think fashion—particularly haute couture—is an art form in itself, and when exhibited in the proper context can be educational and inspirational.

What personally excites you about hosting this exhibit?
As we were installing the exhibition and I finally had the opportunity to examine these extraordinary garments, I was absolutely astonished at the immense creativity, innovation, and technical skill that go into each piece. Many details you can’t even see because they are literally hidden underneath the garment to give it structure and silhouette. Or they are “hidden” in plain sight in the seaming and draping construction, which is not always evident because the fabrics are black. But Balenciaga was truly a master at cutting and draping fabric—at creating balance and proportion and harmony in each garment with attention to every single little detail. I can see why he was called the “couturier’s couturier.” I also think these works of art look absolutely stunning in the architectural space of the Piano gallery: an engaging and most satisfying contrast between modern architecture and haute couture fashion.

The Details: Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth. “Balenciaga in Black” runs through January 6, 2019. 

Photo | Pierre Even, courtesy of Kimbell Art Museum