MARÍA VILLANUEVA FERNÁNDEZ looks at Balenciaga and the influence of abstract art

In January, the TV series Cristóbal Balenciaga premiered, a story inspired by the life of the Spanish designer during his time in Paris, beginning when he arrived in 1937. The plot seeks to explore his personality and what drove him, highlighting key moments in his personal and professional life, such as his relationship with other illustrious designers, the creation of the gazar fabric, the design of Queen Fabiola’s wedding dress, and the creation of Air France’s stewardess uniforms.

Though fashion is present throughout the show’s six episodes, the couturier’s creations are placed in the background, focusing instead on personal experiences with family, friends, colleagues and employees.

However, several scenes in the first episode present the influences that would come to mark his work. Balenciaga is seen consulting José Ortiz-Echagüe’s book España. Tipos y Trajes (Spain: people and clothes), which details the country’s popular regional dress and costumes. According to written works on the Basque designer, much of his inspiration is derived from Spanish culture, painting and tradition.

For example, his 1947 bolero in blue velvet with black felt decoration and beadwork is an interpretation of bullfighters’ extravagant clothing, characterised by chromatic contrast and rich embroidery and trimmings. In a similar vein, his 1949 dress with black stripes on a red background bears a striking resemblance to the traditional women’s clothing of the Pas valley, in Cantabria.

The subtle similarities between Balenciaga’s innovative garments and their historical influences showcase a non-literal interpretation of traditional forms. This re-imagination would not have been possible without the influence of the nascent abstract art movement that grew alongside Balenciaga’s career.

In the early to mid-1900s, abstract currents were emerging in painting, moving the seat of art from its traditional home of Paris to New York. This was not reflected in the fashion world, as the French capital remained firmly established as the epicentre of haute couture.

In contrast to the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, which expressed new values for a new world, the abstract currents of 1940s and 1950s art opened the doors to new forms of individual expression.

fashion 1947 bolero

1947 bolero

The chromatic compositions of artists like Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko offered a whole new field of experimentation, with results that were highly relevant to fashion.

In Rothko’s case, his apparently simple works achieved complexity through the superimposition of colour fields.

Reinhardt, on the other hand, was known for his extreme abstraction and minimalist approach. He did away with all non-essential elements, and his work’s subtle impact was rooted in an extremely limited colour palette: black and dark tones predominate, allowing his geometric and rigorous compositions to generate a sense of order and structure.

Some of these characteristics of colour, composition, precision and formal synthesis can be seen in Balenciaga’s work. Examples include the orange wool crepe day dress (1968), the black wool sack dress (autumn-winter collection, 1957) or model 125 from the 1965 summer collection, made at the Maison Balenciaga in Paris.

Architecture undoubtedly influenced Balenciaga’s innovative use of shape and volume. During the second half of the 1960s, several evening and bridal dresses designed by Balenciaga featured the warped geometric shapes and sculptural lines typical of the period’s buildings. Other dresses, such as the balloon dress (1958) and the summer collection dress (1959), were characterised by generous volumes and clean lines.

After WWII, Balenciaga’s output was marked by a significant shift as he offered an image for the woman of the time that was far removed from traditional aesthetics. This ran contrary to Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look, which placed a renewed focus on the feminine silhouette as an antidote to wartime austerity.

In the wake of the war, the Basque couturier began to rewrite the rules of fashion with his innovative silhouettes – the “barrel line”, babydoll, sack, balloon and peacock tail dresses, to name a few. These creations stemmed from a commanding control of geometry. They stood out for their formal purity, and were backed by profoundly technical craftsmanship. The result was an extraordinary sculptural sensibility built on a foundation of abstract art.

fashiion 1968 orange wool crepe day dress

1968 orange wool crepe day dress

Therefore, it could be said that Balenciaga not only offered an interpretation of the past, but also a look at tradition through contemporary eyes. Abstraction is used in his work as both a lens for reinterpreting Spanish culture, and as an artistic language shared with the art and the architecture of the time.

While this artistic context is often overlooked in writings and research on the designer, it is essential to understanding his excellence, not only as a fashion designer, but also as a true artistic genius of his time.

Perhaps nobody expressed this better than Balenciaga himself: “A couturier must be an architect for plans, a sculptor for shapes, an artist for colour, a musician for harmony and a philosopher for the sense of proportion”.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence