A good fashion designer must be an architect for the patterns, a sculptor for the shape, a painter for the designs, a musician for the harmony and a philosopher for the fit.” (Cristóbal Balenciaga)

MADRID - This summer, 2019, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza will be presenting an exhibition that connects the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the most admired and influential fashion designer of all times, to the tradition of Spanish painting of the 16th to the 20th centuries. This is the first major exhibition on this Basque designer to be held in Madrid in almost fifty years and : the first that brings together his designs and a selection of paintings by leading names in the history of Spanish art, which was one of his principal sources of inspiration.

The exhibition is curated by Eloy Martínez de la Pera, who has selected a total of 90 items of dress from the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa in Getaria, the Museo del Traje in Madrid and the Museu del Disseny in Barcelona as well as from numerous private collections in Spain and elsewhere, many of them never previously exhibited in public. With regard to the paintings, an exceptional group has been brought together, comprising 55 works from Spanish institutions such as the Museo Nacional del Prado, the Museo de Bellas Artes de BIlbao and the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, foundations in Spain including the BBVA, Santander and the Casa de Alba, in addition to loans from private holdings such as the Abelló and Alicia Koplowitz collections. Notable among them are works by El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, Carreño de Miranda, Zurbarán, Goya, Madrazo and Zuloaga. The project is benefiting from the collaboration with of Herbert Smith Freehills and Las Rozas Village.  

References to Spanish art and culture are present throughout the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga: the simple, minimalist lines of religious habits and the architectural volumes of their fabrics which recur in many of his creations; the billow of the train of a flamenco dancer’s dress reflected in the flounces of some of his dresses; the glitter of a bullfighter’s suit masterfully echoed in the embroidered paillette of a bolero jacket; or the aesthetic of the Spanish Habsburg court translated into velvety black fabrics adorned with jet are just some examples of this influence. Constantly returning to the history of art, Balenciaga employed his powerful artistic personality and distinctive style to maintain these influences even into his most avant-garde period, reviving historical techniques and styles and reinterpreting them in a particularly modern manner.

Evening jacket, 1946

Evening jacket, 1946. Silk velvet, and passementerie and jet beads, Hamish Bowles collection © Jon Cazenave / Ramón Casas y Carbó. Julia, ca.1915. © Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza on free loan to the Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga.

The exhibition is structured as a chronological survey through the paintings, accompanied by designs associated with each style or painter. These are connections based on conceptual elements, on architectural forms and volumes and on chromatic echoes which together give rise to a fascinating dialogue between fashion and painting and between the creativity of this brilliant designer and his sources of inspiration. This presentation also allows for a reconsideration of art from a new viewpoint, focusing attention on painters as creators and transmitters of fashion and as masters of the depiction of fabrics, textures, folds and volumes. The exhibition space pays homage to black, one of Balenciaga’s iconic colours, and to the designer as an “architect of haute couture”, a concept of him that has survived to the present day due to the importance of line and pure forms in his creations and to some of his landmark creations, such as the barrel line, the semi-fitted suit, the balcony skirt, the tunic, the sack dress and the baby doll dress, culminating with abstraction in the 1960s.

A good fashion designer must be an architect for the patterns, a sculptor for the shape, a painter for the designs, a musician for the harmony and a philosopher for the fit.” (Cristóbal Balenciaga)

Balenciaga was born in Getaria (Guipuzkoa) in 1895, the son of José Balenciaga, a fisherman, and Martina Eizaguirre, a seamstress. His mother introduced him to dressmaking as a child as she made clothes for leading families of the area including the Marquis and Marchioness of Casa Torres who spent their summers in the Palacio Aldamar (also known as Vista Ona) in Getaria. It was there that the young Balenciaga made contact with the taste of the aristocratic elites and where he could admire clothes and fabrics from the leading tailors and clothing and fabric shops of London and Paris. It was also there that he was able to see and appreciate the outstanding Casa Torres art collection and library. Combined with his remarkable sensibility, this ideal introduction to the world of art and fashion undoubtedly led Balenciaga to devote himself to fashion design from a very early age.

Coat and dress evening outfit, 1962

Bartolomé Gonzales (copia de Antonio Moro). Queen Anne of Austria, fourth Wife of Philip IICa. 1616. Oil on canvas. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid / Coat and dress evening outfit, 1962. Satin coat,  etamine dress, sequins ans ceramic beads, Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria © Jon Cazenave

The collection at Vista Ona included works by Velázquez, El Greco, Pantoja de la Cruz and Goya, among other masters of Spanish painting, and Balenciaga began to forge his unique aesthetic imagination through his admiration for these painters. Between the 16th and 18th centuries numerous technical and stylistic innovations emerged in dress in Spain, including silk stockings, the ruff, the corset and the doublet. Spanish tailors were famous at this period for their precision in the cut and line of  their garments. In 1939 Balenciaga was directly inspired by Velázquez for the design of his “Infanta” dress, a modern reinterpretation of the clothes in which the painter depicted the Infanta Margarita of Austria and which the designer presented that same year in Paris. 

Three years before, in 1936, as a result of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Balenciaga moved to the French capital. He was by now at the height of his creative powers having set up fashion houses in San Sebastián, Madrid and Barcelona over the previous decades and counting on the Spanish royal family and the country’s social elites among his clients. In August 1937 he opened his atelier on the Avenue Georges V in Paris. During these years his creations drew heavily on the cultural context of his native country and became a homage to the aesthetic of the authentically Spanish. 

We do what we can with fabrics, Balenciaga does what he wants.” (Christian Dior)

Fuchsia lace taffeta cocktail dress finished with ivory-coloured embroidered, gathered straps, 1955 © Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga

Esquivel y Suárez de Urbina, Antonio María. Flamenco dancer Josefa Vargas, 1850. Oil on canvas, 91 x 72 cm. House of Alba collection. Las Dueñas Palace. Seville / Fuchsia lace taffeta cocktail dress finished with ivory-coloured embroidered, gathered straps, 1955 © Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga © Jon Cazenave

With his innovative style, total command of sewing and an extremely rigorous approach, Balenciaga soon became one of the most influential fashion designers on an international level. In Paris he established links with a cosmopolitan clientele and also began to attract the interest of the world’s press, which termed him the “king of haute couture”. Balenciaga favoured heavy fabrics, which he further enriched with handmade embroidery, rhinestones and sequins. Barely cutting or sewing the fabrics, he made dresses with straight or rounded lines, resulting in creations of a perfect, almost sculptural finish. His sense of proportion and fit, his technical mastery and his quest for excellence all brought him the admiration of his contemporaries such as Christian Dior, who considered him  “the master of us all”, and Coco Chanel who described him as “the only authentic couturier”. Furthermore, some of the most important fashion designers of the 20th century trained in his atelier or benefited from his teachings, including Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Óscar de la Renta and Paco Rabanne.

Based on comfort, purity of line, the reinterpretation of the Spanish tradition and the invention of innovative shapes and volumes, Balenciaga’s creations defined fashion in the mid-20th century and until 1968 when haute couture began to lose its preeminent position due to prêt-à-porter, at which point he decided to retire. He moved back to Spain and four years later accepted his final commission, Carmen Martínez-Bordiú’s wedding dress, which is included in the present exhibition. That same year, 1972, he died of a heart attack in Jávea. 

Balenciaga and art
The exhibition opens with a section devoted to the paintings that Balenciaga could have admired in his youth in the palace of the Marquis and Marchioness of Casa Torres and which became his principal source of inspiration from his earliest years. Three of the paintings on display in this gallery, loaned from the Museo Nacional del Prado, were in that collection: Head of an Apostle by Velázquez; Saint Sebastian by El Greco; and Cardinal Luis María de Borbón y Vallabriga by Goya. The latter establishes a dialogue with a magnificent red dress suit with a short jacket loaned from the Museo del Traje in Madrid. Also notable is the interaction between a spectacular blue silk evening gown and cape and the mantle of the same colour seen in The Immaculate Conception by Murillo from the Arango collection, or the celebrated “Infanta” model mentioned above, loaned from the Museo del Traje in Madrid. 


Goya. Cardinal Don Luis María de Borbón y Vallabriga, ca.1800. Museo Nacional del Prado / Dress and jacket ensemble, satin dress; satin jacket with metallic thread, sequins and ceramic beaads 1960, Museo del Traje, Madrid. Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte. © Jon Cazenave

El Greco
The next gallery focuses on the influence of El Greco, opening with a black, silk velvet evening coat with a ruffled collar that evokes the form of a ruff such as the one worn by the man in the portrait by the artist of around 1586. It is followed by various religious paintings that are displayed alongside a group of dresses in intense shades of pink, yellow, green and blue which seem to make use of the talette, luminosity and subtle gradations employed by El Greco for the mantles and dresses of his Virgins, angels and saints. Similarly, their shapes and volumes, all filled with movement, are repeated in some of Balenciaga’s most beautiful creations.

Evening coat with ruffled collar, ca

Evening coat with ruffled collar, Velvet and faille, ca.1955. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria © Jon Cazenave / El Greco. Portrait of a Man, ca. 1586. Museo Nacional del Prado. © Archivo Fotografico  Museo Nacional del Prado.

Evening gown, silk organza, 1968

El Greco. Annunciation, ca.1576. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza / Evening gown, silk organza, 1968. Dominique Sirop collection, Paris © Jon Cazenave

Spanish court painting. Black
The court of Philip II made the use of black fashionable for clothing throughout Europe and for a lengthy period it continued to be a symbol of power and elegance, becoming one of the archetypes of Spanish identity. Black has always been a subject of fascination in the fashion world due to its visual and symbolic power and Balenciaga reinterpreted it in a unique and highly personal manner. He imbued it with a special light, expanding the direction embarked on by Chanel in 1926 with the “little black dress” and fully establishing it in modern international fashion design in the first half of the 20th century. This was recognised by the specialist press and in 1938 Harper’sBazaar reported that: “at the new Spanish house Balenciaga [...] the black is so black that it hits you like a blow. Thick Spanish black, almost velvety, a night without stars, which makes the ordinary black seem almost grey.” The black and white in Portrait of the 6th Countess of Miranda finds its echo in a spectacular satin evening gown that combines black and ivory. The same is the case with the group of evening gowns which are displayed here alongside court portraits such as Queen Isabel of Valois, third Wife of Philip II by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, and Juana of Austria, Princess of Portugal by Sánchez Coello.

Evening gown, 1943

Evening gown, satin, 1943. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria © Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria © Jon Cazenave / Attributed to Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. Portrait of the 6th Countess of Miranda, Fundación Casa de Alba. Palacio de Liria, Madrid.

Reversible evening coat, satin, 1966

Alonso Sánchez Coello, Portrait of Doña Juana de Austria, Princess of Portugal, circa 1557, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum/ Reversible evening coat, satin, 1966. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria © Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria © Jon Cazenave

Spanish court painting. The still life
Flowers are one of the most frequently recurring subjects in the history of painting and a source of inspiration for artists of all periods. Following his arrival in Paris, Balenciaga made contact with the leading textile designers and printers as well as with makers of buttons and floral and feather adornments which he used as luxury trimmings for his creations. This section includes magnificent gowns with floral designs, an evening coat in silk organza with floral appliqué and a pink dress with embroidered tulle, all accompanied to such as Juan de Arellano, Gabriel de la Corte and Benito perfection by a group of still lifes by Spanish painters Espinós. 

Evening gown (silk Ikat), 1958

Evening gown, silk Ikat, 1958. Inès Carjval collection. © Jon Cazenave / Gabriel de la Corte, Vase of flowers, second half of the 17th century, Gerstenmaier collection.

Spanish court painting. Embroidery
Balenciaga assembled a collection of historical costume that included richly ornamented Spanish items made from elaborate lace and guipure and profusely embroidered or trimmed with beads. Inspired by these and other references he used embroidery in many of his designs, supplied to him by the best makers of the time. Outstanding models in this section include the formal gown from the collection of María de las Nieves Mora y Aragón, which is here paired with a portrait of Anne of Austria by Alonso Sánchez Coello; and a shantung, ivory coloured wedding dress with silver thread embroidery, its lines echoed in the dress worn by Isabel de Borbón, Wife of Philip IV in the portrait by Rodrigo de Villandrando.

Rodrigo de Villandrando

Rodrigo de Villandrando, Isabel de Borbón, Wife of Philip IV, oil on canvas, 201 x 115 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. © Archivo Fotografico  Museo Nacional del Prado / Wedding dress, silk shantung embroidered with silver thread© Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Jon Cazenave

Evening gown, silk tulle and glitter, 1954, Dominique Sirop collection, Paris © Jon Cazenave

Evening gown, silk tulle and glitter, 1954, Dominique Sirop collection, Paris © Jon Cazenave / Attributed to Rodrigo de Villandrando, Portrait of a lady, circa 1600-1606, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid © Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid

Francisco de Zurbarán
Considered by many to be one of the first fashion designers, Francisco de Zurbarán is notable for his mastery in the depiction of fabrics and the movement of cloth in his paintings. The influence on Balenciaga of the volumes, folds and textures of the sculptural dresses seen in Zurbarán’s paintings of female martyr saints is clear when the two creators’ works are seen side by side. The same is the case with the group of wedding dresses on display in this room (including the one made for Fabiola de Mora y Aragón for her marriage to King Baudouin of Belgium), which establishes a dialogue with the whites and the forms and textures of the monks’ habits painted by Zurbarán. These are creations made with rigid fabrics through which the designer produced new and flattering silhouettes of geometrical forms.

Wedding dress, 1960

Zurbarán, Friar Francisco Zúmel, ca. 1628, Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid / Wedding dress, satin and mink, 1960. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Jon Cazenave 

Ensemble of evening gown and overskirt, cotton tulle dress embroidered with metallic thread over rayobn satin,silk taffeta overskirt, ca

Ensemble of evening gown and overskirt, cotton tulle dress embroidered with metallic thread over rayobn satin,silk taffeta overskirt, ca.1951. Museo del Traje, Madrid, Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte. © Jon Cazenave / Zurbarán. Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, ca.1635. Museo Nacional del Prado © Archivo Fotografico  Museo Nacional del Prado.

Francisco de Goya
Tulle and lace, the Empire line, the “Goyesque” style... another key painter in Balenciaga’s cultural imagination was undoubtedly Francisco de Goya. This was not only for the aesthetic of the dresses and accessories to be seen in Goya’s paintings but also for his particular approach to colour and his way of transforming the forms into areas of tone, which Balenciaga translated into his perfect chromatic harmonies. The evening gown with silk muslin, pearls and sequins and the Portrait of the Marchioness of Lazán from the Fundación Casa de Alba; or the evening gown in pale green satin with pearls and beads and the portrait of Queen María Luisa in a Dress wtih a hooped Skirt are some of the striking pairings established in this section.

Evening gown, 1963

Goya, Queen María Luisa in a Dress with a hooped Skirt, ca.1789. Museo Nacional del Prado. © Archivo Fotografico  Museo Nacional del Prado / Evening gown, satin, pearls and beads, 1963. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria© Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Jon Cazenave 

The 19th and 20th century
Everyday life in Getaria and San Sebastián during the years of Balenciaga’s youth and more generally the regional dress and folk costumes of late 19th- and early 20th-century Spain all found their place in his visual and conceptual universe which he subsequently applied to his designs. This notion of the typically Spanish as the basis of cultural identity is to be found in the type of genre painting produced in Spain in the 19th century and in the work of contemporary painters such as the Basque artist Ignacio Zuloaga, whom Balenciaga knew during his years in San Sebastián. Both the traditional Castilian cloak that appears in many of Zuloaga’s paintings and the aesthetic of the bullfight were part of a world that Balenciaga had experienced at first hand. This room includes numerous examples, including a fuchsia cocktail dress in silk taffeta with bands of cotton thread embroidery has volumes that echo models such as the dress worn by The Flamenco Dancer Josefa Vargas in a painting by Antonio María Esquivel; a short evening jacket in silk velvet shares the “matador look” of the one worn by Julia in the portrait by Ramón Casa loaned from the Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza; and the full-volume, red taffeta evening gown with lines that resemble those of the dress worn by María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay, Duchess of Alba in her portrait by Zuloaga.

18.06 - 22.09.2019

Evening gown, 1952

Evening gown, taffeta, 1952. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria © Jon Cazenave  Zuloaga, Portrait of María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay, Duchess of Alba, 1921. Fundación Casa de Alba. Palacio de Liria, Madrid.