THE ART BEHIND THE FASHION GENIUS- Balenciaga and Spanish Painting


I am so fascinated by the relationship between fashion inspiration and culture. Most evident in the 20th century most celebrated couturiers: Paul Poiret and his awe for exoticism, Elsa Schiaparelli’s circle of artists who inspired her surrealist creations in fashion and jewelry, Gianni Versace’s influence by Classical, greek and Etruscan culture, Salvatore Ferragamo inspired by the avant-garde of the 20th century. Inspired by the past and the present  but also by the future that is anticipated in the space age collections of  Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne and Courrèges.

When we think about sculpture and fashion the first names that come to mind are Roberto Cappucci and Cristobàl Balenciaga. If we think about architecture and fashion, again Balenciaga and the style of Gianfranco Ferrè immediately pop into our conscience. When we connect painting and fashion the connections are easier but nonetheless with extremely creative ideas. Yves Saint Laurant and Mondrian.

In 2019 the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid presented an extraordinary exhibition , conceived by Eloy Martinez de la Pera, that took the viewers alongside the Spanish designer Cristobàl Balenciaga “through the land of painting, stopping at each point of affinity, of correspondence.”

“Balenciaga copied the light muslin of Goya’s attire, the transparent quality of the lace, the sway of the skirts, revealing the feet and the flowers that adorned hair. The influence of the Toledo painter is equally visible in the gala dresses that recall the costumes of the Goya paintings of the 1790’s.”“

The book that accompanies the exhibition, for those who could not visit it, illustrates the fascination of Balenciaga for Goya, El Greco and other Spanish painters that influenced his chromatic boldness, the volumes, and the designs of the fabrics present in in the paintings of great Spanis artists such as El Greco, Velaszquez, Pantoya de la Cruz, Murillo, Goya and in particular by Zurbaràn who depicted some of the best clothing see in the history of painting and considered by Chanel one of the first “fashion designers.”.  The way he depicted textures, folds and volumes of dresses inspired Balenciaga to create revolutionary architectures in his “minimalist” garments of his last Parisian period.


At the early age of 12, thanks to his seamstress mother connection to a Spanish noblewoman,  Balenciaga began to be exposed to the magnificent Parisian fashion but also to the extraordinary works of art that enriched the aristocratic house  Vista Ona, that belonged to the Marhioness of Casa Torres, who owned one of the most stunning private collections of Spanish art of the time with paintings, engravings, photographs and sculpture. 

Vista Ona was an authentic Museum and Balenciaga’s aesthetic taste was molded and shaped by the frequent visits to the aristocratic house.  The presence of the Marchioness also influenced his passion for collecting fashion books of the 18th and 19th century as well as old clothing and fabrics that inspired his designs.  Just like Matisse collected thousands of pieces of oriental and exotic fabrics that inspired the clothings and patterns in his paintings. Or like Yves Saint.Laurent collection of books on Japanese patterns that inspired his 1994 collection.

His collection of artbooks and fashion magazines that Cecil Beaton portraied in this image of Balenciaga were a massive source of inspiration for the couturier, details captured and reinvented by the scrutinizing eye of Balenciaga. 

“Perhaps it is that overwhelming classicism that bestows a delightful charm upon Balenciaga’s gaze, his eyes capable of revealing fragments in the works of art that he observes time and time again, especially in books. From them, he selects shapes and textures, describing something like an invisible and emotional pattern with his eyes. He pays attention to the detail, as with the crinolines that prove to be a subtle brush stroke in their distinguished forms, a farthingale that discreetly unleashes its force through a bias in profile.” 


The exhibition is a study of what may have been the artworks that influenced the  personal seal that the designer impressed in his works and his ability to innovate the styles of clothes on those paintings  and create his modern and venerated collections. The exhibition moreover examines the connection to Spanish art and the creative pulse of the couturier who was imbued with the cultural context of his home country and which can also be seen in his collections during his Parisian period. 

But what are these connections that shaped his aesthetics and that were assimilated in the leitmotif of his creativity? 

“Connections based on color ranges such as pink, ash green and ultramarine tones, which as the erudite curator of art and fashion Harold Koda observes, are part of Balenciaga’s creative identity that made such an impression at his Parisian debut…Black is one of the archetypes of Spanish identity, a color that is not a color but spans the entire color palette, fascinating the fashion world throughout history with its strong visual and symbolic power.”



The Spanish roots in Balenciaga’s personality and artistic development were deep and strong, nourished incessantly by his admiration and research in all aspects of Spanish culture. As two renowned fashion editors wrote:  

“Balenciaga brought the style of Spain into the lives of everyone who wore his designs…he was the true son of a strong country filled with style, vibrant color, and a fine history and he remained forever a Spaniard..His aspirations came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the fishermen in their boots and loose blouses, the glories of the church and the cool of the cloisters and monasteries. He took their colors, their cuts, then festooned them to his own taste.. “ ( Diana Vreeland)  and in Bettina Ballard’s words , fashion editor of  Vogue America, “ Balenciaga believed in the unquestionable elegance of black and white, in the color of the Spanish earth and rocks and olive trees, in the red of the bullring, in the effective accent of turquoise, in the Goya combination of black with beige, grey with black , and in yellow.”


I like to believe that the thread of inspiration and creation is a long one. Some pieces of it are visible others are more subtle because they endlessly go back  decades or centuries. Velasques was inspired by the Naturalism of Caravaggio and other contemporary Italian Artists. His painting influenced the creative genius Balenciaga. I would like to think that this thread will continue to imbue its creative power in future generations. This is what fascinates me about history in all its forms but especially fashion and design history. It marvels me to uncover those visible and invisible threads that lead from beauty to more beauty, from a painting to a bolero to a hat to a piece of jewelry. Beauty makes our minds and our hearts live with more passion and enjoyment. Nobody invents anything. But talented people have the vision to see an object and innovate it, recreate it, mold into something completely different and unthinkable . And what I uncover every time I delve into these magnificent life stories, is  that all of them, on way or another, end up, grow or start in books. 


Balenciaga and Spanish Painting links the works of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the most admired and influential fashion designer of all time, with the tradition of Spanish painting from the 16th to the 20th centuries. With 90 of his designs on display, this is the first major exhibition dedicated to the Basque couturier to be held in Madrid in almost 50 years and the first to also bring together an important selection of paintings by great names in the history of Spanish art such as El Greco, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Carreño de Miranda, Murillo, Goya, Madrazo and Zuloaga, one of his main sources of inspiration. The catalog proposes a tour through 56 canvases, which are accompanied by the garments linked to each style or each painter.

Connections based on conceptual features, architectural shapes and volumes and chromatic complicities present a fascinating dialogue between couture and painting, between the creativity of the talented fashion designer and his influences. This presentation also allows us to look at art from a different perspective, focusing on painters as creators and transmitters of fashion and as masters of representation of fabrics, textures and pleats.  




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