By Georgio Valentino
The Esther B. O’Keeffe Gallery of Palm Beach’s Society of the Four Arts is currently showing some of history’s most sumptuous costumes, from the gilded luxury of the Medici court to the embroidered splendor of the Silk Road to the whimsy of the Belle Epoque ballet stage.
Except these aren’t dusty old originals. Fashioning Art from Paper is a career-spanning exhibition of life-size paper sculptures by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave.
The Brussels-based septuagenarian originally trained as a painter but pivoted towards a new, multidisciplinary style mid-career.
“I made my first paper dress in the late ’80s,” de Borchgrave says. “I had just seen an Yves Saint-Laurent costume exhibition at the Met in New York and it really made an impression. That and the arrival of contemporary art made me feel free to create whatever and however I wanted.”
She quickly built an entire collection, which was shown first in France then Boston and New York. It was an immediate hit with American audiences. She has since been a regular visitor to the United States.
“These works seem to resonate in the States,” the artist observes. “Across the generational divide, Americans really appreciate this kind of art. I’ve seen people return to the same exhibition up to eight times.”
The current Four Arts show is the second in an ambitious U.S. exhibition tour that kicked off at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis last year. Five cultural institutions across the country — in Memphis, in Palm Beach, in Oklahoma City, in Pittsburgh and in Naples — have joined forces to roll out the red carpet for a retrospective of historical proportions, spanning not just decades of the artist’s career but centuries of sartorial creation.
The museum directors tapped Dennita Sewell, current Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design at the Phoenix Art Museum, to coordinate the tour. Sewell first met the artist during de Borchgrave’s 2011 Pulp Fashion exhibition in San Francisco.
“I was really pleased to be invited to participate,” Sewell says over the phone from Arizona. “I’ve been admiring Isabelle’s work for many years. She’s doing something truly unique. Sure, there were paper dresses in the 1960s but this a far different, more sculptural form of expression.”
Visitors at the Four Arts are greeted with a specially commissioned work, a paper sculpture inspired by the dress worn by Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency, princess of Condé, in her Rubens portrait. It’s 17th-century opulence at its most conspicuous.
Thence the exhibitions opens onto de Borchgrave’s signature series Papiers à la Mode, created in collaboration with costume historian Rita Brown. The collection is a historical cross-section of European styles over the centuries, with an emphasis on court fashions.
De Borchgrave’s Kaftans series occupies a side chamber. The emphasis here is on the diversity of silk patterns that decorated Persian fashion in centuries past.
The artist’s homage to Mariano Fortuny occupies a corner of the main gallery. The early 20th-century Spanish fashion designer was, like de Borchgrave, passionate about Renaissance Italian style. Indeed, Fortuny was so taken by all things Italy that he set up shop in the Venetian villa that still houses his legacy and foundation.
De Borchgrave continues her exploration of Italian luxury in the Splendor of the Medicis series, product of the artist’s sojourn in Florence. She carried out extensive research at the Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Medici before turning her hand to what would be the most technically demanding works of her career to that point.
Les Ballets Russes adds a touch of the carnivalesque to the exhibition. The sculptures recreate costumes worn by dancers in Sergei Diaghilev’s globetrotting Belle Epoque ballet company — a rogue’s gallery of court jesters and wild animals. De Borchgrave created sculptures based on archival photos and artist sketches, capturing the stylized contours and saturated colors of Diaghilev’s breakthrough productions.
In mid-April, after a nearly 3-month stand in Palm Beach, the exhibition is set to decamp to Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh before ultimately returning to Florida for a last bow at Naples’ Baker Museum.
Fashioning Art from Paper runs through April 15. The Society of the Four Arts is located at 2 Four Arts Plaza in Palm Beach. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $5. The gallery is free for children under the age of 14 and Four Arts members. Visit fourarts.org for more information.