By Grace Welsh
From now until Aug. 22, the Speed Art Museum will host the world-renowned work of Isabelle de Borchgrave. The Belgian artist’s work consists of life-size paper costumes representing five centuries of fashion history. The exhibit, like all exhibits at the Speed Art Museum, is free to all current University of Louisville students.
Born in Belgium in 1946, Borchgrave seemed to come into the world with a passion for art. She famously said once that, “The same day that I could walk for the first time, I picked up a piece of paper, started to draw, and I have not been able to quit since then.”
She was classically trained at Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and opened her own studio by the time she was 18.
Borchgrave filled her life with pretty and inspirational things. Opening a store in 1975, called La Tour de Bebelle, she sold dresses, paintings and home décor.
Over the years, she took a liking to the craft of paper maché and was struck by inspiration after visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in 1994. Combining her wisdom and expertise with that of Rita Brown, Borchgrave assembled her first series, “Papiers à la Mode,” which caught the eye of curators of prestigious institutions around the world.
Borchgrave’s superpower is more than just fashioning the outfits themselves. The artist utilizes an elusive trick of the eye called “trompe l’oeil,” which tricks the museum-goer into thinking they are looking at real fabrics, carefully assembled into extravagant outfits by the artist, but they are really an intricate take on paper maché.
The exhibit, titled, “Fashioning Art From Paper,” is divided into five major collections.
“Papiers à la Mode”
This is the largest and earliest showcase of centuries of fashion across cultures. From royal English and French gowns to traditional Victorian wear to chic streetwear, the exhibit takes the viewer from the Renaissance to the early 1900s with the magic of color, patterns, texture and beauty.
“Splendor of the Medici” and “The World of Mariano Fortuny”
Immersing visitors into the streets of Italy, this piece tells the story of the Italian Renaissance with inspiration from portraits of the Medici family and artist Mariano Fortuny. Borchgrave’s pieces reveal her unique interpretation of their art and colors and guide the viewer to experience the atmosphere of her work in the way she intended.
“Les Ballets Russes”
This most recent addition to the exhibit showcases costumes, outfits and drawings of twentieth-century Russian dancers that Borchgrave feels revolutionized modern art upon their entrance into the 1908 Paris art scene. Borchgrave breathes life into their stories and through her careful use of color and texture, allows them to live again and be seen by twenty-first century observers.
Inspired by her trip to Istanbul, this section of her exhibit showcases an appreciation for central Asian textiles.
Having a life-long fascination with the Silk Road, an ancient transcontinental trade route that connected Eastern Asia to Europe, Borchgrave worked in collaboration with artist Saeed Sadraee to highlight this ethnically and culturally diverse region that was a center for artisanal textile production. The textiles she selected, or “Kaftans,” illustrate the relationship between the nomadic people of Central Asia’s natural and cultural world.
The Speed Art Museum is free for U of L students and faculty and will be showcasing this impressive exhibit until August 22, 2021. For information on how you can reserve tickets, click here.
Photos by Anthony Riley // The Louisville Cardinal