"She was enveloped in one of those long, Oriental gauze scarves that the alchemist dyer Mariano Fortuny submerges in the mysterious potions of his caldrons, stirring them with a wooden stick, first like a sylph, then like a gnome, where he obtains colours from strange dreams and later prints them with his thousands of new generations of stars, plants and animals." Gabriele D'Annunzio, Forse che si, forse che no (1910)
The last two years have seen quite a few institutions all over the world launching fashion and costume exhibitions. While the choice is wide, huge events with thousands of pieces often turn out to be too distracting and confusing. Smaller exhibitions are instead a good option, especially if you are a researcher and you really want to learn more about the pieces on display. One of these smaller yet well-organised events is the exhibition “Fortuny y Madrazo: An Artistic Legacy” that opened last November at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York.
Curated by Oscar de la Renta, chairman of the institute’s board, with design by Stefan Beckman (who creates shows for clients such as Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Chanel among the others) the event focuses on the many talents of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.
Born in Granada, Spain, in 1871, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was the second child of Mariano Fortuny y Marsal and Cecilia de Madrazo Garreta. When his father died in 1874, Cecilia moved the family to Paris where her brother Raymundo de Madrazo lived. Mariano grew up in the French capital surrounded by art developing an interest for the world of theatres, and in particular for the theatrical applications of electricity, and for stage sets and decoration.
In the late 1880s, the family moved to Venice, taking up residence in Palazzo Martinengo, on the Gran Canal, near the San Gregorio Church. The palazzo soon became a meeting place for many literati and artists and Mariano continued his painting studies while developing further interests in photography and stage sets.
At the end of the 1890s he started exhibiting his paintings publicly, while designing the scenes for an operetta at Countess Albrizzi’s private theatre in San Polo. He was so successful in this task that Giuseppe Giacosa, the Puccini librettist, suggested him to prepare the sketches for Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that opened in December 1900 at La Scala. Fortuny worked on the scenes and costumes from his new studio, a workshop on the top floor of Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, and even attempted to implement parts of La Scala lighting system. The staging was very successful and Fortuny went to Berlin and Paris to obtain recognition for his innovations.
While in Paris he also created the “Fortuny Dome”, a concave device that could be used to enhance the depth effect of the stage set. In the following years he concentrated on stage lighting and costumes and the restructuring of the Countess of Béarn’s private theatre, that featured his famous “dome” and a velvet stage curtain decorated with a fabric-printing technique that would made Fortuny famous in the following years.
In 1907 Fortuny produced his first item of clothing, the Knossos scarf that featured prints applied to it by means of wooden plates. Researches into fabrics continued and soon he developed a technique for printing on silk and velvet. While working on further theatre projects, Fortuny focused on experimenting on new chromatic ranges, pigments and fabric printing techniques, inspired in his search for new and exciting colours by masters such as Titian and Tintoretto and infusing in his textile designs influences from China, Japan, Persia, Turkey, Northern Africa and Spain.
A few years after, in 1909, Fortuny registered a pleated silk fabric made with a machine he had invented. In the same year he patented a process for polychromatic printing on fabric and paper and, in November, he launched the Delphos Gown, a garment inspired by ancient Greek sculpture.
At the 1911 Decorative Arts Exposition in the Pavillon de Marsan of the Louvre, Fortuny exhibited dresses, tunics and scarves. Soon success arrived, also thanks to many celebrities, among them Eleonora Duse, Isadora Duncan, the Marchesa Casati, Lyda Borelli, Madame Conde Nast and later on also Peggy Guggenheim who all favoured Fortuny’s designs (Fortuny's creations were also mentioned in works by Marcel Proust and Gabriele D'Annunzio).
With over 100 workers creating his pieces in the workshop at Palazzo degli Orfei, Fortuny’s production output increased and he opened a boutique in Paris and another in London, showcasing his fabrics in 1914 in New York, though World War I slowed down his work and researches. After the War ended he managed to start his textile business again in partnership with Giancarlo Stucky. Together with him he opened a new factory on the island of Giudecca (which is still there) founding the Società Anonima Fortuny.
Mariano Fortuny’s gowns reappered in later years in modern fashion magazines donned by Gloria Vanderbilt in a 1969 photo shoot by Richard Avedon for Vogue, and in 1997 they inspired Sandy Powell's costumes for the film The Wings of a Dove. Four years ago Natalia Vodianova made the gowns fashionable again by opting for vintage Fortuny dresses at the British Fashion Awards and at the Met Costume Gala.
The exhibition at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute looks at the different aspects of Fortuny's career - from his work for the theatre to textile printing and silk pleating - using selected materials including photographs of famous women in his timeless Delphos gowns.
The main point of the exhibition is exploring the influeces of Mariano Fortuny's artistic family upon him, looking at his interests and achievements, but also at his inspirations borrowed from art and history, from theatre, photography and fashion.
"Fortuny y Madrazo" includes paintings by the Madrazo family, but also photographs and lithographs, objects borrowed from other museums such as the Museo Fortuny in Venice and pieces lent by collectors like Regina Drucker, Keith McCoy, the Riad Family, Sandy Schreier, and Mark Walsh.
The final message of this exhibition is that Fortuny's legacy is vitally important for a wide variety of arts, from set design to textile printing and pleating techniques, and that even contemporary fashion designers should be thankful to him for his gowns that, emphasising the natural shape and the movement of the body, revealed an extremely modern sensibility.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, Peplos, 1910−1920. Courtesy of the Museo del Traje, Madrid.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, Cotton printed textile, 20th century. Courtesy of Fortuny Inc. and the Riad Family.
Mrs. William Wetmore modelling a Delphos gown in front of Fortuny fabric. Originally published in Vogue, December 15, 1935. Photograph by Lusha Nelson. Copyright © Condé Nast Publications
Countess Elsie Lee Gozzi wearing an Eleanora dress, 1920s. Photograph by Edward Thaver Monroe; Courtesy of the Riad Family.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, Peplos (detail), 1910−1920. Courtesy of the Museo del Traje, Madrid.Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
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