Fold upon fold of fabric encompasses the woman’s delicate figure. The dress hangs gracefully from her shoulders, sleek, culminating in a golden pool of silk at her feet. A silk belt is tied around her waist, emphasizing her perfect hourglass figure. The dress is modern, minimalist for the time – the early 20th century. It is called a “Delphos,” modeled after the limber, loose fashions of ancient Greek goddesses. It is one of the defining and long-lasting fashions of our time. And it was created by a man: Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.
The subject of an exhibition at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, Fortuny’s designs are proudly displayed on two floors of the cultural center, one beautiful columnar dress after another. Fortuny y Madrazo: An Artistic Legacy is an exhibition, conceived and partially curated by Oscar de la Renta, that not only highlights the artistic genius of Fortuny himself, but emphasizes his family background and the history that influenced his career. Each step you take within the exhibit brings you closer to the master artist, his family history, and the glamorous creations he designed.
Fortuny was born in Granada, Spain in 1871 but grew up in Paris, France. His mother, Cecilia de Madrazo, came from a long line of exceptional artists who were renowned throughout Spain for their talent in both history painting and Romantic portraiture. The Madrazos kept company with such famous individuals as Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The Madrazos were also influential in creating the Museo Nacional del Prado. Mariano’s father, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, was also an accomplished artist, best known for his landscapes and affection for exoticism that was a constant undercurrent in his works. On the wall at the Spanish Institute, before entering the exhibition is an extensive family tree that shows just how rich the Fortuny y Madrazo legacy extends.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo had a wide range of interests, each of which were reflected in his artworks. Considering himself first and foremost a painter, Fortuny began designing clothes with the opening of his couture house in 1906. Just one year later, the Delphos gown was born.
Fortuny y Madrazo: An Artistic Legacy is beautifully designed, albeit a little dark. Combined with over twenty gowns are black and white photographs, paintings, and various paraphernalia. The walls are draped with richly embellished Fortuny textiles. The air of exoticism, class, and wealth exudes throughout the entire exhibition.
A rainbow of colors seeps through the shows – daffodil yellow, midnight blue, pine green, sunset orange, and cloudy periwinkle. Every pleat, every miniature Murano glass bead, and every diaphanous kimono is a product of hours of work, intense creativity, and a true love of beauty and culture. He also had a great love of theater and lighting, and his gowns lend themselves perfectly to the stage. Many, in fact, were worn by actresses such as the Gish sisters and Irene Worth. This interest in theater extended to photography, and many of Fortuny’s own photographs are on display, presenting indelible images that show just how infused with culture Fortuny and his designs were. What influenced Fortuny eventually influenced his fashion – the history and art of ancient Europe and the artistic legacy of his family are seen in every seam of his gowns.
Fortuny’s designs, although seemingly too modern for the period, found acceptance with wealthy socialites like ballerina Cynthia Gregory, philanthropists Peggy Guggenheim and Gloria Vanderbilt, and actress Irene Worth. His gowns, in addition to the Delphos (almost mermaid-like in style), also included the Peplos (a variation of the Delphos with added drapery and acute cuts) and the Eleanora (generally consisting of a velvet panel dress with pleated sleeves), all styles of which are on view at the Spanish Institute.
Fortuny y Madrazo: An Artistic Legacy is a wonderful exhibition, and lasts through March 30. Visit the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute to get a taste of culture and fashion. For more information on the exhibit or to learn more about Spanish classes and culture, visit the institute’s website. Other glowing reviews of An Artistic Legacy have also been written by Laura Jacobs of the Wall Street Journal and Paula Deitz at the Financial Times, among others.