ISABELLE DE BORCHGRAVE
Born in Brussels in 1946, Isabelle de Borchgrave has had a passion for drawing from a very early age. At 14 she enrolled for the graphic arts courses at the Brussels Centre of Decorative Arts, where she would also explore different techniques in painting. She first entered the world of fashion and textile design at the age of 17, painting upon the fabric of her own clothes and those of her friends.
Enjoying growing success, she soon decided to open her own fashion atelier, La Tour de Bébelle, where she produced not only clothes and scarves but also jewellery and accessories. These used painted silk, leather, camel skin and felt, with the artist exploring the possibilities offered by a whole range of materials: at night she printed the fabrics, during the day they were made up into the creations intended for her ever more demanding clientele.
Having used the off-cuts of fabric to make cushions and curtains, she then gradually moved away from fashion to work in the field of textile and furnishings design. Continuing to use the name La Tour de Bébelle, she would create various ranges of household linen and table porcelain, as well as a number of collections of printed fabrics.
In 1998 came another change; after seeing the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Metropolitan in New York, she decided to create the show Papiers à la Mode in Mulhouse.
The first show, with some 30 garments, would gradually be added to as the exhibition travelled to different countries. In 2002 the event was in Japan, a country eager to learn as much as possible about the art and history of the West. For that occasion, Isabelle took contemporary portraits as the inspiration for her paper recreation of the costumes of such historical figures as Elizabeth I of England, Marie Antoinette, Madame Pompadour and the Empress Eugénie. A year later, in Turkey, she created a sort of harem, with a single female costume (inspired by a Liotard painting) surrounded by a number of male kaftans. Having abandoned fabric for paper, Isabelle discovered in this new material endless possibilities for experiments in original artistic creation.
The show as held in Paris and at the ModeNatie in Antwerp also saw important innovations. Rather than being paper illustrations of the history of fashion, they became veritable installations, the ‘set design’ serving to convey aesthetic sensations and historical information.
This Palazzo Fortuny show sets Isabelle a new challenge: how to respond to – and convey – the atmosphere of the world in which Mariano Fortuny dreamt and worked.
Sources of Inspiration and Techniques
As with Mariano Fortuny, travel has been an important source of inspiration for Isabelle de Borchgrave. Capturing the colours of different places on paper, the artist paints images of street scenes, gardens, interiors, landscapes, clothes and individual gestures. Isabelle seems to use the paintbrush to drive of negative energy, to hold sadness and sorrow at bay. There is no room for greyness in her work. Totally optimistic, she captures gems and dreams on her canvases, holding that “while painting may be a question of technique, it should first and foremost be pleasure and enjoyment”. And all sorts of techniques – gouache, charcoal, gesso, pastel, oils and watercolours – are used to enable her to create effects of opacity or brilliance. “One has to look long and carefully if one is to be able to re-invent; one has to do a lot of drawing before one can master line. When technique has been totally absorbed, then it leaves rooms for free gesture, for pure creation,” says Isabelle. This is true not only for the techniques of painting but also for those she uses in working with simple white paper. In her hands, this can be used to re-create the effects of silk, damask, lace and plissé of innumerable shades of colour. Her Flemish heritage is evident here. She herself comments on her “observation of the Flemish Masters, [her] admiration of the skill with which they worked fabric in order to achieve the thickness or softness they required, to capture the shifting light of silk, the delicacy of lace, the golden gleam of jewellery.”
Another prime source of inspiration are materials and fabrics themselves. And Isabelle can draw such inspiration from anything that comes to hand: a piece of wood picked up at the water’s edge; a parchment found forgotten in a drawer, old and worn wallpapers; abandoned cardboard boxes…
In her studio in Brussels, she creates, paints, draws and constructs on a large table covered with linen, from which the work gradually emerges.
This studio now attracts the attention of some of the world’s major manufacturers, eager to commission the paper and textiles creations that so clearly exemplify Isabelle’s ever developing art. And here, too, one can see a ‘spiritual affinity’ with Mariano Fortuny.