On display now at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute museum in Manhattan is the show "Joaquin Sorolla and the Glory of Spanish Dress," which was conceived by designer Oscar de la Renta and curated by Vogue's André Leon Talley. Last night, the two spoke about the genesis of the exhibition, and how they managed to track down over 30 examples of vintage clothing that inspired the great Spanish Impressionist artist, famous for his vivid studies of Spanish life. The clothing — including several elaborate bullfighting costumes, a wedding gown from Salamanca covered in so much jewelry that de la Renta said it weighed over 100 pounds, and flamenco dresses — is all the more beautiful for being displayed alongside the Sorolla paintings it inspired.
In his remarks, de la Renta recalled his first trip to Spain, as a student of art in 1950. He bought a rail pass that was good for 3,000 kilometers, and set out to travel the country. "I remember — of course, I was in third class, on the hard wooden benches — and we were traveling south towards Granada. And the train began to fill with gypsies." He struck up a conversation, and "they began to share their wine with me, and their bread." It turns out they were heading to a wedding, to which they invited de la Renta. "And of course I went. It lasted for three days." The designer said that was when he began to love Spain.
The paintings on the walls at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute are mostly studies, and on a grand scale, for Vision of Spain. Sorolla spent more than eight years of his life working on Vision of Spain, the group of paintings that would mark the culmination of his career. It was a commission from Archer M. Huntington, a patron of the arts and an heir to the Huntington railway fortune, who had envisioned a cycle of giant paintings that would focus on Spanish history. But Sorolla sold him on the idea of instead exploring Spanish regional life and culture. Completing the 14 resulting paintings required years of research and travel throughout the Iberian peninsula, and Sorolla acquired many of the examples of regional dress that he wanted to paint; Huntington financed the entire undertaking. Talley and de la Renta discovered that many of those costumes are still in the collection of the Museo Sorolla in Madrid.
"There, in the basement of the museum," said Talley, "they had most of the clothes. It was a eureka moment!"
The last painting of the cycle was completed in 1919, and less than a year later, an exhausted Sorolla suffered the stroke that would end his life.
And so, at the museum, you turn from a Sorolla painting of a couple being married — to see her wedding dress, her actual wedding dress and all its copious jewelry, displayed on a mannequin. Here's a painting of a peasant woman wearing a pleated skirt, and there is that pleated skirt, decked in hand-sewn ribbons. To look at these clothes is to see Spanish regional culture not in isolation, but as a story of history, materiality, global trade, and colonialism. There are Italian, French, and North African influences, pieces of jewelry that look almost Berber, fine fabrics that were the product of Valencia's thriving 18th Century silk industry, and lavishly embroidered scarves that were made in China.
"All of these things are so important to the paintings of Sorolla — these extraordinary anthropological studies of Spanish life," said de la Renta. Talley gestured at a brown woolen cape. "That is a fashionable shepherd's cape. Wouldn't you wear that today?"
One display shows two mannequins wearing riding outfits with heavy leather chaps; they looked so much like an ancestor of modern Western wear that I wondered if there is a design influence there, traceable to the Spanish missions. It's fascinating to see the clothing in dialog with the paintings, and to see the paintings in dialog with the Vision of Spain panels for which they served as studies. Characters appear, and change position or attitude. The pale blue trim on a dress becomes white in the midday sun. The show offers the chance to get a closer look at Sorolla's choices, and how he worked from his many references.
The whole of Vision of Spain is on display at the Hispanic Society of America museum, the institution for which Huntington commissioned the masterpiece, in Washington Heights. Oscar de la Renta described the museum as "truly an unknown treasure of New York City" and "a must for anyone interested in art." I completely agree. It's long been one of my favorite museums, and not just because I live uptown: it's free, it's in a beautiful building, and it has a terrific collection. (Plus, from there you can visit Trinity Cemetery, the fictional resting place of Royal Tenenbaum; it's right next door.) Works by Velasquez and El Greco dot the walls, along with religious art, Hispano-Moresque lustreware, and there's a terrific library. The famous Goya portrait of the Duchess of Alba where she's written "Solo Goya" ("only Goya") in the dust with her toe greets you when you step inside. And then there's the whole room that is devoted to Vision of Spain.
Upstairs at the Queen Sofia, Talley and de la Renta also display a room full of more modern designer creations that are themselves of an aesthetic piece with Sorolla. (It's worth a visit alone to see the elaborate wedding dress that closed Christian Lacroix's last ever couture show.)
It took Talley and de la Renta nine months to bring the show to fruition — they got the idea when de la Renta was researching the museum's excellent Cristóbal Balenciaga show from last year. Talley's favorite part was a nine-day research trip to Madrid, in which he says they spent a lot of time at the Museo Sorolla and the Museo de Traje, but also visited El Greco's house and took in some flamenco.