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Frick Pittsburgh showcases Isabelle de Borchgrave’s fantastical paper creations

November 15, 2018

Isabelle de Borchgrave’s dresses are so period-authentic, so immaculately detailed, that it’s hard to believe that what you’re actually looking at is paper.

“She approaches it as a painter would,” says Frick Pittsburgh curator Sara Hall. “They’re just astonishing. I overuse the word jaw-dropping. There’s a certain amount of real astonishment.

“It connects with the history of ‘trompe l’oeil’ -- fool the eye -- you think you’re looking at the real thing. It’s this world of beauty, color and texture -- awe-inspiring that everything is handmade.”

A retrospective exhibition of her work is on display at the Frick Pittsburgh through Jan. 6.

Bears the artist’s touch

“It’s like entering a fairy tale world,” says Hall, describing de Borchgrave’s studio in Brussels, Belgium.

“Basically, every object, every surface bears the touch of the artist. She travels through color. We all have associations with colors and they affect our moods and how we feel. She creates this wonderful world through her craft and use of color.”

The journeys she takes through the history of fashion range from gowns of the Medicis, patrons and rulers of Renaissance Florence, to the whimsical modernism of Les Ballets Russes -- which featured designs by artists like Matisse and Picasso.

It’s not just cutting and folding, although there is plenty of that.

“I think she is really into experimenting,” explains Hall. “She keeps a notebook. When they face a challenge -- how to get the right iridescent sheen for a certain kind of fabric--she keeps notes. She folds, she crumples -- they get this encyclopedia of techniques to get types of pleating or embroidery.”

“The studio has a lot of employees and interns, kind of like a Renaissance studio. People paint backgrounds, varnish papers, to contribute to the whole. Some were just done entirely in white paper, before it’s all painted and embellished. She called them ‘Sketches.’

“She has a wonderful touch. Her line quality irresistible and fluid and fun. You can feel it in the freedom in that she can execute a pattern or a flourish -- it’s delightful on so many levels.”

First U.S. retrospective

The exhibit came together as a project of four different American museums, in Memphis, Palm Beach, Oklahoma City and the Frick in Pittsburgh. This is her first U.S. retrospective tour.

One dress is completely new, commissioned specifically for the Frick exhibit. It’s based on a painting in the Frick’s collection, a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens in 1609 of the gold and pearl-adorned Princess of Conde.

“She’s from the same period as the Medicis,” say Hall. “She (de Borchgrave) already had some ideas about fashion of that period, how that dress would be shaped and ornamented.”

de Borchgrave will be visiting Pittsburgh Nov. 1-2. Nov. 1, there will be a gala party. The next day will feature a public talk in the Frick’s auditorium.

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