10 April 2008

A world of paper

I got lost yesterday. Completely, hopelessly lost. I wandered helplessly from Istanbul to Lisbon, from Morocco to Paris, from Hong Kong to Lagos, from Bangkok to London, from Athens to Timbuktoo. And I did a little shopping along the way…

The fantastic rabbit hole I fell into was just inside the door of Museo Fortuny in Palazzo Orfei, the home and studio of the fabulous Spanish painter/designer/collector, Mariano Fortuny. There I saw Un Mondo di Carta, an exhibition of the work of a contemporary talent, Isabelle de Borchgrave, among some of the fabulous things that belonged to the source of her greatest inspiration. This Belgian artist and designer interprets the history of fashion – and far, far more – in paper. The show’s curator has blended her works into the ever-changing Fortuny collection, and often it is difficult to separate the real/Fortuny from the faux/de Borchgrave.

First the viewer sees the artist’s immense linen-covered worktable and her giant-size versions of her tools and trays full of samples, all realized in papier-machĂȘ. The feeling she evokes is that of being a child who has just been invited to play. (Indeed, the artist herself insists that any design commission she accepts must be, above all, fun.)

Then there is every imaginable paper garment, complete with paper lace, passementerie, feathers, tassels, toggles, buttons, eyelets and lacings – capes, caftans, djellabas, kimonos, waistcoats, ballgowns, hapi coats, filmy togas, corsets, hoop skirts and peplum jackets, sarongs, many versions of Fortuny-style pleated chemises, even a classic trench coat with the proper English boots! And there are also all the exotic paper accessories to go with them – chains of golden coins, pearls, brooches, belts, shoes, slippers, boots, bags, hats, and helmets. Other than the cobweb-like rice paper veiling, every detail is rendered from the same plain 1m x 1.5m sheet of white paper, which becomes unrecognizable when transformed into silk, velvet, wool, ikat cloth, mudcloth, linen, leather, and tapestry by the artist’s application of layers upon layers of organic paints.

After the initial dazzle of the paper clothing subsides a bit, the viewer can notice all the other creations – a full stage backdrop, several pierced window screens, mannequins, pillows, vases, lanterns, footstools, a bouzouki, even paper dogs! There is also a life-size paper tableau of the artist herself at her own desk, but situated in Fortuny’s Venetian palazzo. In her cardboard “mirror” the paper doll of the artist sees not herself, but Fortuny!

Her piece de resistance (Is there an Italian equivalent for this expression?) is a swooping, airy white paper tent fit for any Arabian princess. With its endless Middle Eastern patterned screens layered one over another and its filmy wall panels blowing gently in the breeze from the Grand Canal, it would be right at home at a milky oasis in a snowy paper desert.

So convincing is the result of the artist’s efforts that when I looked at these works I could almost hear the bells of caravan camels, smell the spices of the bazaar. I cannot think when a show has so completely taken me away into the realm of sheer imagination. Then, afterward, came the wistful longing for a life of such obvious right livelihood as that of Isabelle de Borchgrave.