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'Paper was my first toy': Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave

22:27 14/12/2018

Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave does extraordinary things with paper. And the most spectacular of those extraordinary things are her paper dresses.

These are not the throwaway paper dresses of the 1960s - in fact they are not for wearing at all. Rather, they are sculptures, made from intricately hand painted paper, which is then cut as a dressmaker would cut fabric and glued together.

She has produced four collections, dazzling with colours and reproductions of sumptuous fabrics and furs in remarkable trompe l’oeil. As the New York Times put it: "Borchgrave produces astonishing effects of scintillating colour, weight, transparency and texture. Her renderings of diaphanous gauzes are especially astonishing."

When the City of Venice asked her to design dresses inspired by Mariano Fortuny, she had to learn how to pleat paper. This was a slow laborious process and her first attempts were "not nice to see". However she mastered it and realised that the pleated paper made wonderful effects of shadow and light.

Her current exhibition, Africa Inside Me, is a new departure for her. Using pleated paper almost exclusively, she has evoked sub-Saharan Africa with geometric designs, specific colours, motifs, animals and landscapes. She has never visited Africa so this is an Africa born of her imagination, photographs, and African art objects. She spoke with The Bulletin about her career and her inspirations.

Why paper?

Because it’s very special to me. Paper was my first toy. When I was a little girl I never stopped using it - you can grab a piece of paper and do something for your mother or maybe painting or cutting and building something on a box, and that’s still in my mind

Later I made myself a dress out of my hand-painted fabrics, and everyone wanted to wear my dress, so I produced a lot of dresses but it became too commercial. I lost my artistic spirit and so I went back to paper. But when you touch fashion, you come back to it because it’s like a drug, and so I started to do the paper dresses and paper is still in my life, my mood, my spirit. It’s very important because you can do anything, everything on paper - for example lamp shades, dresses, objects. Paper is my medium.

What was the inspiration for doing historical dresses?

I go very often to the museum, and I was captivated by a painting in the Uffizi Gallery of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino. The painter gave the spirit of the silk, of the embroidery, of the furs, of many velvets, many many different effects - that’s trompe l’oeil illusion. I use trompe l’oeil to create the spirit of the fabrics and also the painting is flat, the figure is sitting and I have to make her stand and people can view it from all sides. I have to imagine what’s happening for the hair, for the shoes, for the jewellery, how the dress is attached. I have to go to the basic elements of the painting to redefine everything, and little by little, now I have 250 dresses. I choose each one for the challenge.

Recently the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh asked you to do the dress of the Princesse de Condé in a Rubens painting. Can you tell us more?

It’s a huge, splendid, incredible dress - very very elegant, very rich, because it’s covered by pearls and gold. That dress took one and a half months, because for a dress like that, we do it exactly like haute couture. I have one person who cuts the dress, we make a pattern, we make it in white, then we put it flat and I paint, because I am the only one who paints the dresses and gives the colour, and after I had many little hands who made the pearls. The dress has 4,000 pearls - it was a group effort by my team, they were at it all day, talking together, having fun together.

Isabelle de Borchgrave: Africa Inside Me, until 20 December

Written by Richard Harris