Noticed: Isabelle de Borchgrave

By Nicole Bemboom.

The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco has always struck us as a bit, well, eccentric. Beautiful, and not without its delights, but deeply eccentric.

It’s hardly in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown museum belt, and it’s also not near the De Young in Golden Gate Park. It’s only reached after a long Muni trek through San Francisco neighborhoods with single family homes and surf shops. (It’s all too easy to forget these places exist.)

Then there’s the museum itself: an odd and wonderful triumph of American architectural ahistorical appropriation, with bright white columns placed strikingly on a hill covered with dark green trees. The view, when glimpsed through the cypresses, spans from the iconic pastel and white SF houses, stacked over hills toward the skyline of downtown, to a prime Californian landscape of rolling hills, cliffs, and ocean.

But this only raises the stakes for the work at the Legion. The effort to get there, and the competition offered by the surrounding eye candy, means that whatever’s in the museum had better be worth it. And in the case of Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, it is.

Once inside the museum, past a micro steel and glass pyramid (a small, and strange, nod to I.M. Pei), dropping down into the exhibit space through arched and sculpted staircases, de Borchgrave’s work (on display through June 12) elicits actual gasps from visitors.

The Medici

The Medici. Photo courtesy of The Legion of Honor.

De Borchgrave’s work consists primarily of reconstructions of ornate historical gowns that are often inspired by dresses worn in paintings. Each is beautifully executed and masterfully constructed. Where her work becomes remarkable, however, is through the material she uses to create her pieces.

“Wait… that’s paper?” bellows one viewer with a hair-sprayed, Midwestern mom hair-do.

And, paper it is. The slightly-too-stiff crinkles are just about the only thing that reveals de Borchgrave’s material on first glance. The pieces have a way of magnetically pulling you in, bringing attention to the perfect hand-done execution of the printing and construction of these gowns. Her work is part sculpture, part painting, part craft, and part fashion history lesson.

A video at the front of the exhibit shows de Borchgrave and her team painting, printing, and layering the delicate paper. De Borchgrave handles these flowing, fragile sheets with the brisk and defined movements of an expert sculptor.

The artist at work

The artist at work. Photo courtesy of Créations Isabelle de Borchgrave.

The exhibit consists of room after room of jaw-dropping work. Exuberant colors and detailed patterns abound from the jewel tones of intricately pleated Fortuny gowns to the entire room of elaborate, collared, and beaded de Medici outfits. (Each bead is rolled out of ever-so-slightly shiny paper!)

Just in case you start thinking this is all about painting and historical replication, there is an entire room of blank, bright white dresses, to draw attention back to the materiality of paper and the exultant sculptural forms.

Going beyond fashion, de Borchgrave also created an entire impressively canopied room, complete with a daybed, printed cushions, and Moroccan lanterns, built from paper and gilded. The side panels of these lanterns are crafted out of a long fibered, nearly transparent paper (apparently intended for lens cleaning), printed with subtle white patterns.

The work is so intriguing and beautiful, defying our expectations of paper so much, that not only parents are restraining children from running to the pieces; spouses are also constantly holding each other’s hands back from touching.

Standing in a fake Italian museum in a manmade park, staring at my favorite piece, a pleated ikat Fortuny dress (Oh, if I could just please, please wear it for only a second!), I realized that de Borchgrave applied intense, focused hours to a craft material and, with her replications, surpassed the real.


Legion of Honor

Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave

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