Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Little Black Book of Taste - Fortuny

The Odalisque by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal.  1861.
A little while back, one of my friends told me that I should write down what I know that pertains to good taste, so people like him can have something to fall back on when they encounter people like me.  My friend is brilliant and wonderfully outdoors-y; he pops tents, owns snow chains, willingly gets cold and wet, but never fails to give me a questioning look when I bring up a historic character or a style that has influenced art or design.  I'm perfectly accepting of our two worlds; conversations are never dull, always something new to learn, etc.  He genuinely wants to know what I am talking about, but sometimes there is a Helen Keller / Anne Sullivan moment at the water pump and I need to sign extra slow in the palm of his hand. 

A self portrait of Fortuny.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, a Spaniard by birth and Renaissance Man by reputation, is most widely known for his handmade textiles, but the ties of art and design run far beyond that one hallmark.  Born in Granada, Fortuny was the child of an artistic and influential family; his father Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, was one of the most important painters in Spain at the time, and his mother, a Spanish beauty, used her own power and wealth to endow the Prado Museum in Madrid.  When Fortuny's father died in 1847 at the young age of 36, his widow left Spain and moved first to France, where young Mariano immersed himself in Old Master paintings and studied art until he was 18.  The family then moved to watery Venice where Mariano, who was allergic to horses, could breathe more freely.

In Venice he continued to grow as an artist, spending time in Renaissance galleries and churches and successfully experimenting with photography, print making, fresco, and painting (he made his own pigments using Renaissance techniques).  Save for the Venice Bienale, Mariano never exhibited his works.  Money was not a concern, and for him, beauty was it's own reward.

In the 1890's, he moved to his own palazzo, the 13th Century Palazzo Orfei, which remains open to the public, if not sporadically.  He became a devotee of composer Richard Wagner and worked with new technology - electricity - hoping to enhance operatic production.  Fortuny revolutionized theatrical lighting by creating a system that diffused electric light and reflected it off a specially constructed fabric or plaster dome making bulky 'sky' backdrops obsolete.  A technician could control the intensity and color of stage lighting with the turn of a dial, painting the sky any color he chose.  In doing this, Fortuny had also invented the first dimmer switch.  He didn't stop with theatrical lighting, he plunged headlong into theatrical design and created sets and costumes, a foray that would lead him to his next venture, fashion design.  

Palazzo Orfei, Venice.

The Grand Salon at Palazzo Orfei.
So Renaissance, and
note the signature chandeliers.
Fortuny paints his studio at Palazzo Orfei.  Strewn with
Oriental carpets and draped with textiles.
A 1920's green silk Fortuny
gown with tunic styling.
Photo from the Met.
In 1909, he patented the famous 'Delphos Robe', named for a Delphic sculpture circa 475 BCE.  The Delphos gown, as it was more commonly known, was a simple and understated sheath; a column of finely pleated silk that fell from the shoulders to the feet, luminescent with rich color produced by dipping silk repeatedly into handmade dyes.  Hand blown Murano glass beads acted as ornamentation and weights, keeping the dress close to the body.

The Charioteer of Delphi
circa 475 BCE.  Bronze.
The exact process used to create the Fortuny pleat remains a secret to this day.  Silk is notoriously resistant to permanent pleating, yet his pleats stayed true.  It is suggested that wet silk was finger pleated; the pleats held in place by basting stitches.  Once the fabric was secure, it was run through a machine with heated tubes that would set the pleats and the basting threads could be removed.  The pleats were not infallible; they did loosen with wear in the seat or if they were exposed to moisture.  As a sign of good faith, Fortuny offered to reset the pleats in his Venice studio for free should his clients ever be in need.  He also encouraged his patrons to store their gowns twisted into a ball and stored in a Fortuny hatbox.  This preserved the pleats and ensured the delicate fabric would not be damaged by the light or moisture.

A very rare Fortuny gown of
printed velvet with pleated
silk inserts.
Gown detail showing the Fortuny
pleats almost bursting from the lacing.
Laces held in place by Murano beads.

Fortuny's gowns were scandalous in their simplicity.  Designed to show the natural beauty of the female form, the corset was not part of their vocabulary.  While this surely sent shock waves through most of the female population who could not fathom being naked under their clothes, the freedom was appealing to the more Bohemian mind set.  Fortuny's clients would include Ethel Barrymore, Isadora Duncan, Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, as well as eccentric socialites like Marchesa Luisa Casati.  The dresses were also one size fits all; a novelty then and now.  A concealed cord in the bateau neckline adjusted the decollete, and the addition of a decorative sash emphasized the waistline.  It should be noted that Fortuny

A Black Delphi gown with silk velvet jacked and matching sash
printed with gold and silver pigments.  Details below.

A 1920's printed silk gauze wrap trimmed
with coral Murano glass beads.

To accessorize his understated gowns, Fortuny created fantastic cloaks, wraps and jackets printed in what would become the signature of Fortuny style.  His designs were imaginative reinterpretations of Renaissance, Persian, Asian, Moroccan and other classical motifs.  He also shared a common interest with his father, the collection of Islamic art and artifacts, no doubt another influence on his work.  Patterns were applied with specially created stencils and engraved wood blocks using rich, sometimes metallic, pigments.  He even patented a machine that printed through the use of an engraved barrel roller, the first of its kind.  Like his pleating, the recipes and processes for the dyes were proprietary and remain so to this day.  Designs were further enriched with a roller or brush so that the fabric’s surface became a dappled spectrum of color and pattern; in some examples, up to 10 colors were used to create a single pattern.

A printed velvet Doublet is romantic fantasy.

A printed velvet cloak of blue green
with gold pigment.  Perfect for a
Venetian masked ball.

A printed silk dressing gown with exaggerated
slashed sleeves brings to mind an
Opium Den.  The printing is North African
in inspiration.
Photo from the Met.

A coat of printed velvet with fur trim.

Fortuny's printed velvet reveals incredible
depth of color and intricate detail.
In the wake of World War I, a growing middle class clamored for his designs, and he agreed to produce a line of cotton prints fore the interior design market.  In 1919, Fortuny opened a factory in a former convent on Giudecca Island, where it remains today.  He opened shops in Paris and Milan, and in 1927 gave Elsie McNeill (later to become Countess Elsie Gozzi when she married her second husband) a young American decorator, exclusive rights to represent him in the US market.  Under McNeill’s guidance, a shop opened on Madison Avenue and the company survived the Depression, World War II, and Fortuny’s death in 1949.  Elsie would take over the company at the request of Fortuny’s widow and she ran it for the next 30 years as it continued to grow and collect new Decorator devotees like Rose Cummings, Sister Parrish and Billy Haines.

Fortuny's prints were grounded in history
and numerous cultural influences.
Fortuny fabric is still available today, and his influence is still seen.  Contemporary designers like John Saladine, Alexa Hamption and Victoria Hagan continue to use his textiles in their interiors and there is also a collectors market for vintage textiles and gowns.  Like all great ideas, there has also been a trickle down effect; you can purchase textiles that aren't Fortuny originals, but bare a striking resemblance just the same.  I recently installed 4 windows of 'fortuny-esque' drapery from in iridescent teal taffeta screen printed in antique gold from Fabricut and it looks amazing.  It's my little homage to Fortuny, on a budget.

- Ian

As far as modern inspiration, we can not help
but see a little bit of Fortuny in this dress
by Issey Miyake from 1990.

The same is true for this Mary McFadden
'Marii' pleated gown with Japanese embroidery.

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