Besides being a style game changer, Coco Chanel was a skilful networker. Her ability to connect with the prominent society and drawing inspiration from them turned the preeminent designer into a global icon. Among the multitude of relevant people she encountered since early in her career was Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, whom she met in the spring of 1917, likely through Jean Cocteau or Misia Sert. They collaborated professionally on two occasions, both with Cocteau: on the play Antigone (1922), and on Serge Diaghilev’s ballet Le Train Bleu (1924). This relationship formed the basis for the exhibition “Picasso/Chanel” at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid curated by Paula Luengo, head of the Department of Exhibitions at the museum. It benefits from the support of the Comunidad de Madrid and Chanel, in addition to Telefónica/ACE, sponsors of the Picasso Celebration 1973-2023. Visitors will discover an exceptional selection of garments, oil paintings, drawings and other items, loaned from American and European museums as well as private collections and with the collaboration of Almine and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Patrimoine de Chanel and the Musée national Picasso-Paris. The exhibition plays out in four sections organised in chronological order, approximately spanning 1910 to 1930: “The Chanel style and Cubism” presents the influence of that movement on the couturière’s work. “Olga Picasso” focuses on the numerous portraits that the artist painted of his first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, client of Chanel. “Antigone” was Cocteau’s modern adaptation of Sophocles’ play, which premiered in Paris in 1922 with sets and masks by Picasso and costume designs by Chanel. Finally, “Le Train Bleu” was title of the ballet produced by Diaghilev in 1924 with a libretto by Cocteau inspired by sport and bathing fashion. Curator Paula Luengo offers her perspective on the genesis, the concept and the creation of the exhibition.
What prompted you to conceive this exhibition?
This is part of our line of work that we have developed in the last decade of exhibitions combining fashion and art. We are the only museum in Spain doing this. We started with Givenchy 2014-15, then Sonia Delaunay: Art, Design and Fashion in 2017, Sorolla and Fashion in 2018 and finally Balenciaga and Spanish Painting in 2019.
It seems the exhibition is organised as a Picasso masterpiece paired with a Chanel dress, yes?
Yes, the exhibition largely consists of one or two works of Picasso paired with a dress, or vice versa — that is two dresses that pair with a painting. But there are also vitrines with documents and drawings, two films with Olga Picasso dressed in Chanel and a Greek Lucanian vase from 380-390 BC with the image of Antigone.
Which was the process that guided you to make these pairings?
Generally, I paired them because they are similar to those shown in the paintings. In the case of the second section based around Olga Picasso it works this way. In the first section dedicated to Cubism and the Chanel Style, those similarities are less evident, but the dresses are related in form, colour and structure to the works by Picasso. In section three, Antigone, the dresses Chanel designed for the theatre play no longer exist. Here, I selected Chanel dresses from the 1920s that resembled antique greek dress or classical dresses. In the last section, Le Train Bleu, we have the reproductions of the designs from the Paris Opera made in 1992 for the remake of the ballet.
Do you have a favourite and why?
My favourite pair is a black day dress from 1926 with geometrical motifs from the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin that appears with two cubist portraits of Fernande by Pablo Picasso from 1909-1910. These perfectly illustrate Cubism and the Chanel Style.
Which dresses were the hardest to find?
In general, it has been extremely hard to find Chanel pieces from the 1920s. There are not many left in the world because of the fragility of the textiles and because during the Spanish Civil War in Spain and WWII in Europe many of the textiles in these pieces were used or reused for other uses.
What are the commonalities between the Picasso and Chanel aesthetics?
The influence of Cubism on 1910s fashion, particularly Chanel’s creations, is clearly apparent. It can be broken down into several aspects. First, the geometrical formal language of straight, angular lines of Cubist paintings and sculptures is reflected in the first designs produced by Chanel, who rose to fame when WWI broke out. Gabrielle shunned excessive ornament and favoured straight lines in two, as opposed to three, dimensional silhouettes. She also cultivated sobriety, simplicity, and practicality — traits that are fully in keeping with avant-garde art. Second, the tendency to downplay colour is common to both creators. During the period of Analytical Cubism, especially from 1908 to 1911, Georges Braque and Picasso embraced monochrome while Chanel showed a particular fondness for white, black, and beige. Collage brought to art an assortment of very different coarsely or austerely textured materials such as burlap. The designer likewise began using simple, modest fabrics like wool and cotton jersey and furs that were unusual in couture, for example rabbit, beaver, and squirrel pelts. To quote writer Maurice Sachs, Chanel’s genius lay in having invented “The costly-cheap, rich rags, charming poverty.” Or, as Paul Poiret put it, “Luxuious poverty.” One of the creations that best embodies some of the features described above is her first perfume: Chanel No. 5, whose bottle enters into dialogue with two Picasso collages from 1912 on display in the galleries.
Could you share one anecdote related to some of the Chanel pieces or that happened in the process of building the exhibition?
There are many anecdotes, especially because the exhibition had to change dates because of the pandemic. There are works that were lent to us for Spring 2022 before the pandemic, but because we changed the dates to Autumn 2022, those works were no longer available. Instead, when others had been initially refused, we asked again for the new dates and they are now in the exhibition.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The exhibition “Picasso/Chanel” runs between October 11th and January 15th, 2023 at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.