A Sneak Peek at Friday Nights at the de Young with Dr. James Housefield

Friday Nights at the de Young feature lectures related to current exhibitions at the de Young. This Friday, June 17, Public Programs presents Spaniards in France: Cristóbal Balenciaga and Pablo Picasso, a lecture by Dr. James Housefield, a scholar of modern art and design at U.C. Davis. In preparation for this fascinating lecture, Dr. Housefield has graciously answered a few questions to pique your interest!

Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso and Balenciaga and Spain both span the masters' entire careers. What similarities might a museum-goer expect to find within each exhibition?

On the surface there are few similarities linking Picasso’s and Balenciaga's careers, which is what makes the famed Cecil Beaton quote about Balenciaga as the "Picasso of fashion" appear to be such an oddity. Looking deeper, however, we discover that both were passionate creators, driven to out-do themselves with careers that were wildly varied yet surprisingly consistent. What's most interesting to me, in the end, is the degree to which both were interested in the dynamic interplay between two and three dimensions. These artists think sculpturally; Balenciaga's creations, especially at the end of his career, are intensely sculptural fantasies that think seriously about the real people who inhabit them. Picasso's paintings and drawings constantly transform the subjects they consider, and frequently challenge us as viewers to engage actively with the material world around us.

Picasso and Balenciaga were both visionaries of their time. Do you think they might have used computer technology in their artwork if they were active today?

Although both Picasso and Balenciaga were visionaries, their approaches were quite distinct. How, I wonder, could Balenciaga embrace the computer unless he felt it gave him a new understanding of the structure of his garments? Perhaps he would have considered a collaborative project with an architect to design fashion as architecture for the body using computer-aided programs. My sense is that he would have eventually come back to the nature of the physical materials of the textiles in a way that was intrinsically hands-on.

Cristóbal Balenciaga. House photograph of wedding dress and veil of white silk-satin organza and silk gazar, summer 1968. Courtesy Balenciaga Archive.

Picasso was a constant innovator and engaged so many different and experimental approaches to artmaking. So I imagine he would have found many different ways to utilize the computer as a creative outlet. For him, the computer would have provided a different array of tools to add to those of the traditional artist.

What is one of the most challenging aspects of Balenciaga’s or Picasso's work that you have found in your research?

No doubt the most challenging aspect of both artists is the diversity of their work. As a result, it's often simultaneously true and false to say, "this is Balenciaga" or "this is Picasso," because their creative activities might just as likely veer off in another direction. Both had long careers in which they pioneered new styles and techniques, while remaining mindful of their place in history and their connection to longstanding traditions. In my own research, it's this latter question of how they defined themselves and how they designed their own legacies that is especially fascinating. I've worked extensively in the Musée Picasso archives (in Paris), where it is clear that Picasso guarded his own reputation in many ways. He subscribed to a service to follow how the media portrayed him, and these clippings fill his files. My hunch is that he wanted to secure his own place in the major museums of the world. The works on display in San Francisco carry that legacy a step further.

Want to know more about these two Spanish masters? Get the full story this Friday Night, June 17 at 7:00 p.m. in Koret Auditorium at the de Young!