Fortuny: Time, Space, Light by Wendy Ligon Smith, is an ambitious and scholarly investigation into the creative world of polymath Mariano Fortuny Madrazo. Ligon Smith has deconstructed the incontrovertible parallels between Fortuny, Proust, and Wagner, which illuminate the relationships between their formidable legacies. The monograph is an invitation to explore the Magician of Venice, his historic palazzo, now the Fortuny Museum, and the inspirations that informed his extensive artistic innovations
You are a postdoctoral fellow exploring revivalist themes and theories of time, history, and memory. Specifically for Fortuny: Time, Space, Light you’ve drawn distinct parallels between Proust, Fortuny, and the composer Richard Wagner. The three artists represent a trifecta of often impenetrable genius. What led you to focus on these enigmatic artists and who came first?
It actually all started with Proust. At UNC-Chapel Hill, I took a graduate Art History seminar with Carol Mavor where we read Swann’s Way (the first volume of In Search of Lost Time) and looked at corresponding artwork that was centered on temporality and memory. I was quite intrigued and then took another graduate seminar at Duke with French scholar and translator Alice Kaplan where we covered all seven volumes! The mentions of Fortuny in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time didn’t actually jump out at me at first. Only later, through conversations with Carol Mavor, who was serving as my doctoral adviser at the University of Manchester (England), did Fortuny seem like a good topic for my doctoral research.
Researching the congruences between Proust and Fortuny came quite naturally and it was gratifying to build and expand upon existing research that traced Fortuny mentions in the novel. I saved the research on Wagner for last because I initially found it the most daunting. I knew Fortuny was a devoted Wagnerian and that there had been plenty of ink spilled on the German composer, but in the world of opera studies and Wagnerian scholarship, though Fortuny is often mentioned, rarely is his work ever given significant analysis. I ended up really enjoying writing this part of the book.
Bringing the three artists together was a fun challenge. I appreciated their similarities: their obsessions with the past (revivalism); their innovative drives; their tireless devotion to beauty…
Take us back in time to the period when Fortuny was only an intriguing name in your readings of Proust. You had not yet visited his Palazzo Pesaro-Orfei, now known as the Palazzo Fortuny. When you entered the museo for the first time what were your impressions? Did you feel the physical space supported Proust’s literary descriptions? Were you surprised by anything?
The first time I visited Palazzo Fortuny in 2010 I was mostly surprised by how little of his work was on display. At the time, the museum was exhibiting interesting contemporary works by a variety of well-known artists as it continued to do most notably on the years of the Venice Biennale. The beautifully textured walls were compelling and evocative of the themes of aging and time, and they set a poignant stage for the contemporary works being shown. The surfaces in the palazzo are so rich: warm, dark wooden floors; patterned tapestries hanging from the ceiling; plastered walls with crumbling sections where wooden boards and older layers of paint show through; water-soaked stone steps that lead to the canal entrance from the verdant courtyard; crown glass windows set between frescoed walls…
Another thing that struck me was the incredible contrast of the dark shadowy rooms and the blindingly bright upper floor. For conservation purposes, many of the rooms have the curtains pulled. However, on the top floor the open (and mostly empty) space was lit by an abundance of natural light coming from the wall-to-wall windows. It was important to me to research how Fortuny made use of the light in his palazzo as part of his working process for printing fashion garments, and how he made use of the windowless spaces for his photographic darkroom.
The aspect of Fortuny’s home that most reminded me of Proust’s literary descriptions was the eclectic collection of antiques and art objects that he carefully curated and placed in the atelier and library. In my book I suggest that for both Proust and Fortuny objects act as catalysts for memory and creative work.
You explain that the mythic Delphos gown, made from the silk of wild moths, was Fortuny’s visual manifestation of his fascination with classical Greek costume construction and reflective light on repeating pleats. Though floating in timelessness, the garments also revealed a radical rejection of the synthetic textiles favored by Futurists, a rejection of corsets and constraints on the female body, a rejection of the seasonal whims of the fashion industry, a rejection of the label “fashion designer”, and a rejection of the new. Did Fortuny create a poetry of textiles fueled by anarchy?
What an interesting question. I admire the way you’ve synthesized so much here. I think anarchy is a strong word that I wouldn’t associate with Fortuny. I can see how his resistance to conform to the constant seasonality of fashion can be seen as a rebellious, anarchic relationship to the chronological passing of time. But, from what I’ve learned about Fortuny from his personal writings, the aggression or force associated with a term like “anarchy” does not seem fitting. It feels more political in a way in which he purposely avoided. I see his Delphos gown as a garment of historical fantasy mediated through a subtler aesthetic. He was inspired by the dress of the classical world, particularly the bronze sculpture of the Delphic Charioteer (from which the dress gets its name). Instead of looking at what contemporaries were designing, he was always much more attuned to the artwork and designs of the past. This persistent awareness of the history of art and design is evident across his work in all genres, not just fashion.
I’m intrigued with Fortuny’s wife, the French model Henriette Negrin. She seems to be an ever-present shadow in the book but when we finally see the stunning portraits Fortuny painted and read your analysis, she springs to radiant life. Fortuny credited her with the design of the Delphos gown by handwriting the acknowledgement on the patent, she supervised the production of the clothing and textiles, and left instructions for the palazzo to be turned into a museum. From your extensive research, can you tell us any more about Fortuny’s muse?
Yes, I’m glad you brought up Henriette. When I first started researching Fortuny in 2010, it was very difficult to find information on her. But in December 2015 curators at Palazzo Fortuny mounted an entire exhibition devoted to Henriette and her contributions. That year there had been a major investment in rearranging and refurbishing the massive archives at the museum, which led to a greater understanding of Henriette’s role and the restoration of many more images and even home videos depicting her life and travels with Fortuny. In the exhibition catalogue for Henriette: Portrait of a Muse, the archivists and curators outline more of her role in producing the Delphos gown and other fashion garments as she oversaw their production at the palazzo. I think there is still room to build on this research and provide a fuller story of Henriette. She played a very important role in preserving Fortuny’s legacy and archive, but I am hopeful someone will be able to track down more information about her own creative work.
The expression “to conjure” is used repeatedly in the book. I cannot think of a more perfect verb to use in association with Fortuny, with his obsession of secrecy, enigma, illusion, and phantasmagoric machines. Often referred to as the “Magician of Venice” the book deconstructs the reason the moniker has evolved. What did Fortuny think of this assessment, often expressed with awe-induced affection? Does it fittingly describe the legacy he worked so hard to achieve?
I think Fortuny enjoyed keeping the mystery of his process hidden and, in this way, he is easily likened to a magician who will not reveal his secrets. He was well aware that he was referred to as a magician and I have seen no personal writings that seem to interpret that negatively. In some of his private papers he does lament other things that people say about him, but he never seemed displeased with being called a magician. I initially balked at him being called “The Magician of Venice.” It seemed too reductive and it felt like it would preclude a deep analysis of his work. But, the more I researched Fortuny, the more I saw reasons that this moniker encapsulated so much of his artistic approach as well as his creations. That is why in the book I have taken the time to unpack why it is appropriate to think of him as a magician.
In 1910 there were over 100 workers in the garment production alone, working at Palazzo Orfie. And yet, even after his death, the secrets to his production have never revealed. How is it that he was able to maintain confidentiality with so many people in his employ both in Venice and on Giudecca? Even if they were only privy to a segment of production it seems that no one betrayed his confidence. How did he achieve this level of loyalty?
That is a good question. When Spanish art historian Guillermo de Osma wrote the first major book on Fortuny in 1980, he was able to talk with some relatives and I believe even former employees (or family members of employees). I think Guillermo was able to get more of a sense of how other people related to Fortuny in the context of the work environment, though it is not part of his book project. It would be interesting to see his notes on this.
As I mention in the book, many designers and inventors took this approach of having laborers only assigned to one specific part of making the product so that on their own they could not replicate the entire process by themselves. This appears to have been a very successful strategy for protecting their intellectual property. Many production teams are still structured this way.
The book is a scholarly labyrinth of relationships, parallels, and paradoxical themes. Grounded in the iconography of revivalism, you’ve explored the concepts of time; past, present, and future. Nestled in the deep conceptual recesses of memory and daydreaming, you’ve dropped the most beguiling gems of humanism. When we learn that Fortuny rowed himself to his factory on Giudecca, we see him as a physically strong and humble Venetian. It is a revelation. Are there other anecdotes that speak to his athleticism?
I am flattered by your summary of my project. I also remember when I first heard the anecdotes about Fortuny rowing himself to the Giudecca, and how I similarly felt I was getting a more embodied picture of who he was. From photographs of Fortuny’s personal life, you can see that he was certainly not a frail man. He was described as vigorous, and we know he built things with his hands (like the large wooden bookshelves in his library). Here’s how Guillermo de Osma describes Fortuny in the updated 2016 edition of his book: “Mariano Fortuny was a tall man – he measured 1.83 metres or some 6 feet – with a good physique and distinguished looks. With his penetrating blue eyes, well-trimmed beard, beautiful hands and sense of dress, he never failed to make a deep impression on people who met him for the first time”. (p34) When I picture casting a movie version of Fortuny’s life, I see him being played by Javier Bardem (and, interestingly, other folks in the Fortuny world have envisioned the same thing).
After sustaining serious damage in the floods of 2019 the Fortuny Museo has completed a massive restoration and reopened in 2022 as a permanent venue. What is different about the spaces now? How do they succeed in revealing the legacy of Fortuny? For someone visiting for the first or fifth time, what is the best way to understand the collections?
The restoration of Palazzo Fortuny has been a massive project. Firstly, I’m thrilled that it really is a space dedicated to Fortuny now. His work is displayed everywhere and is staged and lit beautifully. It is such a pleasurable viewing experience, especially if you are seeing his work for the first time. If you had been before, or know more about the historical layout of the palazzo, you may be surprised. The rooms are staged according to visual impact and not following the historical way they were used when Fortuny lived there. There are also some objects from outside collections that are staged with Fortuny’s originals to fill out the space and create an overall more harmonious and beautiful presentation, but this may be slightly confusing for the viewer who will find it a challenge to trace which objects belonged to Fortuny and which did not. It is still an amazingly impressive and unique space – a very Venetian space – but for those who are more committed to historical accuracy than overall experience, it may be contentious.
Fortuny’s paintings are often overshadowed by not only is famous relatives but his own inventions and achievements in lighting, textiles, photography, architecture, and set design. You’ve determined that the pinnacle of his own “self-perceptions” coalesce in The Atelier of the Artist at Palazzo Orfei, a 1940 painting of his studio, which contains “key parts of his own identity.” It is reproduced in the last chapter and beautifully graces the back cover of your book. I don’t dispute that this painting achieves a confluence of Fortuny’s ideals, especially as he considered himself a painter, first and foremost. But I am curious that if you were to choose an object amongst his decorative art, what piece would represent the culmination of his philosophy as a designer?
This is a hard choice because nothing really is as holistically representative as that one painting that depicts all of his creative activity in one scene. I think the closest we get may be the Knossos scarf. This was the first of his textile endeavors and the beginning of his career in making garments. Fortuny explained that in 1907 he, in partnership with his wife, was inspired by the Minoan mosaics recently discovered at Knossos on the northern coast of the Greek island of Crete. He stenciled patterned designs on silk taffeta to create his Knossos scarf that became quite popular. In Fortuny’s Knossos scarf we see his interest in historic design, in women’s fashion, in silk textiles, in painting patterns instead of embroidering them, in the consistent search to know and uncover more about the past, and we see his desire to combine these things – to allow women to wear historic designs. Fortuny was immersed in the study of ancient imagery. Even the label for his Knossos scarves borrows from the legend of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, which had been associated with this archaeological site.
Wendy Ligon Smith, Fortuny: Time, Space, Light, Yale University Press
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