Africa Inside me… Isabelle de Borchgrave as seen by Patrick Amine

An artist’s imagination is ever mobile, across both space and time. The artist, and there are abundant examples of this, need not travel as such, physically, from one continent to another. Africa thus can become a source of visits and adventures in the imagination. Everything, or almost everything, can be the result of the links carefully woven from a mental and physical library, through the books and documents which the artist may have gathered over time.

For many years now, Isabelle de Borchgrave has delved into her personal library, on the hunt for everything that caught her creative eye, calling upon her senses, her impressions thus mixed with richnesses gleaned from other cultures. She has sought ownership of these elements that have always sprung up so naturally in her works, by reinterpreting them. Colours, fabrics, sarongs, embroideries of all kinds, geometric shapes, craft traditions − all of which she has lived in and absorbed with her European (and perhaps we might even say her global) cultural sensitivity. Last summer she had a moment of awareness, while wandering through the African quarter in Brussels, Matongé, with all of its oddities and charms. Isabelle de Borchgrave floated along these unconcerned rivers, where totems displayed their pennants in all their improbable colours. She, like a traveller drunk on the sights and sounds, allowed herself to be carried away by the sensual storm, allowing herself to be bathed in the Poem of the Sea, infused by its stars, hungry for its blues and greens, illuminated by lightning zigzagging over its surfaces, its syncopated rhythms and its exalted brilliance!

This journey, through rocking waves of boiling shapes and colours led to a first painting, a kind of still-life. Colours exploded like rainbows. Both freezing and scalding. And a whole flora took shape in her hands. Vegetation both withered and came back to life under her touch. Mystical masks, personalities from unknown skies! Suddenly, her palette veered towards the abstract, where neither elements, nor matter, extracted from their original context, could anymore be identified. Her creative spirit drifted towards new horizons… She made an imaginary journey to the Omo people, on the borders of Ethiopia, where the bodies are painted in signs and the colours full of invention. Here again we find the totems: spears guess at their trajectory; the bronze sceptres of Africa stand ready for the noble hand that has yet to lay hold on them.The glass tables, with their twisted, unlikely colours, call to mind filaments scattered by the wind, as if in preparation for some futurist, primitive festival. And like Blaise Cendrars, Isabelle too has taken to the seas to explore unknown lands amid an avalanche of colours. Blue skies and reddening horizons, blue-black oceans − and under the tropical skies a new life can be found. Picasso did not need to go to Africa to invent and paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). He found all he needed in the Ethnographic Museum in Paris, then at the Trocadéro, in its masks from West Africa, from the Congo and from Guinea. Derain was the first to show him the collection and the consequences are known to all.

Isabelle de Borchgrave, in her Alchemy of colours, could be identified with the famous poet who loved “idiotic paintings, door jambes, decors, canvasses of acrobats, signs, popular engravings; out of date literature, church latin, wordless erotic books, the novels of our ancestors, fairy stories, childhood books, old operas, silly tunes and naive rhythms”. Everything is reborn and renewed. The sea fled away with the sun, the fires of satin… and she, like another drunken Arthur, is tossed aloft by storms; she too drifts towards distant horizons! She sings with him: “She has been found./what? − Well, eternity/ The sea fled away/With the sun”.

Out of Africa always something new. But it is an internal Africa which Isabelle de Borchgrave has dreamed up in her new creation, in her myriad visions, in her reinvention of a continent in its style and its aesthetic.

© Patrick Amine, 2018, Paris


Isabelle de Borchgrave – biography

Isabelle de Borchgrave is an artist who has sought, and indeed discovered new directions in contemporary creation. She has made works in bronze, she has painted and she has authored installations on commission from public bodies and international fairs, most notably at the Tour de Picasso, France.1 Isabelle is an indefatigable explorer of a new aesthetic landscape − through her painting, her installations and her myriad creations.

The story starts in a small house on the Sablon, Brussels, where Isabelle turned her little attic under the roof into a workshop. She gave drawing lessons to local children and friends, all the while letting her mind roam over her own creative possibilities. This was the 1970’s and at the centre of her work soon stood ‘La Tour de Bébelle’ project: hand-painted outfits, scatterings of fabric rolls, pigments, brushes, gouaches, canvases, pastels and travel carnets in a rich scatter of colours and shapes, all gathered together in a bright, friendly and modern atmosphere. Later, her chosen working material indeed would be with paper, which she fashioned into new and unique shapes, all with marked originality.

Isabelle exhibits internationally and her works are now to be seen in countless museums − in Italy, in the USA most recently and soon also in China on the Silk Route. Isabelle has benefitted from the cross-overs with many cultures to enrich her own palette: West, East, Africa have all influenced her through their century-long traditions of art and painting.

Isabelle’s experience and her wide range of interests transform her world view, and indeed ours. Her hunger for knowledge is constant and eclectic. The intellectual library from which she draws is vast. Her hands are restless in their search for creative possibilities, in a ferment of activity − exploring, creating and shaping astonishing images.

Following a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1994, Isabelle began to invent her paper costumes. She worked brush in hand, the ‘canvas’ ever at the forefront of her mind, to build four important collections, all in paper and ‘trompe-l’œil’, each interpreting a very different universe.

‘Papiers à la Mode’ the first of the four, told a fresh story of fashion from Elizabeth Ière to Coco Chanel. ‘Mariano Fortuny’ plunged the viewer into the universe of 19th century Venice, with the watchwords of pleats, veils and elegance. ‘I Medici’ took us by the hand through the streets of Florence to meet famous personalities, in all their pomp and circumstance, who made the Renaissance into a glittering epoch with its gilt, pearls, silk and velvet swathes. The technique of ‘trompe-l’œil’ here reached new heights of rediscovered richness and luxury. Finally, ’Ballets Russes’ paid homage to Serge de Diaghilev, while celebrating the works of Pablo Picasso, Léo Bakst and Henri Matisse who had all designed for his ballets.

‘Isabelle de Borchgrave’ has without any doubt become a name, a logo almost in her own right, a label that one immediately associates with fashion and paper but also a name that is intimately linked to the contemporary worlds of art and design. She has worked closely with Caspari and with porcelain makers Gien, Target, Villeroy & Boch. Isabelle has both a sparkling imagination and a tenacious work ethic and she uses both to guide us into and through a multifaceted artistic labyrinth. With her as guide we discover a unique aesthetic vision − a galaxy of light, fantasy and craftsmanship. Her world makes up a whole; fabrics and wallpaper, table services and curtains, sheets and tailored decorations for both special events and intimate evenings. It is a universe in which she has grown and evolved, one which she has coloured with her own lived experience and which she animates with her deep art-historical knowledge.

However, over 40 years of career, she has never lost sight what drove her to create in the first place: her love of painting. She continues to exhibit canvasses and her large scale sculpted paper creations all over the world. She continues to work and exhibit in bronze.

Isabelle’s imagination is always at work. She is always alert, open and curious about the world around her. We might say that she travels joyfully in the steps of art history, and through the artistic traditions of global and traditional costume making. Isabelle is also a follower of the Nabis art movement; she too reinterprets the world around her as it unfolds its richnesses in an endless dream of shimmering colour.

Here we have the proof, if proof were needed, of her on-going search for new horizons, original creations and fresh ideas.

1 Picasso; Workshop du Minotaure au Minotaure (exhibition planned for the Palais Lumière d’Evian, under the aegis of the Picasso Museum, Paris, Picasso-Mediterranean 2017 − 2017 − France, which will take place 30th June to 7th October 2018; see attached documents and exhibition list