Kenneth Paul Block: Capturing Fashion with Strokes of Genius

By: Non Kuramoto

Photo: Non Kuramoto

Photo: Non Kuramoto

With the advent of photography, fashion illustration is thought to be obsolete. The Kenneth Paul Block Exhibition at the MFA was a reminder that fashion illustration has the power to depict fashion in a unique way.

Kenneth Paul Block was a pioneer of fashion illustration, drawing styles from the 60’s and the 70’s for WWD and W Magazine. He was known for the gestural nature of his illustrations as well as his ability to blend portraiture with illustration. Notable people who have been drawn by Block include Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, Babe Paley, the Duchess of Windsor and Gloria Guinness.

The current exhibition at the MFA include about 25 of his works, ranging from expressive charcoal sketches to whimsical fully colored watercolor pieces. With illustrations from the 1950s to the 1990s, the exhibit seems to depict high fashion transcending through time.

The texture and movement that Block was able to create using haphazard marks and paint splatter are remarkable. His expressive lines give his subjects a liveliness that cannot be captured in photographs. What makes his works special is his versatility in line and gesture. I found it valuable to look at his pieces up close at the museum. There is always a different intensity in being able to see original work and this was no exception. The layering of colors and the subtle line weights gave each of his subjects a unique personality. This was my third time touring the exhibition but I feel as though I discover something new every single time. For example, the pieces captured motion, character and the essence of something rather than a photographic rendering.

Also, it was interesting to note the transformation of women and fashion during various time period shown in the exhibition. Not only in terms of the style of clothing, but through the strength and weight that Block incorporated in his lines, departing from the delicateness that he used in his early years.  

The exhibit is a testament to the crossroad between art and fashion as well as the ability to mirror society at a certain point in time. Block’s illustrations were more than a tactic to persuade women to purchase certain clothes. The illustrations told stories of specific women living colorfully in a world post-war filled with uncertainty.

The adjacent gallery at the MFA was also doing an exhibit of Hiro, a fashion photographer known for his distinct and often surreal images, who was one of the first to experiment with Adobe. His photographs have a similar depth to Blocks illustrations that capture the attention of the viewer and make patrons want to hear the stories that the garments tell about the world they exist in.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to see the works of two artists who shaped the way we capture fashion today.

The Kenneth Paul Block Exhibit is located in the Clementine Brown Gallery (Gallery 170) and runs until August 14, 2016. Admission is free for Students.