Saturday, September 28, 2013

Petit Point

by Francesco Vezzoli (source)
Two very different experiences in Rome recently - and who would have thought they'd be connected by petit point - tapestry, done, in each case, by gentleman afficionados. Sounds like a strange story? It is.

We begin with my visit to the new modern art museum, MAXXI, which was showing a retrospective of the work of the Italian contemporary artist Franceso Vezzoli - Vezzoli calls MAXII "the most important museum for my nation." For those of you who don't know him - and he's hard to miss - Vezzoli is a forty-something artist born in Brescia in northern Italy, who studied in London in the mid 1990s - the era that produced Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin. This exhibition was the first I'd seen of his work, and I'd describe him as a kind of Mapplethorpe meets Grayson Perry. Which is not to say that he's not original - the first works to take my eye were some amusing re-creations of ancient Roman sculpted portraits - and heaven knows I'd seen a lot of those in the last few days - with Vezzoli's own features superimposed and arranged in tète-a-tètes. Then there were the full-sized Roman statutes holding digital screens, upon which were displayed some of Vezzoli's  short films, most involving him and celebrities. He has said that his themes involve "art, religion and glamour". Yup.

Re-imagining those Roman heads.
A gallery of films.
Quite a bit of Vezzoli's early work was - yes - petit point. Some rather nice glittery tear-drops. Some clever juxtapositions of himself and women and celebrities. In one of the short films I spent some time watching, Vezzoli sat on a petit point sofa doing tapestry, while a female in draperies sang tragically. The room seemed to be in a dated kind of home decorated with numerous books and knick-knacks. I'm not going to pretend I knew what it was about. I did vaguely register the title as something to do with someone called Mario Praz, of whom I'd never heard.

What happened in this room? (source)
(Pale yellow settee in the nook on the left wall.)
The next day. In an effort to visit some of the lesser known museums of Rome, I turned up at a "house museum" near Piazza Navona. I and two other people, a couple who spoke some halting Italian, were sent up to the third floor to meet a guide at a large Roman apartment. It had been left to the state by its owner, an Italian professor who had lived and worked in England. Sadly, the guide spoke no English and so I'm not very much the wiser on what exactly the late owner was a professor of, but I can report that he had a very eclectic taste in home decor, bordering on the kitsch. Actually, most of it was kitsch.

Being a bit overwhelmed by by the riot of bad taste interspersed with the occasional exquisite item, I passed lightly over the examples of petit point hanging on the walls of the entrance salon. Our small group spent and hour inspecting beds, musical instruments, lithographs, ugly little wax scenes under glass, a lot of things to do with hot air balloons, and then we were back in the salon. The guide paused to point out one last item - some small petit point works framed on the wall, above a small settee also decorated in petit point. I understood her to say that the owner of the house had done the work himself. As I looked at the pale yellow settee with its circlet of tapestry, into my mind flashed the film I'd seen just the other day - Mario Praz! This was his house, his settee, his sitting room, his petit point. And it was here, doing his own bit of stitching, that Francesco Vezzoli had filmed his short film.

It was, as I'm sure you can imagine, an interesting moment.

Mario Praz.
Francesco Vezzoli,
in a petit point self portrait.
I've since discovered that the Vezzoli work about Praz dates from 1997, and is part of a series called ‘An Embroidered Trilogy’, which includes OK, the Praz is right!; Il sogno di Venere (The Dream of Venus); and The End (Teleteatro) (both 1997-9). This site has more information:
All three feature known guest directors, charismatic ageing divas, fabulous costumes, special locations, music and cameo appearances by the artist, who sits around like a neo-dandy sewing mini-portraits in a disengaged way. The first clip was shot at Museo Mario Praz, Rome, the former home of the intellectual who inspired the character of the professor in Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece (1974). Its star Iva Zanicchi - a former Italian pop singer and host of the game show OK, The Price is Right! - sings a sad song, as she did for the soundtrack of the Visconti film. Such connected threads are integral to the works.
Lots of info there - if I tried to follow all of those 'connected threads' I'd never finish this post.
And there's some more in-depth about Praz and Vezzoli here. But I think you get the drift.

A still from 'OK, The Praz is Right!"
For more about Vezzoli, try this article. He has a big year coming up, including re-building an abandoned Italian church at the MoMA in New York. Here's a little about him from the article, just to give you a taste:
In 2009, he staged a work ambitiously titled Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again) at L.A.'s MOCA, a performance wherein Lady Gaga, wearing a crystal chandelier dress codesigned with Miuccia Prada and a hat specially created by Frank Gehry, belted a song from a rotating Damien Hirst–designed hot-pink piano while ballet dancers from Moscow's Bolshoi danced around her. "His point of view is never banal," deadpans Vezzoli's dealer Larry Gagosian. 
And Mario Praz? Let's not forget him. Since I didn't get much from the Italian-only tour, I checked out the website of the museum, and learnt this:
Satellite museum of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome. Opened to the public in 1995. A museum typology rare in Italy, the Praz House is an authentic private residence, maintained unaltered since the passing of its owner. Mario Praz was a celebrated scholar of English Literature and collector of  works of art, objects and furniture from the 19th Century.
More about the house museum here.

Wiki gives his life-story, and the interesting information that "His best-known book, The Romantic Agony (1933), was a comprehensive survey of the erotic and morbid themes that characterized European authors of the late 18th and 19th centuries." He also wrote something called "An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration from Pompeii to Art Nouveau", and an autobiography called "The House of Life." Judging by my visit to his home, I can attest that he appears to have had a strong interest on interior decorating, though perhaps his taste would not be everyone's...This site says:
The Mario Praz Museum was inaugurated in 1995. It is located on the third floor of Palazzo Primoli. The House-Museum looks like an aristocratic twentieth century residence. It exhibits the collection of antiquities of Mario Praz (Rome 1896-1982), historian of literature, anglicist, essayist, and scholar of minor and major arts. It includes about one thousand four hundred works, among furniture, paintings, drawings, marbles, waxes, bronzes, silver, and crystals purchased on the Italian and European antiquarian market (France, Germany, and England). The furnishings offer an overview of the "filosofia dell’arredamento" (philosophy of furnishings) from the end of the eighteenth to the second half of the nineteenth century", from Neoclassic to Biedermeier. Many of the paintings even represent interiors of nineteenth century residences. 
An expert on interior decorating? However, I've been there, and although the house was very interesting historically, I'm not taking back that bit about kitsch. To each his own...perhaps that's what the "filosofia dell’arredamento" is all about.

You'll note that none of this information focusses on the petit point. But Francesco Vezzoli did -- thus giving me a neat moment of artistic enlightenment in Rome. Where else?

Here's a great video about the Vezzoli show at MAXXI, including the artist himself, Rome's beautiful people at the opening, and an appearance by the architect of the building Zaha Hadid:

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