Talking about Bianca, Brigid, Andy, Veruschka – A conversation with Francesco Vezzoli

Jan Winkelmann

Jan Winkelmann: Tell me about your interest in Andy Warhol’s superstars.

Francesco Vezzoli: I have been exploiting all sorts of aspects of the iconicity of female identity in the Warholian world for a long time. The last video project that I did was “The End of the Human Voice” (2001), which is a film with Bianca Jagger. It is a double projection video installation that took most of its inspiration from Warhol’s film “Lupe” (1965). After working with Bianca Jagger and after exploiting the so-called glamorous side of the Warholian milieu in works such as my video “A Love Trilogy—Self-Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf” (1999), I think that the logical only next step is to collaborate with a Warholian icon who is completely different from the other ones that I have worked with thus far. Obviously, the one that comes to my mind as having the biggest and strongest diva-identity of them all—in a kind of twisted way—is Brigid Berlin. (I will collaborate with Berlin on a future project). Oddly enough, I discovered that she has been doing needlepoint herself for many years.

How did you find out about this?

I discovered it by watching the documentary on Brigid Berlin, “Pie in the Sky” (2000) directed by Shelly and Vincent Freemont. In the film she never speaks about practicing needlepoint, but you see that her apartment is full of needlepoints and one could assume that she is either obsessed with other peoples’ needlepoints or she does them herself. After that I found out that she made a pair of needlepoint slippers for my gallerist, Anthony d’Offay. On one of the slippers she embroidered an image of Marilyn and on the other, Liz Taylor.

That means that she was referring to Warhol in citing two of his masterpieces?

Yes, and I see that as a very perverse gesture; trying to be some kind of heroine rescuing a “slice” of art history and dismissing all of that as source material for slippers. I even found out that she did a needlepoint of Warhol’s “Flowers,” and when I finally met her she showed me these “Flower” needlepoints and she said, “Aren’t they much better than Warhol’s ‘Flower’ paintings?” This was so amazing to hear, because I did needlepoints of abstract paintings by Joseph Albers and Blinky Palermo and also some of Andy Warhol’s “Egg-paintings” many years ago. For me it was an ironic practice of turning repetitive abstract patterns into a decorative practice. She has been doing the same thing, but her motivations were not the same as mine. Her mother did needlepoint and she was the best friend of the Duchess of Windsor, who also did needlepoint. By practicing needlepoint herself, Berlin is closing a circle by appropriating a technique that her mother had used. I like to read it as a metaphor for obsession. She is really obsessed with needlepoint—much more than me, even. I make needlepoints as a part of a language that comes from my dreams. I think it is also a search for perfection. God is in the details and there is nothing more detailed than needlepoint.

What does she do with them?

I asked her if she wanted to exhibit them and we were discussing that. But I understand that they are very precious to her. She knows that those needlepoints reveal a lot about her identity and her past and her obsessions and compulsions

I find it very interesting that you chose to work with Bianca Jagger a more glamorous star, whose relationship to Warhol occurred at a different time than Brigid Berlin’s. Bianca Jagger played a key role as an icon during Warhol’s Studio 54 era, in the late seventies, whereas Brigid Berlin was one of Warhol’s so-called “Superstars” in the sixties. But even more, she was one of Warhol’s very rare, very close friends until he died in 1987. All of the other superstars where overshadowed by Warhol, except for Brigid Berlin. She had a much stronger personality than many of the others. She was also one of the few superstars that had some influence on Warhol. But he was mainly interested in her for her name.

I agree with you that Brigid Berlin’s family was what really piqued Warhol’s interest. Her father, Richard E. Berlin, was the president of the Hearst Publishing Empire, which at the time was the most powerful media corporation in the world. I am sure that this was incredibly exciting for Warhol.

I see a connection to Andy Warhol in your personal obsession with stars. Your work raises questions such as: “What does it mean to be a star today?” or “What does it mean to have been a star a long time ago?”

For me it was incredibly exciting to discover Andy Warhol’s film “Lupe.” I never realized before that Warhol had gotten so melodramatic. “Lupe” is a film about an actress who gets her hair and make up done and then she commits suicide. Lupe was of course Lupe Velez, the Mexican actress who killed herself at the age of 36. In this film so many themes and topics about celebrity patterns as well as long-gone celebrity stereotypes came out. For me this relates to obsession because it links back to when I started working. I traced an emotional pattern from my childhood, and obviously, many of the idols of my childhood are no longer my idols today, so that’s how I began this investigation.

Who were your idols in your childhood?

I was a fan of the films of Valentina Cortese and Franca Valeri when I was a child. But now, they’ve moved on to something else, and I’ve moved on to other idols. Most of them lived a very dignified live and today they live in a comfortable post-fame life, out of the glare of the spotlights. But obviously something has changed and something is gone. When I started doing that kind of trip down memory lane I got really excited. Basically this obsession with long-gone celebrities started there and I realized that not many other people were into this melodramatic approach to them. And I thought, “Why not keep going with it?” because I was really enjoying it.

Would it be possible for you—after having met all of these stars and/or former stars and celebrities during your projects—to find a common ground on which the different experiences could be pinned down?

I tend to force them all to do something that they would never do or something that they put behind themselves long ago. So the shared aspect is my role as the provocateur or the teaser; I put them in uncomfortable or awkward situations loaded with irony and history. I made a pop video featuring Iva Zanicchi; Franca Valeri danced a wild disco number; Valentina Cortese acted out an extreme drama after not having acted for many years; Veruschka modeled again after a long retirement. Of course all of this is very different from one piece to the next, but in the end it is also very similar, and each woman is seen as a parody of herself and yet a celebration of her persona at the same time.

To me there is also something in your work that I would describe as “Dandyism.” This melancholic reflection from an outsider’s point of view, being part of the scene but not necessarily taking part in it; it’s something that reminds me of Andy Warhol’s role. When he was at a party he would stand in the corner and just look around and then he’d leave the party after only ten minutes.

Yes, I agree. I am the boy in the corner at a fancy party, just looking around and soaking up the scene. I really like to see myself in that way, because in the end at a party there’s not much to listen to, only people to watch. That’s when all of the drama occurs, when everything comes to a climax. I think it is very good strategy to stay in the corner and to watch the “Spectacle du monde.” In the end it is only about what you see. I think this is really Proustian, this European melancholic attitude. I really like this silent presence.

After Warhol’s death they opened up his townhouse and found this amazing collection of basically everything anyone could collect. I could imagine him sitting in his house completely alone, being amused with everything he has gathered around him—like Jean Floressas des Esseintes in Huysmans’ novel “Against Nature” (1884) who never goes outside and gets all of his experiences (i.e. traveling) through pure imagination.

The biggest expert on Huysmans was certainly Mario Praz, who starred in my first video “OK, the Praz is right!” (1997). I did a needlepoint on his couch and in his house he collected all of his life treasures. So it’s about this kind of loneliness. Maybe it’s not so easily understood or grasped by the viewer if he watches the video very quickly, but in the end I am definitely talking about this tendency to horde things as a protective shield, out of the fear of death, and I am talking about Warhol’s fear of loneliness. It is again like needlepoint; it is a practice that compensates for lost time, it’s a way of freezing time with material possession and accumulation of objects that are connected to the past.

…and it is also very much about contemplation.

Yes, many people don’t see this side of Warhol, which I think is a pity.

If one sees his films such as “Empire” or “Sleep” one experiences this reflective, meditative and contemplative image that can be viewed for hours and hours and almost nothing happens.

Even more it’s voyeuristic to watch, for example, a man sleeping for hours. I would like to see Warhol linked to Marcel Proust, which is something that people don’t seem to really understand. But Warhol had a close friendship with Truman Capote who had this kind of ambition to be like Proust himself. But I think Warhol was more Proust than Capote. Even if Capote was a writer, the man who really made a big fresco of the world was Warhol, much more than Capote. I think his late commissioned portraits are so amazing. Even the portraits of the people who are now unknown are so fantastic. You just read in these people’s faces a kind of Proustian melancholy.

Another interesting aspect with the commissioned portraits is the fact that Warhol treated all the people who commissioned the portraits in the very same way. For each portrait, he charged the same price—which was, I think $25,000—no matter if it was the Princess of Iran or Franz Beckenbauer, or whether it was Willy Brandt or Halston or whomever, they all got the same treatment, the same price, and more or less the same result, at least in size.

I think that’s some kind of glamour democracy, which is very interesting. In that whole series there is the aspect of Warhol being a court painter of the glamorous, but in his own sophisticated way.

Let’s talk about another project, which you are planning for your show in Leipzig.

I am working on a project with the photographer Francesco Scavullo. Scavullo was the glamour eye of “Interview” magazine and he was the photographer that Warhol chose to glamorize everything. I went through the Scavullo book and I was especially struck by the “before and after-photographs” in which he took portraits of famous divas before and after they had their make-up done, which of course takes inspiration from the “before and after” paintings by Warhol. I just thought that the bravest thing for me to do would be to become a subject of a “before and after” Scavullo portrait. It’s again this desire to become some kind of diva, but still hiding myself by having somebody else to take the picture. I had a sort of unconscious desire to empower myself and to hide myself immediately after. I just think that Scavullo’s “before and after-portraits” are so wonderful and mannered, and I just wanted to be part of that.

In all of your films there is this aspect of your stars undergoing a kind of transformation. Now you are that “object of desire.”

There was always this idea of pulling the people I work with to a place where they haven’t been before. I force my idols and myself to do something that they (or I) would never like to do. Believe me, I hate make-up. I am allergic to it and it was pure agony for me. But I guess great things only come out of some degree of pain and transformation. For my overall project it is important to have a commitment and intensity, because that creates tension. At least it was true for every single actor or actress I have worked with so far. They seem to know that they have really unveiled a private part of themselves. So there is some kind of embarrassment, but they know that they have done something very special and that they were revealing an intimate side of themselves to me. They realize that they give me something that they don’t give to anyone else. It’s like we have given each other a very private moment.

Especially in the performance of Veruschka at the Venice Biennale last year; this momentum was very obvious and visible. The way she exposed herself was such a private thing, which was to a certain extent also very disturbing. I felt myself being nearer to her than I actually wanted to be.

It was shocking and even for me it was painful to be in that room. There was a degree of pain and awareness of exploitation that was very intense. Veruschka was very professional and nice. She is a very intelligent and sensitive woman. She did a great job as an actress playing the role of herself.

I saw her outside when she had a coffee break and she reminded me somehow of Marlene Dietrich in her late years. She seemed to be very lonesome and sad on the one hand, and on the other hand she was very relaxed and fully aware that her best times lie far behind her. It was this kind of ambiguity of being this ex-diva and at the same time knowing that there is also a wonderful life to be had after having been such huge a star.

Yes, you are completely right. She has reinvented herself as a woman who lives in Brooklyn and who is happy with her life after having lived such a decadent and public life. She was the icon of the sixties, the first supermodel ever. She was a kind of star diva and she was, in a way, the archetype of so many women that came after her.

And coincidentally, for his last show, Yves Saint Laurent dressed Claudia Schiffer in the Safari-like dress that Veruschka was wearing in the photograph that made her famous. So one of today’s reigning supermodels is walking in the shoes worn by Veruschka.

She went through all of this when nobody else knew what it would mean to be the most famous model in the world. Veruschka was famous only for her body and her face. God knows what it must have been like to be the first woman after the W.W.II to be famous worldwide, simply for her face and her body. It’s hard to imagine now, 20 years later, in a time in which there are so many supermodels, but it wasn’t always like this. She was a real pioneer, and that’s one of the things that attracted me to her—and to the other celebrities I work with.

Published in: The Needleworks of Francesco Vezzoli, Cat. Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig (Hatje Cantz Verlag), 2002.

© 2002 Jan Winkelmann