The art world, like the rest of us for that matter, likes pigeonholing artists into one category or another. Fortunately there are artists who manage to escape all categorisation. A case in point is Francesco Vezzoli, the Italian artist recognised by international institutions (from MoMa in New York to Doha museum in Qatar) yet who still continues to inspire a certain degree of head-scratching. His latest project, which opens at Villa Sauber in Monaco (a miraculously well preserved formerly private house that is part of the principality’s New National Museum (NMNM), right opposite the Grimaldi Forum) is not going to change this situation any time soon. But it’s for the best.

Art is not some marketing product, contrary to what the market’s arbiters of recognition and those with no interest in contemporary art would have us believe.

Francesco Vezzoli is a strange mix of purely conceptual works and glamour. One shouldn’t read his creations at face level. Yes, he draws from the world of celebrity, loves contemporary myths, famous actors, Hollywood stereotypes and Lady Gaga, but he goes much further. At Villa Sauber, over both floors, he invents the story of a house filled with homages to Marlene Dietrich.
It’s as if Francis Bacon, René Magritte, Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico and Tamara de Lempicka had painted homages to Lili Marlene.

He explains his fascination for the german actress

His project called Villa Marlene was inspired by a 1988 documentary by Maximilian Schell about the German star’s life. In it, you can hear Dietrich’s voice but you can’t see her. By then, she was already advanced in years. In place of the actress, the director made the curious decision to feature another ageing female artist, Anni Albers, wife of the painter Joseph Albers. This confusion of characters proved fascinating to Vezzoli who switches back and forth between pure fiction, references to the documentary and references to reality.

In the artist’s own words:

In the film The Song of Songs for example, Marlene Dietrich appears next to a lifelike statue of a naked woman. Vezzoli explains how the sculpture was made by the father of the Arte Povera activist, Salvatore Scarpitta, himself an artist.
Francesco Vezzoli has faithfully reproduced this work for the exhibition.

All the paintings on display at Villa Sauber were painted in Russia by professional copyists. Without a doubt the most successful is the Francis Bacon in which Vezzoli replaces the Irishman’s obsession for his lover with a stylised triptych of the German actress. In the imaginary de Chirico homage to Marlene, she is symbolised as a giant cigarette placed against a wall.
For the viewer, this artistic trip is fascinating.
The final room, showing a projection of a film by Vezzoli, offers the keys to the show.

Made in 2006, Marlene Redux: A True Hollywood Story! is a fictional episode  from the E! television series narrating Vezzoli’s pursuit of Marlene. The work, which is in the collection of French businessman Francois Pinault, is in fact a portrait of a Vezzoli who dreamed of being famous.

Nowadays Vezzoli is interested first and foremost in the past, and revisits the legacy in his own fashion, conceptually. If he viewed Song of Songs as a film in the Biblical genre, he is no doubt also familiar with the lines from Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities…’ His show is a contemporary vanitas about a fallen star who end up ravaged by old age and alone.   

Until 11 September.

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