The most powerful pieces of art are the ones that offer the potential for multiple readings.

In the work of the French artist Annette Messager (born 1943) ambiguity itself becomes an art form.

The winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale on 2005 and the subject of an exhibition at Moma in 1995, Messager is the first to be invited to a season at Villa Medicis curated by Chiara Parisi which is dedicated exclusively to female artists.

Following her, the acclaimed venue, also known as the French Academy in Rome, will play host to an exhibition-dialogue between Elizabeth Peyton and Camille Claudel.

Until 23 April, Annette Messager is exhibiting approximately twenty works, both large and small, which engage with themes such as freedom, childhood and femininity in this beguilingly beautiful palace.

The first thing Annette Messager did was to observe.

She noticed how when you enter this sublime Renaissance building you have to bend over slightly as you pass through the small door at the entrance.

She saw the soldiers with their tommy guns guarding the building.

She noticed the rectilinear design of the French formal garden

In response, she organised an array of ‘small disruptions’ which lend her subtle nature to the exhibition.

She cultivates lightness. She sets it free from the pomp of History.

For example, in the sloping gallery she has installed a sort of carnival of animals that you imagine to be a collection of trophies from bizarre hunts or a road of glory where a tribe of strange taxidermy birds hang from the ceiling for thirty metres. They all have the heads of teddy bears.

Annette Messager limits her comments to the following: ‘It doesn’t scare children. They like teddy bears which are mice or bears. Adults are scared of everything, starting with what doesn’t look like them.’ She explains the principle behind the exhibition: 

Several installations feature colour pencils sharpened to a point, used to pierce the fingers of small gloves. It evokes the joy of drawing among toddlers but also the cruelty of childhoodAnnette Messager is a fervent feminist and has mixed feelings about Balthus, the famous painter who directed the foundation from 1961 to 1977 and who, in her opinion, takes up too much space at the Villa.

She has created a wallpaper which from afar looks like pretty bouquets of flowers but which on closer inspection consists of drawings of uteruses, in allusion to his female conquests. The title of the piece? ‘Balthuterus’.

In Rome, Annette Messager doesn’t allow herself to be crushed by the weight of the Medicis. She manages to be gracefully mischievous in this exceptional space which has witnessed the passage of such hallowed gentlemen as Nicolas PoussinEugène Delacroix and Balthu- terus.

Until 23 April.

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