04 January

“Women artists face criticism that no one would dare direct at a man” Interview with Maria Grazia Chiuri

 

Hailing from Rome, Dior's creative director has always dialogued with her country's artists. She shares her passion for both italian and international art.

By Gea Politi, Portrait Harry Gruyaert

Maria Grazia Chiuri

Numéro art: You greatly admire several Italian artists.

Maria Grazia Chiuri: I hold Carol Rama, Carla Accardi and Marisa Merz in very high esteem. I’m far from being a specialist, but I’m easily moved by art. I’m confident that one day these artists will gain wider recognition than they have now. Unfortunately, in Italy we tend not to promote our local talents. We’re so focused on elsewhere… For example, I think Italian Pop Art was overly eclipsed by American Pop Art. While Leo Castelli was showing the best artists in New York, we sorely lacked the equivalent in Rome. But I’m convinced that time will bring their dues to these important figures.

 

How do you explain this tendency in Italy?

In general we’re incapable of promoting our talents on the international stage – not only art, but also Italian cuisine, design, etc. Perhaps our inability to get organized is both our strength and limitation. We’re a nation of individualists, which pushes us to be creative and innovative, but doesn’t encourage us to unite behind our artists and chefs… I see the same thing happening in Italian fashion. And yet what makes Rome beautiful is that art is everywhere. At Valentino, we had an unforgettable experience organizing Mirabilia Romae; it gave us the opportunity to discover a hidden Rome. At one point we had the chance to visit Luigi Ontani’s studio. Ontani is an artist whose universe is pretty close to fashion. Just look at his costumes, ceramics, and paintings, even his personality. He has an exceptional ability to encapsulate the Zeitgeist. 

 

As a native of Rome, how do you view the city’s artistic effervescence in the 60s and 70s? I’m thinking of figures like Franco Angeli, Tano Festa, Mario Schifano and Giosetta Fioroni.

I adore them. I had the chance to work with Giosetta Fioroni at Valentino. She’s incredible, an emblematic figure of Italian art who always fought prejudice against women artists. She also belonged to the Piazza del Popolo School, which is why I feel close to her and her story, since it’s inseparable from my city’s story. I was impressed by her open-mindedness: she was curious about my ideas and wanted to understand the creative processes in fashion. Visiting her studio in Trastevere was a great discovery. I would also have liked to collaborate with Carol Rama, but unfortunately I was too late [Rama passed away in 2015]. There’s Alberto Burri too. I remember, during his centenary retrospective, I excitedly asked, “How much would it cost to restore the Cretto di Burri?” Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I’d like to do something, it’s a monument to a catastrophe after all [the 1968 earthquake that destroyed Gibellina]. Italy’s most famous piece of land art is in a state of total abandon.

 

 

“I like collaborating with contemporary artists. They deal with subjects, in one way or another, affect us directly as women.”

Untitled (1979), by Marisa Merz. Nylon fiber, iron and stone, 15 x 290 x 290 cm.

Do you frequent the new generation of artists?

Yes. I discovered Pietro Ruffo in Rome when he exhibited an old aeroplane, and I fell under his spell. By chance, I had dinner with a collector who owns one of his globes. I asked for Ruffo’s phone number and went to meet him in his studio. I like his work a lot.

 

To the point of collaborating with him?

Yes, of course. In the archives, I discovered a book in which Christian Dior talks about the year 1957 – a decade after opening his fashion house – and his meteoric business success on an international level. He opened boutiques in London, New York, Havana… It’s astonishing to see the speed with which the brand was exported and globalized. His quest to make his label international and to break down frontiers fascinates me. When I went to see Ruffo, he was working on a project that used projections on globes and reflected on the fact that the earth has always known massive migration, and therefore a certain mixing of peoples. The path that led me where I am today was also like a migration, and considering this new possibility, I looked at Pietro and said, “We were made to get along famously!”

 

 

“Talking about fashion comes down to talking about women, in relation to their bodies, but also to society.”

 

 

I know you are very interested in Georgia O’Keeffe. Is she a source of inspiration for you?

While working on my last Dior collection, I did indeed find many sources of inspiration in the Georgia O’Keeffe show in New York [Living Modern, Brooklyn Museum, 2017]. It was particularly interesting because it didn’t focus so much on the work as on the shamanic artist herself.

 

Are you referring to the many portraits of her by Alfred Stieglitz, her husband, which are almost a parallel oeuvre to her painting?

These photos attest to Stieglitz’s fascination with his wife’s personality. They’re incredible. I wish I had a husband who photographed me like that! There’s a rare form of love, passion, and devotion in those photos.

 

Why is fashion so interested in artists these days?

Talking about fashion comes down to talking about women, in relation to their bodies, but also to society. That’s why I like collaborating so much with contemporary artists. They deal with subjects that, in one way or another, affect us directly as women.

 

 

“I have a certain responsibility in my role as the first woman to head Dior. I had to be completely prepared to broach subjects outside the limits of pure fashion but that are fundamental on a social level...”

Trasparente (1975), by Carla Accardi. Sicofoil on wood, 72 x 72 cm.

Especially in her early career, Tracey Emin focused in a very conceptual way on the relationship between bodies and sexuality.

Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. Tracey and I had a long discussion when we first met in her studio. The first point she brought up regarding fashion was the size problem, the fact that a “normal” woman often feels uncomfortable. I have a certain responsibility in my role as the first woman to head Dior. I had to be completely prepared to broach subjects outside the limits of pure fashion but that are fundamental on a social level, all the while maintaining a playful rapport with it. We often forget that fashion has to be both be audacious and fun. 

 

“The higher you go, the fewer women there are in leading positions” is a quote from a 2014 speech given by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, who you know I believe. Is this statement is still true?

Chimamanda’s speech was very pertinent, delivered in a facetious, biting tone. I remember laughing so much during an interview with her in Los Angeles. We talked about her ability to dive into very serious concepts with humour. Perhaps it’s the solution to changing the way people think: taking a light-hearted approach, inverting viewpoints and fighting this image of feminist “furies.” I don’t like being thought of as angry when we’re simply concerned. I’m concerned for my children’s future and for future generations. That a woman who says what she thinks must be a strong woman is a very widespread stereotype. I think I’m pretty vulnerable, but I try to say what I think, even if it’s not easy. The sole fact of trying is perceived as a demonstration of strength. The women artists we’ve talked about, who weren’t afraid of exposing themselves, fascinate me. They faced criticism that no one would dare direct at a man. Works by these women, such as Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, were real punches to the gut.

Nerro Cretto (1970), d'Alberto Burri. Acrovinyl sur Celotex, 70 x 103 cm.

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