A former actress and socialite turned artist and designer, Ira von Fürstenberg creates marvellous objects of desire. Working with fine craftsmen and exotic materials, the Italian-born princess draws upon the inspiration of her continuous travels around the world to capture the essence of her encounters for eternity in stone. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently sat down with the princess during her exhibition Objets Uniques (Unique Objects) in the Imperial Apartments of the Royal Palace at the Museo Correr in Venice to discuss her style of creating traditional works of art in a slightly postmodern way.
Did you grow up in a creative household?
Yes, my father’s family was Austro-Hungarian, my grandmother was Hungarian from a big family called Festetics de Tolna and they had the most wonderful castles and beautiful houses in Budapest—that’s my grandmother’s side. My father’s father was an ambassador to Franz-Josef. He was all over the place, from Russia to Brussels. My father was a really happy-go-lucky guy, but he loved beautiful things. Then he married a very important lady in America who had one of the best collections, Titi Blaffer. She was his second wife. And my mother was an Agnelli and they were artistically inclined. My uncle Umberto—not Gianni—gave me the idea of porphyry. He had beautiful pieces in porphyry, which I loved. They are very rare, so to make a long story short I decided to get some and then began to make these kinds of objects.
Were you an artistic child?
No, I was a happy-go-lucky child.
Did you visit museums and galleries when you were growing up?
Yes, I did—not so much, but I did.
Did your parents have artist friends?
I would say they didn’t—in those days, no. People were not so much in artistic worlds. They were in different worlds.
Do you recall the first artworks or artists that inspired you?
Marino Marini. He was great. I met him, but he’s not that famous. No one talks about him.
He’s experiencing a bit of a revival.
Now he is, and it’s much deserved.
Was acting your first creative field?
How did you get involved in film?
This big producer, Dino De Laurentiis, asked me if I wanted to make movies and I said yes. That’s how I got involved. He got me doing a few movies, like Matchless and La battaglia di El Alamein, and then suddenly I had been making movies for 20 years.
How old were you when you started?
I was 26 or 27.
So you were already an adult.
Yes, I already had two children and two husbands.
What was the most rewarding film that you made, for you as an actress?
It was probably one of the later films that I made, where I played a journalist, called Processo per direttissima. It was about a left-wing militant who died in police custody. It was a very intellectual film. It was not very successful at the box office, but I liked it.
Who was your favourite film director to work with?
Mauro Bolognini, who directed me in the 1966 film Capriccio all’italiana. He was the one that helped me the most. He directed several movies that were written by Pasolini in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Have you had other careers beside acting and art?
I did a bit of public relations work and was president of Valentino’s perfumes for two or three years. After that I had an antique shop in London with my boyfriend at the time. We sold Russian furniture. It gave me some experience working with art and design.
Have you met a lot of creative people along the way in life?
Yes, because I was with a gentleman who was involved with Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Through him I met Max Ernst, César, Karel Appel—all of the artists of those days. I have some Cobra works by Appel and Asger Jorn.
Do you collect?
Yes, I do. I have some things.
Do you have any favourite artists?
For me? David Hockney. I love his work. He’s very colourful. He’s my favourite.
Did anyone teach you a valuable lesson that inspired your work?
No, it just happened.
Now did you start designing objects?
I started by making presents for friends, and it just evolved. In the beginning there were boxes and frames and paper pieces, but I always liked rock crystal so I started making more elaborate works. Now I’m using porphyry, which the Greeks and Romans used, but next it might be alabaster.
What inspires the subjects—the vanitas, the animals, the vessels?
The subjects are things I buy while traveling. I buy little wooden sculptures of animals and then copy and embellish them in more precious materials. Vanitas have become very fashionable, so I have them created. They are very much in vogue nowadays.
Are there certain histories that you are mining, maybe ones that relate to growing up in Italy?
The churches of Rome are very inspiring, but my interest is mostly in the crystal and porphyry. I thought it would be nice to create a collection with these materials. Not many artists use porphyry anymore. Do you see it around?
No, it’s wonderful that you have brought it back. I love what you do with it. It’s quite unique. Since you were born in Rome, do you see relationships to your work and Italian art history?
Yes, but not history as much as Italian craftsmanship, which is very good.
Do you work with mythologies?
No, not much.
What about your Germanic roots? Is there any relationship between your work and that side of your heritage?
No, I don’t think so. It’s more influenced by my Italian side.
Are you a spiritual person?
No, I’m not very spiritual. I’m practical.
Are you dealing with any specific symbolism in your work?
No, I like aesthetics. I’m more of an aesthetic person. I’m not trying to make something mythical.
Do you have preferred materials?
I like the porphyry and crystal, but I used to work a lot with malachite and lapis. I’ve worked with alabaster, and have been thinking about it more lately. I also work with bronze and gold, particularly in the detailing of the pieces.
Do you work with artisans to craft your objects?
Of course, I work with people who know how to do it. I come up with the ideas and they craft it. I say do this, change that—a typical process for making sculptural objects.
Are all of your works unique?
Yes, but there are some that I redo with slight changes.
You revisit motifs or certain subjects?
I redo some things, but it’s not so easy.
Where do you normally exhibit your work?
Before Venice, there was an exhibition was in Gstaad. We had a show in Greece, and now there’s a museum in Greece that’s considering an exhibition. I’ve had exhibitions in Monte Carlo, Paris and lots of other places.
Who is your collector?
I have all sorts of collectors, but I think this year was my best because Mr. Picasso bought my work.
Yes, Bernard. He said, ‘I love what you do,’ and bought three pieces. It’s good to have a Picasso collecting your work.
Sure, it’s the reverse of the usual. You don’t have to buy a Picasso. A Picasso bought you.
I would love to have a Picasso!
What role does travel play in the creation of your work?
I travel because I like it. It’s always fun to see things. I was just in China to see an exhibition of jewellery from a Shaikh’s collection. Traveling is always interesting.
What’s your relationship to Venice, where your exhibition is taking place?
I was a young girl in Venice. My mother had a palace here. I used to live here and was married in Venice. I know the city quite well. It’s always been in my life.
What do you hope the takeaway will be for the visitor seeing your work?
I hope that they will see something different—that they won’t see the usual thing they see everywhere else. That’s my dream.
How did you meet your exhibition curator, Pier Luigi Pizzi?
We met many years ago when I was an actress. I made a movie in his house. He’s a celebrated stage and film director.
What does he bring to the exhibition and the display of your objects?
Everything. He puts them on the map. He puts them on a pedestal and brings them into the light.
When you look at an exhibition, where you’ve created the objects and Pier Luigi has created the ambiance, what does it do for you?
It gives me a great sense of satisfaction. What more can I say?
Photo: Ira von Fürstenberg © Luc Castel