Different voices on personal paths – Fanny Charles looks at the compatible art of collage artist Marzia Colonna and ceramic sculptor Fiamma Montagu
Marzia Colonna is an outstanding and multi-talented artist with an international reputation not only as a great sculptor but as one of this country’s finest collage artists.
She has lived in Dorset for many years, latterly in Portesham and now in Lyme Regis, and exhibits regularly at Sladers Yard in West Bay and in the biennial Dorset Art Weeks. Most recently she has a joint show at Sladers Yard with her daughter, ceramic sculptor Fiamma Colonna Montagu.
Love at first sight
Many years ago The Lovers, one of Marzia’s major bronzes, attracted widespread attention with its simplicity and its powerful but almost subliminal eroticism. It is the shape of two bodies, barely fleshed out, one single bronze, no heads, no arms, no legs, just a sinuous, arched male back and a matching female torso, leaning in, joined in a curve at the bottom, but not touching above. It is powerful and it moves you almost to tears. You want to stroke it and smooth it.
Marzia’s sculptures have always had that effect – you need to touch them.
A young couple came to Marzia’s studio during Dorset Art Week and fell in love with The Lovers – but when they heard the price, they knew they couldn’t afford it. Marzia was understandably surprised when, a couple of months later, the couple returned to buy the sculpture, if one of the limited edition was still available. It was. Marzia was curious as to how they could afford it, so shortly after their previous visit. She asked if they had won the lottery. They explained that they had sold the car. Living and working in London, they didn’t need it. They wanted The Lovers.
Fast forward several years, and they returned to see her. They were now living in Switzerland, where the husband was a successful banker – and they had a car! They still owned and loved The Lovers.
Sculpting with paper
I was first aware of Marzia Colonna during the inaugural Dorset Art Week in 1992, when she telephoned to invite me to write about her exhibition in the magazine I edited. I was concerned it might be another derivative, commercial show from a pushy exhibitor.
But sculptor Marzia, with her still pronounced accent and her beautiful house in Evershot, sounded a bit different. We went with interest one early afternoon in May, walked around the house and opened the door …
Sometimes you go into an artist’s studio and you know you are going to have to be polite and make a hasty exit. Sometimes you fall in love. That’s what happened to us – beautiful, emotional sculptures in all phases of creation, little maquettes, large compelling bronzes, sketches, the general chaos of a working artist’s studio. They took our breath away, and that reaction has never changed.
We have followed Marzia’s career and the development of her work over the decades – exhibitions at Sladers Yard and the Portland Gallery in Mayfair, photographs of commissions all over the world and art week visits to her various studios. And a gradual transition from sculpture to collage.
Born in Pisa in 1951, Marzia showed her talent from early childhood. She was accepted at the age of 12 as a member of an experimental group of seven students at the city’s art school and went on to study sculpture at the prestigious Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence at the age of 17. She moved to England with her husband Robert Montagu and had her first solo exhibition in London in 1979. Since then she has exhibited regularly, locally and nationally.
She has work in many private collections, sculpture parks and galleries and her commissions include several important works in the West Country – the statue of St Aldhelm in Sherborne Abbey, marking the 1300th anniversary of the founding of the abbey, a Crucifix in Salisbury Cathedral and the stunning aerial sculpture, Kite-Flyer, above Parchment Street in Winchester.
When she first moved to Dorset, sculpture was her main work, but she has always made collages and gradually she was drawn more and more to capture the subtle light and colours of the Dorset landscape and coastline in this complex layered art form. Marzia describes collage-making as ‘sculpting with paper and painting at the same time.’ She compares the intricate medium, with its delicate painted torn and cut strips and fragments, to weaving. She says: ‘I try to replicate what I have experienced, not just visually in form and colour, but also in the impact created in my mind, the sensations experienced.’ Whatever the subject – landscape or still life – her collages are infinitely subtle, a tonal mix of layers of colour and texture that evoke the soul of her subject, in a way that words cannot explain.
A field of red
The current Sladers Yard exhibition, Many Moons, puts Marzia’s beautiful collages alongside the powerful ceramic portals and totems made by her daughter Fiamma. They are a rare combination – a parent and child who have both achieved international success as artists, without compromise, while retaining a deep and genuine respect for each other’s work. It’s not easy being the son or daughter of a famous artist – there is an expectation that the child will follow in the parent’s footsteps … but it won’t be as good. On the other hand, there is a sense of disappointment if you want to do your own thing.
Marzia and Fiamma have managed that difficult balance with elegance and skill. Each has an outstanding talent in her field, each loves and respects the other’s work, and each has a distinctive visual “voice.” Both have carried out large-scale commissions and both have work in important collections in the USA and in Europe.
Fiamma’s extraordinary talent was evident in her ceramics classes at Bryanston School, but she chose to go to Oxford University, where she read history and English literature. From 2000 to 2008 she worked as a film director and producer for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, making series based on historical biographies as well as filming fly-on-the-wall observational documentaries.
She played a major part in one of the biggest and most moving of the First World War centenary projects – Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London. This vast “field” of red poppies was created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper but they needed someone to produce the project, to make nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies. Each poppy represented a British military fatality during the war. She jokes that when she realised the scale of the undertaking – she herself had only one kiln! – her hair stood up on end. But with help from the various ceramic factories she contacted, the required 888,246 ceramic poppies were made and began to fill the Tower moat. Some of the factories had full order books running two or more years into the future, but Fiamma’s powers of persuasion are clearly as great as her artistic talent!
When the installation period came to an end, Fiamma became the creator of the Poppy Tour – with support from the Arts Council, and the Duffield and Sainsbury Foundations, sculptural aspects of the field of poppies travelled to 16 sites around the UK, finishing at the Imperial War Museum.
A world more magical
Describing her work, including her totems and portals, she says: ‘Sculptures transform outside areas, which otherwise can look dull and uninteresting, into dynamic stage settings. I want to create timeless entrances. Mainly, I want to make the viewer feel more engaged, make the world feel less literal and more magical. The right combination of colour, scale and shape transforms the garden, atrium, entrance or courtyard into a stage set in which the viewer can walk “as if in a dream”.’
Sladers Yard gallery owner Anna Powell describes Many Moons as ‘a celebration of the years, of finding their personal paths, putting forward voices and ideas that are different but intriguingly compatible, with the pleasure of seeing each other’s work develop and often live side by side.’
The exhibition continues until 11th November.