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Annette Messager kicks off Villa Medici’s cycle of exhibitions dedicated to top female artists

by Marinella Venanzi

Annette Messager at Villa Medici in Rome is the first in a cycle of exhibitions the French Academy has chosen to dedicate to great women in the history of art. The program, drawn up by Académie de France director Muriel Mayette-Holtz and curated by Chiara Parisi, will see the likes of Elizabeth Peyton and Camille Claudel – Rodin’s troubled pupil and lover – alternating with Tatiana Trouvé and Yoko Ono.

This is Messager’s first solo exhibition, if one doesn’t count the Golden Lion Award she won in 2005 when she represented France at the Venice Biennale.

Married to another great contemporary artist, Christian Boltanski, Messager is one of those people whose art and life are inextricably linked, whose personal history and oeuvre are indistinguishable. For Villa Medici , she has designed an all-encompassing, site-specific exhibition that blends in with the available space and even takes its cues from the latter, creating new and evocative work.

Her art, like that of other female artists of her generation – Carol Rama, Louise Bourgeois, in part also Rebecca Horn or Nancy Spero – derives, like birth, from a rite of passage. The force of matter transpires, the work’s aching rapport with the world: taut threads, dummies covered in papier-mâché, mutilated and disjointed stuffed animals with conspicuous stitching, heaps of pillows patterned like the fabric worn by concentration camp deportees, acrylic baby jumpsuits that seem to point to lifeless bodies, forms without contents or, conversely, materials that take on incongruous shapes, like stuffed birds with teddy bear faces.

Death, absence, the passage of time and memory are undoubtedly themes she has pursued out of common interests with her husband; her own vision as a woman, though, is more intimate and fragmented; a non-linear narrative that can afford the luxury of mixing a variety of references, like theater and fiction; of decorating, telling a story, making poetry.

That’s how Giambologna’s Mercury, under the loggia, plays with a woman’s wig swaying in the wind – a scalp? – and a short distance away, the fountain spurts not only water but countless intertwined snakes – a reference to the murder of Messalina, who was strangled on this spot?

The show’s title, “Messenger,” is a play on words connecting the artist’s name with a message that is anything but evident: it's up to the visitor to seek this out, according to the chosen itinerary.

The final work on show is dedicated to the legendary Balthus, whom Messager met during a sojourn at Villa Medici in the 1960s: a watercolor wallpaper in playful hues hanging in the room he liked to use as his studio, Atelier del Bosco. The wallpaper reproduces what the artist calls blossoming wombs – blooms, true enough, yet threatening ones that bear the marks of suffering and conceal skulls and signs that symbolize and encapsulate the life of every woman.

(Annette Messager, Messenger, Rome, Villa Medici-The French Academy, until April 23rd)