Monday, August 9, 2010

Annigoni Paints Sonja Bata, and Vice Versa, part II

Sonja Bata in her study showing her Annigoni portrait over the fireplace in her study, City and Country Home Magazine, May 1989 Portrait of Sonja Bata, Pietro Annigoni, oil on board, 1963 , image courtesy of Sonja Bata

As I interviewed Mrs. Bata, our discussion drifted from the fascinating portrait to Annigoni's work in general, architecture, and the Bata Museum, which celebrated it's 15th anniversary this year. Her knowledge in many fields is comprehensive, and her opinions demonstrate wisdom, intelligence, and experience.

S.w.F.- I write about and discuss fashion in my blog. The red coat you wear in the portrait is beautiful. Who were some of the designers you wore during the period?

S.B.-I did at that time buy quite a few designers and I went to Paris quite frequently. It wasn’t Chanel, but one of those designers.

S.w.F.- I wondered if it could be Balenciaga.

S.B.- I had a beautiful piece by Balenciaga, but the red coat in the painting was not Balenciaga.

S.w.F.- The simple red coat you wore is an excellent choice for this portrait. It is so pure and rigorous that it defies obvious associations. It does not speak of status, era, function, or current fashion, and therefore does not distract the viewer from the image of the subject. The rich red attracts, but it is muted, almost antique, so that it doesn't overwhelm. It is a monastically simple coat, like many of the severe and simple garments of Balenciaga, Givenchy, Hardie Amies, or Oleg Cassini. It is perfect as it is so appropriate and compatible with the style of portrait, yet is a pure, architectural garment such as was fashionable in the early 1960s and is just as elegant today. I’m wondering if you can tell us anything about it or the designer.

S.B.-I cannot remember who the designer was, but it was one of the top designers. I remember I didn’t know what to wear to have my portrait painted, so I wore a very simple dress and I wore that coat over it, and when I arrived there he said, “Don’t take the coat off. I’m going to paint you the way you are.” I think he liked colour. So there was never any question about it. So he painted me in the coat and gloves, the way I wore them to the door. The starkness of it, again, as I mentioned...we had two slightly different approaches to Art. He was totally immersed in the Renaissance and everything that happened in the late 19th century and the 20th century was strange to him. He couldn’t comprehend it. Among modern painters there are classical modern painters. He tried to convince me of the Renaissance and what was involved in the Renaissance, and so we had these discussions. They went on for years, and after the portrait was finished we visited in Florence, and then he came to Canada, so we still saw each other from time to time.

Self Portrait by Pietro Annigoni, 1946

S.w.F.- Do you recall, approximately, the year Annigoni came to Canada?

S.B.-I would have to look it up. He painted my portrait in ’63, then it must have been ’67, '68, or '69? It was several years later that he came. He was an extraordinary man. He also knew how to live. He had so many girlfriends that it was outrageous. He loved women and he loved to drink, but in a nice way, you know, in a very nice way. Somehow he spoke about it rather frankly, and he was quite funny.

S.w.F.- It is well known that he was a womanizer and hard living. Did you see any evidence of a wild or reckless side to his nature or character?

S.B.- Oh, there was quite a bit going on in London. And one thing, he had a girlfriend that he was extremely fond of, and she posed for him as a Madonna which he painted for one of the British churches, and she really was not a Madonna! I remember he took me to show me this finished painting and I just couldn’t get over it. "You know who she is. She is a very beautiful woman, but here she is a Madonna!" It was very strange, she shouldn’t be painted like that (lots of laughter). We had fun; we laughed about it.

S.w.F.- Do you think Annigoni felt compelled to idealize women in his art in a way that he did not in portraits of men, as in the portrait of JFK, with a droopy eye, and in images of some male saints?

Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Time Magazine cover January 5, 1962

S.B.- The drawing of Bernard Berenson is a very good one. I have wonderful drawings he did of elderly men which were stunning. I think he was attracted by women, he enjoyed working with women and he brought out the best in them. He wasn’t interested in painting children.

S.w.F.- I understand that Annigoni bicycled to his studio each day. Does this appeal to your interests in ecology, sustainability, urban issues, or perhaps a certain admiration for a European lifestyle that is less dependent on the car?

S.B.- Well, I don’t know enough about it. I remember in Florence he walked to his studio. You know these are very old, narrow streets, cobblestone, and I don’t believe bicycles were there, so I think he walked quite a bit. He enjoyed walking. He loved to be in the countryside. He liked to be outside.

S.w.F.-I have a question about the room situation and the frame that the portrait is in. In the photo in City and Country Home Magazine, it is over a neoclassical mantelpiece, and it seems to be more of a traditional room. Is that the way it is now?

S.B.- Yes it is. It is in a study which is paneled with wood, and it hangs over a fireplace.

S.w.F.-So you would say it’s in more of a traditional setting.

S.B.- Yes it is.

S.w.F.- I am curious about the frame which sets the work off so beautifully. The frame seems to be a substantial, plain gilt molding, which is classic and traditional, but as simple as possible. It is classic enough to be 18th century, Renaissance, European, or English.

S.B.- Annigoni picked the frame in Florence. It came with the frame. I could have no influence on the frame whatsoever!

S.w.F.- Well, I think it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect.

S.B.- He chose the right frame, and that was it.

S.w.F.- Has the painting required anything in terms of conservation?

S.B- No, I think I really should get it cleaned because the fireplace underneath is used from time to time and so probably it should just be cleaned with distilled water, no special cleaning.

S.w.F.- If an important museum such as the National Portrait Gallery had an Annigoni retrospective, would you consider loaning your painting, if it was requested?

S.B.- I think if it is an important museum, yes. Yes because I think the painting is one of his better works. It’s funny. The things he liked himself are not necessarily the most popular ones.

S.w.F.- You’ve already touched on this, but what is your opinion of the Princess Margaret portrait.

S.B.- No!

Portrait of Princess Margaret, oil on canvas, early 1960s; note the highly Renaissance style and details, and religious feeling with an illuminated cloud behind the head suggesting an aura or halo

S.w.F.- I wonder if she found it embarrassing.

S.B.- I don’t know but he did a portrait of the Queen later on when she got some doctorate or something, she has one of those funny hats on.

S.w.F.- I suppose you would have been uncomfortable if he would have painted you in such a sweet, kind of sentimental way.

S.B.- Ah, I don’t think he wanted to, and I would have walked away...(laughter).

S.w.F.- Have you ever considered having the image on a postcard for the Bata Museum shop?

S.B.- No. No, because it’s rather private. It’s funny, but very few people know about the portrait, few people come to my house, so not too many people know about it.

S.w.F.- I read of a firm David Bird, whose English firm, Family Copies, specializes in copies of fine, valuable paintings, and that many Annigoni portraits hanging in homes are reproductions while the originals are in vaults. Have you considered having a copy made for the museum, or for other family members to enjoy, or for safety?

S.B.- I know where another image of the face is. About 3 or 4 years after he painted me, he got a commission by a family in New York, Stillman is their name, for huge painted wall frescoes, and I am one of the figures in this work. He introduced me to the family because he told them he was using my head. It’s one of 6 or 7 figures in a landscape. The family, as a hobby, was involved with horses and they came to a horse show in Toronto, and we met at that time.

(Note to reader: Chauncey Stillman was an American philanthropist, connoisseur, and architect. Annigoni spent a year painting frescoes in the ballroom of his neo Georgian residence, the 1,200-acre estate, Wethersfield)

S.w.F.- You talked a bit about the womanizing aspect Annigoni, but he also did so much religious work. Did you sense anything spiritual or religious in his character or behaviour?

The Glory of St. Benedict, 1980-1985, Abbey of Montecassino, Italy, fresco; this genrous work is 40 m²

S.B.- Ah, that’s a funny question because he enjoyed working in churches and he enjoyed painting saints. You had a feeling that in painting saints that he felt he was painting somebody really special. He certainly wasn’t a church going individual as far as I know. He had a tremendous respect for things which were religious.

S.w.F.- You said that you discussed your great interest in architecture with Annigoni. I believe you love modern architecture and innovation, such as the Moriyama design for the Bata Shoe Museum and the architecture of your home in Batawa. I would imagine that if Annigoni loved classical portraiture, he also admired classical architecture derived from the Renaissance and from and antiquity. Do you think that you shared common ground with regard to architecture?

S.B.- Well I think the ground we shared was that architecture is good if it’s not trendy, with other words, if it is good it stays good. I believe with modern architecture as with the work Moriyama did for me, the Bata Museum was opened in ’95, and I still think the proportions are right, it fits in the street scape. So as long as it fits into the environment, it becomes part of the environment. Modern architecture can be very beautiful.

S.w.F.- He agreed with you on that?

S.B.-We agreed.

S.w.F.- It is exactly 15 years that the Bata Museum has been opened. Have you been satisfied with the endeavor?

S.B.- I’m very happy about the building. Moriyama was given an award for the building, and he said it is his favourite museum and his favourite building.

The Bata Shoe Museum at Bloor and St. George St. in downtown Toronto, designed by Raymond Moriyama, opened in 1995

S.w.F.- You grew up and were educated in Europe, specifically Switzerland, with a central location that gives one excellent exposure to the art, history, and design of northern and southern Europe. How important is it to spend one's formative years surrounded by great and important art, architecture, and design?

S.B.- You know, as I get older, I find it is terribly important. Because even on my way to school I passed all these ancient cathedrals. You see good architecture, so you are educated with that, and you learn how to look at things.

S.w.F.- And you just subconsciously absorb the proportions, right?

S.B.- Yes you do, and you see other things, and it reminds you of what you remember. So I think it means a great deal to be surrounded by these things.

S.w.F.- In that sense do you think that this is possible in America in the way it is in Europe?

S.B.- Well, I think we have to improve our man made environment a little bit. We do so many things just to shock or be different, and it is horrible.

S.w.F.- How do you feel about the new Royal Ontario Museum Crystal?

(note to reader: The Crystal is an irregular, aluminum and glass, deconstructivist addition designed by Daniel Libeskind. The multi story, 175,000 square-foot structure was completed in 2007, and is integrated with the original 1930s neo-Byzantine stone structure.)

S.B.- Well you know, it is interesting, I think that they wanted to do something special for Toronto, and they wanted an architect to design some sort of a monument like Bilbao, but they never spoke to the curators about it. Having the input of the people, it is very important that the people who work there have some input. He devised an extraordinary design, but it doesn’t work out.

S.w.F.- Do you feel your affinity for modernism in architecture is related to leaving the sadness and destruction of the war in Europe, and the desire for things that were fresh, new, clean, and optimistic?

S.B.- I like minimal and clean things, and functional things, and I like things which are not decorated just for decoration’s sake. So even the decoration comes automatically by having a very beautiful line. So it’s just my taste. I’m not a fan of the Victorian period.

S.w.F.- Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your portrait, Annigoni, and your aesthetics. I have been fascinated and delighted.

S.B.-You observed the portrait very closely and you did a study on it. That’s very intriguing.

S.w.F.- Ever since I’ve seen it, it was in my subconscious. For two decades, it absolutely was, and it still is. Thank you so much.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


  1. Wonderful interview. She sounds like a fascinating woman... and I love the long black leather gloves!

  2. Could the artist have captured a hidden
    characteristic of JFK, hidden to the rest
    of us, as claimed by great photographers
    i.e. Karsh? The familiarity with which you speak of earlier fashion designers
    and of architecture in intriguing. A reminiscence delightfully captured,
    Mr.Square with Flair!

  3. Paris Breakfasts,
    Thank you for stopping by. Your new post on the watercolours of Hubert de Givenchy's residence is outstanding. I'm so glad you shared with us this wonderful treasure and how you obtained it. I enjoy reading your blog.

    How nice of you to visit. It was a most fascinating interview, and the long gloves do give elegance and distinction, don't they? I loved your recent posts on toiles de Jouy. Please come by again.

    Dearest Louise,
    You are such a faithful reader. A loyal friend like you is a treasure.
    You do have a point, that Annigoni captured an aspect of Kennedy that in the process of idealizing the first family, most of us, and the media, chose not to see. Thank you so much for your excellent observations.