This year is the centenary of the painter Pietro Annigoni's birth (June 7, 1910-October 28, 1988). Annigoni is important for his distinctive style which was representational, realistic, and often in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance. His work contrasted with the modernist and post-modernist styles of the second half of the 20th century.
In May of this year I was honoured to interview Sonja Bata regarding her portrait, painted by Pietro Annigoni in 1963. Since the late 1940s, Sonja Bata has been directly involved in the Bata shoe business throughout the world. She has worked in many philanthropic, cultural, environmental, and educational activities and causes. Mrs. Bata has received numerous honours and awards throughout her distinguished life.
Mrs. Bata describes the highly specialized techniques of Annigoni, the character of this complex man, and the exquisite jewel of a painting that is the enduring legacy of a fascinating meeting of two highly cultured, dynamic people. I am not aware of any previous interviews with Mrs. Bata regarding this portrait, and she was very enthusiastic and willing to share her thoughts and memories of the commission and the process of how the portrait developed. As she spoke of the portrait, her animated words sparkled with joy. Her compelling description of her dear and esteemed friend, Pietro Annigoni, is a portrait of him painted in words and memories.
Mrs. Bata graciously answered many questions and supplied interesting anecdotes along the way. This interview has been divided into two parts.
S.B.- I am intrigued that you are investigating the portrait.
S.w.F.- It is a sort of personal subject, so I hope it isn’t uncomfortable to talk about something as private as a portrait. I first saw the portrait in the May 1989 issue of City and Country Home. I don’t know if you recall that feature.
S.B.- I remember that it was in some magazine. It’s a good portrait, and I very much like it, not because it’s me.
S.w.F.- What drew you to commission the portrait from Annigoni?
S.B.- Oh, it was really my husband who wanted to have the painting done. I was extremely hesitant. Annigoni had painted some friends of mine, and did a really superb job, and earlier than that he painted a portrait of the Queen which is very famous. It was on postage stamps and it’s all over the place. For me it is a little bit too sweet, and in fact he didn’t like it himself. He said, "It looks like the cover of a chocolate box.” So it’s not one of his favourite ones, and I shared his opinion. But this is really how I met him, and we met socially in London, and then it was my husband who asked him if he would be interested. He was interested, and then he started painting me in London. He had a studio in England, and Pietro was a really fantastic individual in the way he behaved, and a very interesting individual to talk to, very into Art, highly educated, and then after he painted me, for many years we corresponded. He wrote to me in French, although he spoke English fluently, but he preferred French.
So he started the painting in London, with layers and layers of lacquer and paint, lacquer and paint. It takes a long time to build up and it’s really a fantastic way of painting, and then one day he said, "I really would prefer that it would be a larger portrait." I wore a red coat, and that time he was going to leave. So he said, " Take off your coat and gloves, and I can get someone to stand in for you and I will finish your portrait in Italy." Many of his portraits at that time have an almost Tuscan background. And I told him, “You know the Tuscan background? That’s not for me." I told him that as a young girl I wanted to be an architect, I studied Architecture, and I also like some modern art, not the school of modern art, but I do like some of the modern art. And Annigoni and I, we always had a tremendous argument about it, and he thought a lot of it was junk. Sometimes I took him to the Tate Gallery and he took me to other museums and we would discuss what Art was all about. But you know that in front of my portrait there is a plain straightforward railing, which is a little bit of a hint of what he thought about my modern art (aesthetic). You see that there is a very plain iron railing in the foreground of the painting. This is a suggestion of my interest in Architecture and the simplicity and minimalism I like.
detail of the dreamy, Tuscan landscape from the Annigoni portrait of Queen Elizabeth II
S.w.F.- When you were growing up in Zürich with your parents’ fine art collection, did this prepare you or give you an appreciation for this type of art?
S.B.-Very much so. My mother was on the board of the local Art Gallery in Zürich, and had quite a collection of Impressionist paintings, so we had beautiful art at home and a really valuable art collection, so I was surround by Art, and loved Art very much.
S.w.F.- Bernard Berenson (1865 – October 6, 1959, American Art historian and expert on the Renaissance) said, "Annigoni will remain in the history of art as the dissenter in a dark age for painting." It seems you disagree with this?
S.B.- It is funny you should mention that. He always showed that drawing which he did of Berenson, and he kept on repeating what Berenson had told him, that he was such a talented artist. I would say that Berenson’s remark carried Annigoni through some very difficult periods. This man really saw in his drawings this capability. It is funny that you mention that. To him it was probably the most important remark that anybody made at any time, and it influenced him greatly.
S.w.F.- What were your initial impressions of the portrait and how did friends and family receive it?
S.B.-I think they received it well. People liked the portrait. It also has that wonderful magic of a Renaissance portrait that the eyes follow you wherever you are in the room. It doesn’t matter where, the eyes look at you. It is magic. It is a Renaissance technique that he incorporated in my portrait.
S.w.F.- What was your husband’s reaction?
S.B.- He liked it, he liked it very much. And Annigoni came to Toronto, and when he was here he painted a portrait of my husband. Frankly, I don’t like it very much, his eyes are very good, but there is something wrong with the nose. He asked Annigoni to have a studio next to his office and he would come in from 3:30 to 3:45, and he would keep on looking at his watch and somehow with Annigoni this didn’t work. He was not the type of man you could say, “Now paint. Now stop painting.”
S.w.F.- Do you feel any differently about your portrait 45 years later?
S.B.- You know it’s funny. I never look at it as my portrait. I look at it as a very beautifully painted portrait. So I feel a detachment and looking at the portrait I realize how he achieved the colour of the face and the transparency of the paints. I saw him do it, and I saw the tremendous amount of work that you need and that is necessary with these layers and layers of paint and lacquer on top of each other. He mixed his own paints and he had his wine, and he put a little wine in from time to time! It was very interesting.
We had some very interesting discussions about the restorations (of important Renaissance paintings) and at that time and Annigoni felt that they had ruined them. These paintings had also been painted with the technique of alternating layers of lacquer and paint, and lacquer and paint. They removed the top lacquer that is very soft to start with, and they don’t know where to stop. He tried to explain to me in detail, all the wrongs that were being done, and he was terribly upset about it.
S.w.F.- At the time had you considered other contemporary painters, you were in London, such as Graham Sutherland, or perhaps Dali or Picasso?
S.B.- No. I never would have wanted Picasso. I think that Dali did some fantastic paintings, but not as a portrait.
S.w.F.- How do you feel about portraits by artists such as Bacon, Freud, or when they exaggerate or distort the features?
S.B.- No, I couldn’t live with it. But I think Picasso is in another class because the work is great but you don’t look at it really as a portrait. Portrait painting is a really special art. You can be influenced by an African mask, or influenced by anything, but I believe that to paint a portrait is difficult; there are very few people who can do that.
S.w.F.- I read that in the late 1950s Annigoni had to turn down hundreds of portrait commissions. Was it difficult to have him accept the commission due to his having prior commitments, commissions, or projects? It sounds like he accepted it quite soon after your husband asked.
S.B.- He did. I think he accepted if he liked the face, and if the face was a challenge, and it had nothing to do with being beautiful or not. The face had to intrigue him in some way. You know it could be an old man or anything, but somehow he had to be able to relate.
S.w.F.- I read that in the 1950s his portraits were about $5,000.00, likely the equivalent of $50,000 today. Did it feel extravagant, or did you think of it more as your being patron of a piece of very fine art or something that was a significant cultural exercise, and for posterity?
S.B.- At that time the fee was expensive but not outrageous because of the work which is put in. Oh, it took so many sittings. There was a tremendous amount of work. He had become famous because of the portrait of the Queen which he himself didn’t care for, but this is what put him on the map. Actually, of Annigoni’s work, I have some of his sketchbooks. He sketched people left and right and he would throw these sketchbooks away afterwards in an offhanded way, keeping one or two sketches. I’ve bound them in leather because there are so many brilliant ideas in there and it is in his sketchbooks that he shows his immense talent as a draftsman. It is incredible.
I also think that some of the sketches look a little bit more modern. He did some things…at that time I was in London and I was involved in the opera as a volunteer, and I needed something for an opera program, so he said, “Fine, I’ll sketch you an opera program." In no time at all, he sketched me an opera loggia with people; he said it was more of a caricature, but it was very modern and very funny. So if he wanted to he could be modern.