Menton, with its cobbled steps, winding alleyways and medieval heart, is exactly halfway between Paris and Rome, say the guides. When I meet the multi-hyphenate Liana Marabini in her Belle Epoque-era hotel, it is the latter that comes to mind. No coincidence, this, for Marabini, a filmmaker and publisher, is also patron of the arts in the Vatican Museums. About eight years ago, she helped set up the (Henri) Matisse Room there, bringing to the public many of the French artist’s drawings. She is also president of the Catholic Film Festival in Rome, which grants greater visibility to films that promote Christian values that transform the soul.
The Italian director’s interest in saving souls isn’t new and it often fuels her many projects. Her latest, The Biennale of Contemporary Sacred Art (BACS), has been making headlines since it kicked off earlier this month, for a monumental sculpture titled ‘Our Lady of the Innocents’. Created by the Dutch sculptor, Daphne du Barry, it is of the Virgin Mary with unborn babies at her feet.
- Marabini says the next step is to introduce an artist in residence programme at her hotel. “We are not looking for art with negative themes or bloodshed. If they have a good idea, we will offer hospitality for one to three weeks. It is important for the artists to visit the museums here. Cote d’Azur is significant because of its history with artists (painters, writers, and filmmakers such as Cezanne, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, Cocteau, Modigliani, Matisse and Liègeard spent part of their lives in the South of France). And this hotel has been around since 1865. I am hoping that Indian artists will find their way here.”
While the bronze statue has sparked outrage among Pro-Choice supporters, Marabini, who commissioned it for the entrance of her hotel and the venue of BACS, the Grand Hôtel des Ambassadeurs, insists the Sacred Art show is “to give hope, and to show the beauty of life”. The BACS president and curator, as I learn over the next couple of days, is quick to speak her mind. “I have a lot of respect for women who have to abort their babies,” she begins, quietly but firm. “It is not an easy decision and you can’t judge them. They may be too young or in a different situation. My role is to give them a possibility to find peace and redemption.” The sculpture has had many grateful supporters, she insists. “It is like a confession. A place where they can pray.” As for Du Barry, the artist who used to be Salvador Dali’s model has also denied that the monument carries any judgement.
Marabini goes on to say that artists, with their work, can make a better world. “I chose the theme of the Sacred Art, not in the religious sense, even if I love religion. Not everyone is religious. Art can help if we realise that art is beauty,” she says. The show has the works of 214 artists from 52 countries. Among them are modern-day rockstars, Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama. The works are distributed across the hotel, in the foyer, the basement, and the hallways on the many floors. It is a pleasure to step out of your room and come face to face with four complete collections of Salvador Dali lithographs! Or Kim Boulukos’ mischievous dog bird sculptures.
“All the art we have chosen is very positive, including the Indian art. The writings in Sanskrit are beautiful and good for the soul,” says Marabini, referring to the sumptuous works of Eknath Patil and Manish Nai, as well as Alexis Kersey, George K and Bhavna Sonawane. Later, Chennai-based George K explains that his painting at the show came from a body of work on faith. “It is a concept that is constant across religions and it is a question of inward reality,” he says. The Indian contingent is finding many admirers among the visitors to the show. Chennai gallerist Sharan Apparao, who helped curate the Indian selection with art historian, Michel Imbert, says there is a market for lesser-known Indian artists in Europe. Also, positivity and lighter themes (don’t miss the hint of cheekiness in Kersey’s ‘Madonna with Child’) have many takers. Quite a few enthusiasts are familiar with SH Raza’s work and this helps them connect with Indian artists, she says.
I ask Marabini if there were any challenges to setting up the show. “None,” she responds, adding, “My work with the Vatican Museums opened a lot of doors.” I learn that many collectors who contributed to the show brought the art themselves, some driving down with it. “There were collectors from Paris who came by plane with the artwork tucked under their arm! A collector from Berlin bought me Damien Hirst’s ‘Star and Circle’. Another person from Vienna personally delivered Banksy’s serigraph, Keep it Real (2008),” she says. Almost all the works are on sale.
“I showcase the artworks, they will be sold and all the money will go to the artists,” insists Marabini. With art galleries getting very expensive, this is her way of offering a chance to emerging artists from all countries.
The Biennale of Contemporary Sacred Art (BACS) runs till the end of the month at the Grand Hôtel des Ambassadeurs in Menton. The writer was in Menton at the invitation of BACS.
Patron of food
During my stay, what Marabini dismissed as ‘frugal lunches’ featured tenderloin from Piedmont, a golden quiche Lorraine, and the finest parma ham and cheeses. Her husband, Mauro, generous with spectacular Super Tuscans, ensured none of the visiting artists went thirsty. So it is no surprise that Marabini will be launching a History Food Channel in December. “We will have food documentaries and sitcoms,” is all she shares. She has directed a mini-series on two popes who have made significant contributions to the history of food. Pope Sixtus IV, who created the Sistine chapel, financed the publication of the first cookbook in 1470. And 100 years later, in 1571, Pope Pius V put out the first illustrated book of gastronomy. Marabini has the first editions of both. They are part of a family heirloom of 30,000 rare volumes and manuscripts collected over six centuries. On the filming front, she reveals that she is in talks with Hollywood’s Leonardo DiCaprio to make a movie about Champagne’s famous French monk, Don Perignon.