The Unseen Photographs by Johnny Moncada Exhibition at the Somerset House offers a rare peek into the height of Italian glamour, the era of ‘La Dolce Vita’ following the meteoric rise of Federico Fellini’s 1960’s film of the same name, staring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg and Anouk Aimee. Rome was a lifestyle of laid-back decadence and trattoria luncheons. With the recent launch of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the Victoria & Albert Museum that coincides with this retrospective cum Rizzoli book launch, there seems to be a revival in the interest of old school Italian opulence just as it was about to fade into its golden years.
When works by Italian Old Masters – marked by the nod to its Baroque traditions – like Irene Galitzine, Sorelle Fontana, Antonelli, Biki, Forquet and Lancetti have all seemed to recede into obscurity, this timely renaissance is a breath of fresh air. The series of unseen negatives by Moncada celebrates the birth of Italian glamour through a more intimate setting compared to the retrospective at the V&A by retelling the precious bond between a then bourgeoning fashion icon and her doting photographer. “It witnesses that rare connection between an artist and his subject – a rapport capable of transforming the lives of both,” said Franza Sozzani of Italian Vogue.
The exhibition that spans across two salons in Somerset House’s Courtyard Rooms depicts largely black and white images of a doe-eyed Vera von Lehndorff-Steinnort, a 23 year-old countess eager for self-reinvention who renamed herself Veruschka later in her career. “It was an escape into a new life, using my body as an instrument – an avatar for metamorphosis,” said the supermodel who is now 73, and most recently graced Giles’ catwalk show at London Fashion Week in 2010.
In the preface of the book, Franza Sozzani described the series as “a visual diary” rightfully highlighting the intimacy of Johnny Moncada’s gaze of his muse Veruschka. It brings to mind her scene in the 1966 cult film Blow-Up by Michaelangelo Antonini that catapulted her into fame. In the 4-minute scene Veruschka made a cameo as herself working in a studio with the supposed David Bailey, where she fashioned a sensuality that extended well into her work with Moncada. Eyes, slightly melancholic; posture, relaxed and endearing, even inviting – Veruschka lent Italian glamour a sex appeal that was fragile and precious rather than that of a hard-edged bombshell. She had an ineffable cool that likened herself more to a Hollywood damsel than a high fashion model.
On her “sad eyes”, Veruschka commented, “At that time I wrote to my mother: Having a look of sadness in my eyes is my biggest problem in this job. My eyes are indeed sad, even if I’m smiling in the picture. I have to do almost everything to hide it.” She added, “[Moncada] allowed me to be myself – even if that meant looking sad or melancholic. Can you imagine this? I cannot tell you how liberating this is.”
To Moncada’s credit, the most striking elements of the photographs rest in the transitions they captured: Vera’s blossoming from a German countess to Veruschka, the supermodel who would later work with Salvador Dali and grace the cover of Vogue; the changing social landscape of Italy from a post war climate to its Golden Age leading up to the 70s; and of course, the birth of the inimitable Italian glamour from conception to its very height. Many of these transitions we characterised in Moncada’s spontaneous shots of his muse in between postures and changes in expressions, which truly brought out Veruschka’s soul. Amidst all this change, Veruschka quipped, “Even though I had evolved into Veruschka in Johnny’s photos I always remained Vera.”
The Vera to Veruschka: The Unseen Photographs by Johnny Moncada exhibition is on at the Somerset House from 2nd April - 1st June and the book published by Rizolli New York is now available at leading bookstores.