Feminine touches

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am


'I want to be part of the production of art. I don't want to just buy,' says Italian Valeria Napoleone during the middle of the interview.

She is prime interview fodder. One of London's most important art collectors, no piece about her is complete without a mention of her supermodel-stature, thoroughbred credentials and details of her glittering salon-style parties. Brought up in a Renaissance castle, the daughter of antique collectors parents, it would be presumptuous to assume that Napoleone belongs to the tradition of dotty, trustafarian or money-by-marriage Italian art patronesses like the Countess of Castiglione and Marchesa Casati.

Instead, Napoleone lets her extraordinary art collection displayed around her Arts & Craft apartment in Kensington do the talking. '100% Stupid' says a well-documented squiggly speech-bubble behind her, which looks like it has been graffitied on a wall by a pre-adolescent girl, but is in fact by Dutch artist Lily Van der Stokker.

'I like strong pieces. I have specific tastes that I know you can identify throughout the collection,' she says. The wall painting is just one of many larger-than-life pieces on show in her Kensington apartment; her 'sanctuary' which she shares with her children, a boy, Federico, 11 and, a pair of fraternal twins, Letizia and Gregorio, 8, as well as her banker husband, also called Gregorio.

Two giant tongues licking an oversized olive (Martha Friedman) feature in the hallway, a crystalline structure made in Plexiglas (Berta Fischer) is mounted to a drawing room wall above a snaking halogen-hued lamp angled over a stone on the floor opposite a melon (Nina Canell).

Elsewhere in a wall-niche of a corridor, an angular pendulum clock rendered in fuschia pink card (Pae White) swings serenely, while in the dining room a rotund and lurid-green man (Francis Upritchard) points his member towards a hyperreal painting of a naked woman protecting her modesty (Lisa Yuskavage). It's no coincidence all the works are by women.

Most collectors maintain a veil of secrecy about their purchasing habits, content with carved appearances on museum plaques, but Napoleone is surprisingly informal and enthuses about art, 'her passion' bullet-speed in between emphatic hand movements.

She says her budget is strict and reveals she'll spend no more than Euro30,000 on a single purchase - this is because anything higher would become a question about investment potential. Napoleone buys throughout the year, researching the works in advance and getting to know each artist first. She counts Egyptian artist Ghada Amer as a friend.

'I know what kind of reaction I emotionally have to have to be convinced by the work, which is when I walk into a gallery and my heart beats and I feel like, oh my goodness, I need to have it. '

With this characteristic intuition, Napoleone has amassed a 200-strong collection spanning different mediums since 1997. It was in New York during the '80s where she first discovered her love, having left a 'privileged, cocooned environment' north of Milan at age 18 to study journalism. After deciding that the career wasn't for her, she went looking for something creative to do and was feeding her love of jewellery by designing with her twin sister, Stefania Pramma.

At the time, Napoleone wasn't into contemporary art, but her sister advised her to enrol into a master's programme in art gallery administration at the Fashion Institute of Technology. When Napoleone graduated, she realised she wanted to collect, snapping up her first piece: a small photograph by Carol Shadford.

Deciding to only collect works by females, Napeoleone became fascinated by the 'language' of 90's New York artists such as Cindy Sherman and Lisa Lou. Her decision was in part a response to the way she felt women had been 'discriminated' in the art world, although she's quick to admit there's no agenda behind her collection.

'If I were to say it was a collection about feminism, I would limit the works. It's a collection about exceptional works which happen to be created by women,' she says.

After living in New York for a decade, Napoleone arrived in London with her husband in 1999. It's a city she calls 'the centre of the art world' and loves for its ability to embrace eccentricity.

'People love it here if you have an eclectic, extravagant attitude towards life, if you do things in a different way,' she says.You can tell Napoleone views art through a sort of metaphysical prism. It isn't a well-heeled lifestyle choice. She changes the choice and position of artworks 'organically' throughout the year, and talks about their 'perception' 'energy' and 'flow' in her house.

Napoleone has only ever sold a piece of artwork once, and is reluctant to part with more because of her intense attachment to every piece in the collection. Indeed, she's on the hunt for a bigger place to house more of her collection, although admits she could never become an artist or a gallerist. 'It's not in my language.'

As an excuse to work with artists, she's written a book of recipes (to be published next year) from her home region of Lombardy, Italy, in which she asked artists to contribute works centred around the idea of food.

It's all part of a distinct world-view. Napoleone says she doesn't simply collect beautiful objects. 'I collect the artist. I open the door and walk into their studio. That's the plus of being contemporary art collector.'