Vintage Gemma Taccogna Orange Paper Mache Lion Sculpture
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Gemma Taccogna: The Queen of Paper Mache Sculpture

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Vintage Gemma Taccogna Orange Paper Mache Lion Sculpture

This past weekend, my mother returned home from treasure-hunting with an exciting find. As she walked through the door, a hint of bright orange paper mache peeked from her basket. Instantly, I recognized the rope and paper mache details of a vintage Gemma Taccogna sculpture.

In all of my years of admiring the art and life of this incredible woman and artist, I had never had the privilege of encountering one of her pieces in the wild. While I possess several imitations crafted by those inspired by Taccogna’s unparalleled talent, an authentic piece had eluded me until that moment. The artifact my mother uncovered is a vivid orange lion, acquired for a mere $2 – a steal! My mom has heard me talk about my love of Gemma Taccogna over the years, so she gifted me the work of art for my future home.

Vintage Gemma Taccogna Orange Paper Mache Lion Sculpture

It doesn’t matter what you create.  It’s that you’re living with principle, you’re living with honor, and you have a visual statement of your bravery.

Gemma Taccogna, Spiritual Lasagna

Like most eras, the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a wave of unique artists. In this period, paper mache sculptures became a prominent trend. These vibrant and popular designs originated from the mind of a young girl who pioneered the art of paper mache to craft her playthings. Gemma Taccogna grew up in a household with parents who did not buy toys. As a result, Taccogna experimented with materials, finally settling on paper mache to create her own dolls.

Taccogna approached life with an innate wellspring of creativity, a trait she retained until her passing in 2007. Born in Bari, Italy, in 1923, she journeyed to America as an infant with her parents. Unfortunately, her home life was unstable, and Gemma ran away from her home at age 14, seeking refuge in Greenwich Village. There, she supported herself with her art by painting grocery store windows for money.

At 18, Taccogna ventured to the studio of the renowned hat designer, Mr. John. Undeterred by a less-than-receptive receptionist, she boldly approached the designer in his lobby and requested a meeting. Captivated by her paper mache creations, Mr. John promptly commissioned lady busts to showcase his hats. This collaboration paved the way for Gemma’s artistry to be spotlighted by eminent fashion houses, including Nina Ricci, Schiaparelli, and the esteemed Saks Fifth Avenue.

Then I realized, you must never start at the bottom. You go to the top. If you believe…in your product, you go to the top.

Gemma Taccogna, Spiritual Lasagna
Paper mache artist Gemma Taccogna with some of her vintage paper mache sculptures.
Gemma Taccogna with her Paper Mache Sculptures

While recovering from an appendectomy, Gemma Taccogna had a serendipitous encounter with Dr. Juan del Rio, who would later become her husband. Their love story led them to relocate to Mexico City in 1954. Here, Gemma established her acclaimed paper mache studio and boutique, Artes Gemma. Her exceptional craftsmanship drew the attention of illustrious Hollywood figures, including the iconic Mary Tyler Moore. It was in this Mexican studio during the 1960s that some of Gemma’s most famous pieces came to life.

Gemma Taccogna attributed her ascent to international acclaim to Peggy Guggenheim, who chanced upon her work at an exhibition and showcased the paper mache figures in her esteemed Venice museum. Facing challenges from those who mimicked her distinctive style and techniques, Gemma determined that remaining in Mexico City was no longer viable. Relocating to Palos Verdes, California, she continued to craft her art.

What I find most striking about Gemma Taccogna is the number of people she touched with her words, art, and giving spirit. In my research, I found many testaments to her generosity of spirit, which are particularly common among the women she encountered.

Each of us is captain of a ship.  Don’t ever place anyone on a pedestal.   You can love and respect them, but you are on the pedestal.  Each one of us must celebrate our lives, or it’s not valid.  You can’t love unless you include yourself.  I put it this way, like a good Italian, ‘Serve yourself a piece of cake, too.’  And we women are so guilty of this.  We’ll feed everyone else and make sure that everyone has a piece and say, ‘No, thank you, we don’t want any,” and put ourselves on the back burner.  Wrong.

Gemma Taccogna, Spiritual Lasagna
Vintage Gemma Taccogna Orange Paper Mache Lion Sculpture

If you have a vintage paper mache statue and are curious whether it is a Gemma Taccogna piece, there is an easy way to tell. Did the artist sign it? Gemma Taccogna signed her pieces. There are many sculptures, however, that bear the mark “Mexico.” Based on research, it is my impression that unsigned sculptures are knockoffs.

The appeal of Gemma Taccogna’s whimsical creations remains alive today. Famous collectors, such as fashion designer Anna Sui, boast jaw-dropping collections of her work.

Would you like to embark on your own collection of Gemma Taccogna sculptures? I’ve included a few pieces for you to check out! Click on the picture or caption to find a piece on the web!

Vintage Gemma Taccogna Paper Mache Bust
Vintage Gemma Taccogna Paper Mache Bust offered by Migrations
Vintage Gemma Taccogna Paper Mache Lipstick Tube Holder
Gemma Taccogna Paper Mache Lipstick Tube Holder offered by midcenturymarvista

Do you love Gemma Taccogna’s work as much as I do? Are you a collector? Please tell me all about it in the comment section below!

Explore Faedra for more vintage finds!

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Sources: The Papier Mache Resource, mid2mod and Spiritual Lasagna.

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