Gemma Taccogna: The Queen of Paper Mache Sculpture
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One of the perks of living with my parents as a thirty-something is being back in the world of vintage and antiques. Living on a mountain was peaceful and pretty, but I desperately missed the realm of dusty old treasures. My mom is a vintage and antique dealer and has been since I was a little girl. She learned the trade from my grandma. It is a necessary piece of my life puzzle: the stories, the treasures, the hunting, and the finding.
This last weekend, my mom brought home quite a haul. As she walked through the front door, I spied a bright orange paper mache thing barely peeking from inside her basket. I knew immediately she had found a Gemma Taccogna paper mache sculpture.
In all of my years of admiring the art and life of this incredible woman and artist, I had never seen one of her pieces in person. I own several knock-off pieces created by those who recognized her genius and copied her art, but I had yet to hold a true Gemma Taccogna sculpture until now. The piece my mom found is a vibrant orange lion. She paid $2 for it – an incredible deal! 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.
Prior to her finding the sculpture, I had started writing this post about the life and art of Gemma Taccogna. The kismet surrounding this post and the discovery of the lion sculpture in an old warehouse has me thrilled to bring you the story of this artist and her inspiring life.
As with all eras, the 50s and 60s birthed some incredible art. During this time, paper mache sculptures were all the rage. Their popular, colorful designs began in the creative mind of a girl who “invented” paper mache to create her own toys. Gemma Taccogna’s parents did not believe in toys, so she played with materials until she figured out how to make her own.
Gemma began life brimful of creativity and remained so until the end of her life in 2007. She was born in Bari, Italy in 1923 and moved with her parents to America as an infant. Her home life was unstable and Gemma ran away from her home in Westchester, NY to Greenwich Village in 1937 at the age of 14. She supported herself with her art by painting grocery store windows for money.
When Gemma was 18 years old, she went to the studio of Mr. John, the famous hat designer. Despite the best efforts of an unwelcoming receptionist, she approached the designer in his lobby and requested a meeting. Upon seeing her paper mache designs, Mr. John commissioned some lady busts on which to display his hats. In addition to the establishment of this important creative partnership, Gemma’s work was also featured by high fashion retailers such as Nina Ricci, Schiaparelli, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
During a hospital stay for an appendix removal, Gemma Taccogna met her future husband, Dr. Juan del Rio. They fell in love and moved to Mexico City in 1954. It was in Mexico City that Gemma founded the paper mache studio and boutique called Artes Gemma. Glamorous Hollywood personalities, including Mary Tyler Moore, commissioned work from her. She created some of her most charming pieces from her studio in Mexico in the 1960s.
Gemma Taccogna credited Peggy Guggenheim’s discovery of her work at an exhibition and her subsequent display of the paper mache figures in her Venice museum as the catalyst to her international fame. Finding it difficult to compete with those who appropriated her work and methods, Gemma found it unsustainable to stay in Mexico City. Following her removal from Mexico to Palos Verdes, California, Gemma continued to make her art and live her creative lifestyle.
The thing that I find most striking about Gemma Taccogna’s life is the number of people whose lives she touched with her words, art, and giving spirit. Across the internet, you will find multiple witnesses to her beautiful life and friendship. This seems to be especially true for the women she knew. She was a woman who survived on money made from her art and sheer determination and remains an inspiration to many.
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. Is it signed? Gemma Taccogna signed her pieces. There are many sculptures, however, that are signed “Mexico.” It is my impression that these are knockoffs.
The appeal of Gemma Taccogna’s whimsical creations is still very much alive today. Famous collectors, such as fashion designer Anna Sui, have jaw-dropping collections of her work. If you’d like to embark on your own collection of Gemma Taccogna sculptures, I’ve collected a few pieces for you to check out! Click on the picture or caption to be transported to its home on the web!
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.