Joy Bonfield Colombara, jeweler and sculptor, on the Winged Victory of Samothrace
GB Tell me why you chose this
JBC When I was about 13 or 14 we used to get loads of scratch cards in the post. Mum used to scratch them and once or twice she called them and won a pen but it had cost £4 to call them on the premium rate line. So once she decided to send a letter instead and weeks later we got a letter back saying we’d won a prize of a trip to Disneyland, Paris. I was quite excited about going to Disneyland because ei”d never been. But my mum liked doing trips to lemon groves in Amalfi or the Venice Biennale, or going to Croatia with my grandfather to look for tiny wild strawberries. So I knew it was unlikely I’d be taken to Disneyland, Paris. So we took the tickets to Paris and she decided we’d go to the Louvre instead. It was a hilarious trip over, taking the ferry with a packed coach-load of people. We stayed in a tiny motel that looked like something from Bellville Rendezvous, next to a train station in a suburb of Paris, so it took us ages to get into the centre. We bought loads of ham and croissants and ate them on the bed next to the hair dryer, which looked like a hoover. I was really sick from the Ferry and watched French TV all night. The next day we went to the Louvre. It was amazing and I saw Goyas but then we headed for the main staircase and I saw Nike there and even now when I think about it I still get butterflies, remembering how much I love that sculpture. I remember seeing it and just being overwhelmed at how powerful this woman was and how much movement there was in her. All the Greek or Romanesque statues I’d seen before were very beautiful, very feminine and sexy. I love the Venus de Milo, but this is real power. She’s curvy with strong thighs and I was quite a rotund, awkward teenager so I liked her for being tall and massive. She had no head and no arms and yet she commanded absolute attention. And she was fully clothed in all this amazing drapery: she didn’t have to be naked to be looked at. She really struck me. She’s 5.57metres tall and made from two types of marble.
GB I love that you can almost feel the wind rushing past her.
JBC One of the things I love about sculpture is the way a hard material can form the softness of that flowing fabric. It confuses the senses, the way it solidifies something quite ethereal.
GB It’s not often that people talk about that feeling of butterflies every time they remember seeing an object of beauty for the first time. Is that something you’ve felt often?
JBC There’s the Pieta, but not the first one, which is considered Michelangelo’s real masterpiece, where the Christ figure is so young and the flesh looks so real and it’s quite haunting. The one I love is the one he made just before he died, which is the Rondanini Pietà. It looks like it’s been rained on or it’s melting. Michelangelo was very frail when he made it. He was going blind. One of Christ’s arms has fallen away and it’s so laden with emotion in made me want to cry. The whole sculpture is covered in these tiny lines from the denti di cane tool, a multiple-pronged chisel. In his earlier works all those marks were erased with files but he leaves the evidence of the hand here. It’s not about imitating nature, it’s about conveying emotion. For me, emotional work is the most powerful.
GB Have you always found more beauty in 3D things rather than flat paintings?
JBC No. Caravaggio is one of my favourite painters, but then he works very three dimensionally. I like all kinds of things. If something conveys a truth in its emotion, I like it . Not everyone would see a connection between a Brancusi sculpture and the Rondanini Pietà but they both make me feel that emotion.
GB I have a friend who grew up in Rome and doesn’t see the St Peter’s Pietà as beautiful at all. Can you imagine someone finding these sculptures hideous?
JCB I didn’t grow up in Italy but I can imagine the oversaturation of that maximalism there. Imagine that they had the Renaissance and then the Baroque. It’s different in different ages and cultures. My mum grew up around Brutalist buildings and she hates them. It’s not fun to play in a Brutalist concrete playground on a council estate. But I have friends who live in lovely townhouses who think it’s amazing and avant-garde. So I can imagine that if you lived in Rome, you might not like it. I love Hellenistic sculpture but I hate the fascist copies of classical sculpture. They make the art form very hard and heavy. The Greek pieces have a more human side to them. Sometimes when the Romans copied Greek sculptures you’d find this very elegant body with a head that didn’t quite fit because people would have their portrait added to it. They’re hilarious! I like things that have something missing, like a head or an arm. I love the Surrealists too because they’ll maybe just present a hand or other body art. It’s like the notion that the book is always better than the film. You have to use your own imagination. There’s something in the way that Nike has been severed but still retains her power and movement that is quite fantastic.
GB Was it a big deal to you that it was a woman, the first time you saw it.
JCB Yes. Look at sculpture around London. Most of it is male and there are horses or those hideous commissions of upside-down horses heads in Mayfair. Or the ones of women are nude. Okay there’s Boudica, but how often do you really see sculptures of strong beautiful women? We don’t know exactly why they chose a female form for Victory.
GB Does the mystery make her more beautiful? If you could go back in time and see the complete statue, would you do it?
JCB I love things that are broken. My favourite people are the ones who’ve lived through some real shit. It’s a part of history and a life lived. I think I’d want to go back and see that time but I almost wouldn’t want to see her head. I love her without it. Parts of her have been reconstructed and I don’t like the plasterwork. I love to see her hand in the cabinet next to her.
GB Should the French give her back to Greece?
JCB I often think about that with our own museums. But why do things need to be in their place of origin? It’s a different place and time now. I used to feel angry about the way our antiquities had been bought or stolen from other cultures but some places didn’t protect them, and I want them to be somewhere they can be enjyed. The Yoruba, African bronzes that are older than some of the Greek pieces, were bought widely in Nazi collections as a novelty. They really should be in museums for people to see as they’re of such stunning beauty. I feel quite strange when I go to Frieze Masters or see private collections. They’re overpriced and you wonder how they were acquired by these collectors and who is entitled to own this beauty.
GB Is beauty a big part of your work?
JBC Absolutely. The human body is something to be celebrated and decorated with miniature sculptures. A lot of my commissions for people have a narrative: they might be for a newborn child or an engagement, so love, power and beauty are constant themes in my work.
GB What’s the most beautiful jewellery to you, apart from your own work?
JBC I love René Lalique. Most people know his glasswork but he was a jeweler first and studied in Sydenham. He would carve into bone or glass and combine that with diamond and glass. He used materials for their beauty rather than their intrinsic value. I love Otto Künzli how is German and does quite minimal conceptualist works. He made a chain form divorcees wedding rings.
GB What do you think when you see jewellery worn as a display as wealth?
JBC It’s the same with all things, like seeing a beautiful car. I find it laughable. I pity people who have things and don’t appreciate them – but they’ll still exist. One day that person will die and they’ll go to someone else!
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
JBC It’s a feeling. Your heart instinctively tells you when you’re attracted to something. You just feel it. Even if it’s a tiny forget-me-not flower, like Alice Walker noticing the purple flowers in a field.