Marianna Blier, 2022
Marianna Blier was born in Astrakhan, Russia but moved to Vienna in 2007. She now divides her time between her atelier in Vienna, Austria and her marble studios in Carrara, Italy.
Eminent Californian photographer Gail Skoff introduced Marianna, and when I followed Gail on one of her photography trips, Marianna was standing on a table top, in a large workshop in the centre of Carrara. Wearing goggles and earmuffs she was leaning over a tall sculpture, carving the final touches.
Marianna Blier, Cotton (work in progress), 2022, white Carrara marble, 150 (height) × 70 × 50 cm
Marianna Blier, Cotton (work in progress), 2022, white Carrara marble, 150 (height) × 70 × 50 cm
Marianna got a PhD in economics and started out in business. But her true passion was always art and finally she made the jump from finance to becoming a full-time artist.
Marianna Blier, Medusa, white Carrara marble, diamond wire, 40 × 40 × 30 cm
She speaks about the importance of creativity to all people. At her Austrian company she founded a project to display the art of employees from all over the world. She continues to manage this project and tells how it played a role supporting the influx of Ukrainian refugees in the past year.
Marianna Blier, Pieta Serrone (work in progress), 2022, white Carrara marble, 120 (height) × 100 × 40 cm
Marianna Blier, Pieta Serrone (work in progress), 2022, white Carrara marble, 120 (height) × 100 × 40 cm
Marianna Blier (00:12):
I was thinking, when I will find the stone, then the stone gives me an idea. I just want a beautiful stone. And the stone itself, it has this shape. It was maybe not exactly the shape of this Pieta mountain, but close, and it has more a shape of a angel wing. First I thought, "Oh, it’s an angel wing," but then I also saw if I cut slightly the edges, then I can see this mountain, and was so beautifully white, with this bluish like a cloud or a sky part, and plus it had this shape. I still didn’t know what I could do out of this marble. I said, "I want this." This was a huge stone. I was thinking, "No, I still do not have enough skills and experience to work with such a big stone." And then after this, I made the sculpture Hands. It was another miracle, my first sculpture.
Hi, this is Sarah with another episode of Materially Speaking, where artists tell their stories through the materials they choose. Today I’m meeting Marianna Blier, who was born in Russia, but now divides her time between Vienna and Carrara, in northern Italy. I met Marianna through the eminent Californian photographer, Gail Skoff, who’s been photographing some artists in this area, whilst I’ve been interviewing others. Today we are pleased to present a joint project, where we have interviewed and photographed the same artist. I followed Gail out on a photography trip and found Marianna standing on a tabletop in her large hangar-like workshop in the center of Carrara, wearing goggles and earmuffs. She was bending down over the top of a tall sculpture, and using a compressor-powered tool to carve the final touches. Later I met with her at her studio to talk in more depth. I asked her to introduce herself.
Marianna Blier (02:00):
My name is Marianna Blier. When people hear my name, they think I’m French, or even German sometimes. But Blier, yes, it’s a family name. It’s coming from my grand-grandparents. So I’m a very crazy mix of different nationalities. Jews from France, Ukrainians, and Russians. But my mom, who is Russian by the way, she’s very much in love in French culture, and that’s why she insisted that my name should be Marianna, because Marianna is kind of symbol of France. My dad didn’t like very much Marianna. I don’t know. He’s basically more Jewish and French roots, but for some reason he doesn’t want Marianna name, so I have the two names. He called me Janna, and a lot of my friends called me Jan. Totally different, more Polish name, and Blier is, yes, it’s for me, it’s very important family name. I was never married, but if I was married I would never change my family name, because for me it’s a symbol of a lot of cultures that I bring in my blood. French, Belgium, also Jewish culture of Europe. Then Ukrainian and Russian culture mix in there.
You live in two countries, right? You live in Austria and in Italy. Is there anything that you bring from home, from Austria, when you come back to Italy? Anything you miss?
Marianna Blier (03:27):
When you mentioned home, for me now Italy is my home. I more perceived Carrara, although I was born in Russia, and then lived 15 years in Austria, and I love Austria, love the nature. But when I first came to Carrara almost more than six years ago, it was a feeling, this is my home, because it was this combination of sea, mountains, and marble, and was the feeling that I’ve been living here all my life. When people ask what is home for you, normally the standard answer, it’s the place where you want to live. For me it was the answer, it’s the place where I would like to die.
I wanted to ask you about your early influences as an artist. So from when you were a child, how you became an artist, whether you had artists in the family.
Marianna Blier (04:22):
My mother graduated from technological university in chemistry, so she also did some research, and she was working in research institute in chemistry, and for people from … with this focus on science, it was quite a surprise that I wanted to paint. How I start was also very much strange. My first painting experience, not painting, drawing experience, was very much related to Carrara, though I had no clue about Carrara. When I was a very small kid in kindergarten, my drawings and paintings were terrible, and because I probably saw a picture different. So when all girls were painting Barbie or princesses and flowers, I had no interest in this topic, and I was trying to draw something nobody could understand. So they were very weird, abstract things.
The first really serious experience was, we had a book with the sculptures of Michelangelo at home, and I loved this book. And when I first saw a Pieta of Michelangelo, this famous Pieta which is in Rome, cathedral in Rome, I was amazed. It was a stamp in my brain, Michelangelo, Pieta, Carrara marble. It was a certain combination of words which made me a totally different person, Michelangelo, Pieta, Carrara marble.
At that moment I understood that Michelangelo is the sculptor, and I was thinking that what he created no human being could do. It’s just not possible. Asked my dad, "What is …" marble I understood but, "What is Carrara?" It’s a specific marble. He said, "Yes, it’s Carrara marble. It’s famous marble. It’s located in Tuscany, in some region in Italy," and I had a feeling that Carrara doesn’t exist. It’s some kind of place, existed maybe 500 years ago in Renaissance time, in antique time. But for sure now it’s just the name of this marble which is excavated in this region, but not really Carrara. And I was making drawings of this Pieta, mostly Madonna’s face. My first serious drawings where people could see that yes, I can draw. So after this my mom saw, and she agreed yes, maybe she has some talent. And she brought me … basically I insisted, but we together went to the drawing school for kids, and there was a kind of, after normal school you can visit three times per week, some art school, and then it all started.
And of course when once I saw by chance on internet, on the Facebook, advertising of sculpture courses in Carrara, I was surprised, "Oh, Carrara exists."
That’s funny. So did you have a conventional art education? Did you have an education in different things?
Marianna Blier (07:20):
This child art school, it was four years. It was like a normal school three times per week, and then was also exams, everything. This is the only finished art education I have. And then unfortunately as I was born in the Soviet Union, then it was the collapse of the Soviet Union, very difficult economical situation. So my parents didn’t even want to hear that I want to be an artist. They said, "You are stupid, you would never survive, and [inaudible 00:07:49] not rich." They said, "No, you should go and study something useful in life." And I studied economics. I don’t think economics are useful, but nevertheless I put apart art and I went to Moscow, and I was graduated from the Moscow State University. I also got my PhD degree there, but I still did art in parallel, and when I came to Vienna, and my relocation to Vienna was because of my job, I was working in a big company in finance area, in business development area would say, and it was quite successful. And then some Austrian company found me through international networking, and I was asked if I would be interested to work as a business development manager in this company.
So can I ask how old you were then?
Marianna Blier (08:42):
I was 26, 27 already, when I moved to Austria. It became more serious in Vienna, because in Vienna I decided that I still was not so much interested in finance and all the things. Spontaneously a friend of mine, she saw at home, in Austria, in Vienna already, she saw my paintings and she was quite impressed, and she said, "Oh, let’s do an exhibition of you." And in Vienna it’s basically very easy. In Vienna, because people love art and there are a lot of restaurants, cafes, some small shops, they offer place just for free. And this was such a success I didn’t expect. So some paintings were sold, but at the end what happened? More important, this restaurant was visited by one woman, Art Kurata. She’s was working for a huge IT company, but this IT company also did more professional exhibitions in their offices, and also had the collection of this company.
It was Oracle company, it’s quite famous, Oracle. Then Oracle bought three of my paintings. And then I was thinking, why not maybe to think at least to stop working in finance area, because I hated it, in the end. I shouldn’t complain, because my career was quite fast everywhere in Moscow and in Austria. I really traveled a lot. And even sometimes when you visit remote countries somewhere, and you have to talk about business and people have some difficulties, for example with English language, then you always have to switch to some topics where maybe it’s easier to find a common language. And for me it was always art. Realized that a lot of people, even who are sitting in some boring positions doing other work, but most of them, they have something behind. It can be either painting, drawing, it can be photography. So people really need creativity, and creativity is a certain thing which can unite people all over the world.
And this gave me an idea that we can, in the company I work on at that moment, we can make a project of presenting the art of employees all over the world in Vienna office. And I’m still responsible for this project. That’s … when I even quit my finance job, they didn’t want me to quit this project. So it’s already, I don’t know, I’m not working in finance area for seven or maybe even more years, but I’m still responsible for this project, and it’s about creativity which unite people and help people in all situations.
And then slowly, slowly I realized that this is something. And then I still did some studies. For two years I was in Vienna Academy of Art, but then I quit my job, I quit also Academy, so and I decided that I’m learning by doing. So anyway, you can’t find any … I don’t know if there are any university in the world which teaches you really old techniques of sculpting and working with marble. You can only learn it being here in Carrara, taking directly from these artisans. And I have really great people who are generations of sculptors. They do not teach in academies, they do not teach in art school, but they know … the knowledge is huge. I even have an idea I should start writing the experience, and maybe leave kind of a book, more technical book, of all these old techniques.
What happened to bring you from Austria to Carrara, and when did that happen?
Marianna Blier (12:28):
As I said, for me Carrara was this imaginary location of this most beautiful material in the world, and where Michelangelo created this miracle Pieta, the most amazing work of art for me still. And when I saw Carrara, as I said, it was occasionally I saw Carrara. At that moment I already was in Vienna, and I was already in the process of quitting my financial job. Also in this parallel I was making my MBA, and I was writing master thesis for MBA. I was writing about art and leadership. So my idea was to connect art and what is driving artists with what is driving leaders in business or in social life. So these two things, and this was also long, long work, and based on interviews with a lot of artists and leaders in business. And then I took what is called … what’s in English?
Marianna Blier (13:32):
Sabbatical, yes. Before I had quite a big salary, I couldn’t think about money at all, and now it was no income, and I decided okay, risk. This one here was important psychologically, to prepare myself, also economically. Not so easy when before you come to any shop you like, and you like some dress, and you buy it, even without thinking about the price. And then I, yes, my budget is like this, so no, I almost now do not buy clothes, or no restaurants, unless somebody invites me. This was difficult. It took me one year to prepare myself to live in a different style, and it was very interesting year with these interviews. When I spoke to extremely rich people, they were very much interested about the idea that artists and leaders in business basically have the same driving points.
And one of these guys, quite famous in the world, I was impressed that this man, who can afford a lot, I mean he’s a multi-millionaire, and he said that he, in general, he envies artists, and I said, "Why you envy artists? You know how artists live. They sometimes … you would have no money to pay the rent." And he said, "Yes, it’s all true. But artists, they have freedom. They do have something I do not have. It’s on my mind. If it’s all everything, I do not have freedom. I depend on people very much. Yes, you can sometimes suffer financial issues, but anyway you will not die of hunger. You will find the solution. But what you have, you can’t buy for any money. It’s freedom." And it’s not just freedom to go somewhere or to say something. In a way it’s internal freedom. When you want to express yourself, art is the only way where you are free, because it’s only you and canvas, you and block, nobody else. In the moment of creation there is nobody, and you are free.
And then I saw … it was the end of the sabbatical leave. I saw this advertising of courses in Carrara, and I decided to try. The work in the beginning was hard, terrible. I couldn’t even hold this pneumatic tool. I was thinking, "It will kill me." But it was everything, taste of marble, smell of marble, material itself. Also these mountains. So when the course was over, I didn’t want to return to Vienna. I found a studio, famous Nicola Studio in Carrara, the oldest studio, and I moved there. So I finished my sculpture in Nicola Studio, and then of course I had to return to Vienna, but I returned to Vienna with the thought that I would relocate to Carrara. My imagination from my childhood of the most beautiful thing in art. Then the thought that art is actually … this is the way to liberty, or to this freedom, real freedom, true freedom. Not just freedom over actions or word, no not, but really internal freedom for me, to achieve it was through art. And then Carrara, it was not just that, but very particular marble. And so all things came together like a puzzle.
We’re talking in April, 2022. With what’s going on in the world, particularly in Ukraine and Russia, and we’re all upset, obviously. How has it been for you? Do you still have family in those regions?
Marianna Blier (17:17):
It’s very difficult for my family, because it’s really … all culture is very important for us, and I was brought up in the family with strong Jewish traditions, a lot of influence from Ukraine. My grandmother was basically speaking Ukrainian better than Russian, but of course then she learned Russian very well, and my mother is Russian. So it’s a big mixture, and also being the person from art side, and I still think that art doesn’t have any nationality for me, any war is the most disgusting thing people can do. It’s so much opposite to art, that regardless where war takes place in any part of the world, it’s for me totally unacceptable thing. The first days of the war I was so much, I was crying all days and I was really blocked. I couldn’t work.
I was in the middle of a very important commission. I had to work a lot, but I stopped working. I just couldn’t do anything. And when it all happened I wanted to do something, and the only thing I could do is just support refugees. So the first days I stopped working, I told the person for whom I did this commission that I need some weeks, because I can’t work. I returned to Vienna and I was trying to help kids, refugees. I tried to be a volunteer in … for people who are coming, but it was maximum one day could do it. For me it was so difficult psychologically, and I understood that maybe I’m not so strong a person to speak to these people to support them. So I decided to do it in the way where I’m more effective.
So with a friend of mine, she’s an artist also, and she organized courses for kids who are coming as refugees in Vienna. Parents, they were in either camps or they were searching for accommodation, and they need just to leave kids somewhere for several hours, so they could do something maybe to … not to talk, not to think about war.
And therefore these painting classes were agreed, and then because I myself manage a project of art exhibitions in Vienna, organized exhibition of the paintings of these kids, and we called the exhibition happy place. Basically it was coincidence with the big exhibition I already organized with adults, and long time ago, still during pandemic, I decided to make such exhibition, happy place, because for artists, their studios are their happy places. And then these kids arrived, and we decided, let’s give them the topic happy place. And the first class I was really very much impressed. They were painted Vienna. For them, Vienna was … for most of them it was the first time they saw Vienna, and they had a small excursion over the city, and what they saw, they were asked to paint how they imagine. So they took Vienna, but they painted in there more fairy tale places, especially girls, it was all pink with princesses. The boys more boy colors, not pink.
But it was so funny. So you see your own city, your home city, for me Vienna, but through the eyes of the kids, for them it’s a happy place. So Austrians, they could see the city they’re used to through the eyes of the kids who were in the war, simultaneously. They were so much impressed with the kids’ painting that they bought quite a lot of painting. It’s always donated to these families. I also heard that later some Austrian families, they wanted to be friends with the Ukrainian families who came, and it was because they also had kids the same age, and it was for them important that their kids meet kids who experienced the war. And for me it was like this … people who suffer from certain depression, for me war was a depression. It was the best therapy, not to be a totally disappointed in people, and totally say no, the life doesn’t make any sense.
I wondered if you could tell me about a couple of pieces that you have done recently, and what they mean to you.
Marianna Blier (21:55):
Well, I would highlight several pieces, also because they’re related, and all were done recently, because I started working with Carrara marble just six, seven years ago, and they’re all not very old. The first piece I created, which was the turning point, as you remember, I said I came to these courses, or I remember my first day I went to the courses, and the teacher, he allowed me to select a stone. Of course they were not these huge beautiful blocks, there were just some stones in the back yard of this school. And then I saw a stone like this, maybe half a meter. No, no, not very big. And I had no clue what I would do because there was a task in this school. But I said I would like to do something with what I think. And he said, "No problem." And then I started working, and during working I started seeing images.
This is my style of work with Carrara marble. Except it’s a commission, but even if it’s a sculpture I have to do, for example, a certain image, I still never work with a precise model. I have some idea and I start working. But my best sculptures, I never even had anything, even drawing. I just started working and I see images. And my first sculpture were, it was called Labyrinth of Hands. And this is a sculpture with a lot of hands. There are 10 hands coming from the stone. On the one hand they are shaping the stone. So they positioned around the stone like shaping, but at the same time they’re coming out of the stone. So they are from the stone, but they’re also making the stone. And this is half abstract, half figurative sculpture, because hands, they’re real, they’re real human hands. But at the same time they have this abstract idea of creation or coming from the stone. So hands became number one topic in all my sculptures. For me hand reflects more character than a face. Especially with today, Botox and everything, faces sometimes, it’s like a mask, but hands, you can’t hide your thoughts with your hands. Hands is more representative of human, plus hand is a symbol of creation. But I like these challenges of hands, and also how to express different emotions with hands, which is more difficult than to express emotions with face.
Another piece that I was very touched by, which is downstairs, is the Medusa.
Marianna Blier (24:42):
First I saw a drawing of Michelangelo, it’s in Florence, in Casa de Michelangelo. It’s the portrait of Cleopatra. It’s a drawing of Cleopatra. History, he made this drawing for one of his students, to show him drawing techniques, and how to draw the beautiful face. So Cleopatra, he made an ideal beautiful face, and he made this drawing. But some years later it was written in many research, it was discovered that on the other side of the drawing there is the drawing of the same Cleopatra, but as an ugly woman. So probably it was, again, it’s just guessing, but probably he was working with the student, and he was probably to show him how to turn beauty into ugliness, and maybe something like this. I was interested with this idea, and I wanted to create this woman with the snake, and also make this beautiful Cleopatra in marble.
And then it was again, most of my images I see in my … when I sleep, in dreams. And then I saw it very clearly, this woman, partly, this Cleopatra coming from Michelangelo. But then I saw a lot of snakes, and the snakes drew me to this story of Medusa. So instead of Cleopatra, I saw the face with a lot of snakes, and it started becoming Medusa. And then once I came to the studio and I saw on the floor, because I work with a lot of electric tools and their cords were like snakes, and also the pipes from the compressor, because I always work surrounded by the snake. So it was image like this. And I used these tools, parts of tools, pipes as a snake on her head.
Can I ask about which tools? Because I remember there were two.
Marianna Blier (26:50):
If you work with the compressor, to work with the pneumatic hammer, this pneumatic hammer is attached to the compressor with this plastic pipe, and then this plastic pipe, when you work for example, at the same time with two different pneumatic tools, and also with this drilling tool, which is also works from compressor. Then I work with several together, and these pipes, they always becoming like snakes. Then the story of Medusa itself, if you know the story, so there was once a beautiful nymph or goddess or woman, her name was Medusa, and the god of the sea fall in love with her, but she didn’t want this. So basically he raped her. But she, because she wanted to escape, she hide in the temple of Athena, it was a big goddess. And Athena, instead of protecting her, she was quite angry because they used her temple for raping, and instead of protecting her, she even made her life worse.
She turned her into monster, not into monster, but into Medusa. So she still was beautiful, but instead of hair, she had the snakes, and plus she killed people with her eyes, but not really killed. I don’t know why there was such a strange punishment with snakes, I can’t understand. But still what Athena gave her this killing power. She turned people who looked at her, she turned into stone. So it was not killing. They will not die. They became stone. They became sculptures. And this for me was interesting. I said, "Wow, that is exactly what I’m doing. I’m turning people into stone." So it’s also kind of hidden self-portrait.
That’s great. And can you remind me, there’s an inscription. What’s the inscription around it?
Marianna Blier (28:53):
There are two phrases. So you can read this one, or basically there are two. First it is, it’s in Italian. First it is [Italian 00:29:04], which is translated, soft as a marble, but tenero also in Italian it means soft and it means tender. So it is double meaning. So for me, because for me, marble is not hard material. It’s very soft and it’s very tender material. So this is one part of the phrase, and then it becoming the other. But it can be written together. [Italian 00:29:28], sweet like the death. But also you can read [Italian 00:29:35]. So the idea that marble is sweet like death, but death again, it’s related to this Medusa ability, not to kill but to turn into stone. So death, it means something is becoming a sculpture.
You talked about the mountain there out of your bedroom window, and what that inspired. Could we go back to that?
Marianna Blier (30:08):
So when I did the sculpture with hands, I was ambitious to start something bigger. I was thinking, when I will find the stone, then the stone gives me an idea. I just want a beautiful stone. And the stone itself, it has this shape. It was maybe not exactly the shape of this Pieta mountain, but close, and it has more a shape of a angel wing. First I thought, "Oh, it’s an angel wing." But then I also saw if I cut slightly the edges, and then I can see this mountain, and was so beautifully white, with this bluish like a cloud or a sky part, and plus it has this shape. I still didn’t know what I could do out of this marble. I said, "I want this." This was a huge stone. I was thinking, "No, I still do not have enough skills and experience to work with such a big stone."
And then after this, I made the sculpture Hands. It was another miracle, my first sculpture. And I brought it to Vienna and I exhibited it in a gallery. And there was one visitor, a guy who said he liked it, but I didn’t want to sell my first sculpture, but this was the guy who was my first commission. He said, "Okay, I understand you don’t want to sell this, but make something similar for me, also with hands." But he also wanted a phrase, and he was also a person very much interested in philosophy. And he wanted to create a sculpture which symbolized free will and his own ideas about freedom to make a choice. And then after this commission, there was some more. So anytime I finished something, there were people who would like me to do something for them. So I had to postpone to return to this big sculpture.
But anytime I postpone, I became more and more experienced. So it’s already the past six years, and now I feel the forces to do, and I very clear see what I want to do. So yes, I see the image of Pieta, but also image very much related to Michelangelo Pieta, and very big reference to his Pieta. But his Pieta is this traditional woman holding a man. In my case it will be two women. So first of all, I want to break this tradition that the Christ is a man. And it’s not basically in particular about this story about Christ. It’s the story of [inaudible 00:32:42] of any person. And the story of relation between two loving people. It can be mother and son, it can be mother and daughter, it can be two sisters. So for me, and also especially now when this war happen, this image of a person who is dying, and hands, and the other person is holding the person whom she loved or she loved.
So gender doesn’t matter, and maybe it’s not even two persons, it’s one person, but maybe in different stages. So one person who, part of this person has internally died, and the other part is holding. So it’s more about the reflection of this self story. So there will be two women, one is more realistic, the other is more abstract, becoming a mountain. You can also interpret it as a mountain holding a person. So for me, Carrara Mountain was this supporting power which holds me as an artist, which holds me as a person, which gives me a process to live. So this stone was my first stone brought from the cave, and it was waiting me all these years, and now I’m ready to make this sculpture. So this is the story.
So thanks to Marianna Blier. You can see her work on her website, mariannablier.com, or on Instagram, @bliermarianna. Thanks too to Gail Skoff, whose photographs of Marianna can be found on our website, materiallyspeaking.com, and on Instagram. You can also check out more of Gail’s work on her website, gailskoff.com, and of course on Instagram, @skoffupclose. Thanks for listening, and if you’re enjoying Materially Speaking, subscribe to our newsletter on our website, so we can let you know when the next episode goes live.