Glamour girl turned artist

First an actress and later the wife of an Italian prince, Nike Arrighi Borghese found art by accident.

She never trained as a visual artist. It was the time she spent in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s that got her started. Marriage took her there and watching construction sites and the changing landscape got her started on her drawings, which later led to an interest in painting and etching.

In the mid-1970s, she married her late husband, Prince Paolo di Borghese, whose family has over several centuries produced a pope and other influential Italian political figures. She gave up her acting career, having starred in movies such as the 1968 horror film The Devil Rides Out with Christopher Lee and director Francois Truffaut's 1973 Oscar- winning comedy Day For Night.

"My husband was based in Hong Kong then," the chatty and sprightly yoga practitioner, who looks a lot younger than 70, tells Life!. "I had left my acting career behind and somehow art found me. Perhaps it was meant to."

Mr Paolo Borghese, an engineer who built the cable car system for the territory's Ocean Park in the late 1970s, died in 1999 of a heart attack at age 65. They have a grown-up daughter, Flavia.

Nike Borghese is in Singapore to present her first solo show here.

Titled Italy: Art, History And Emotions, it features more than 50 works including paintings, watercolours, etchings and oils on canvases priced between $500 and $16,000.

It is, in fact, quite a milestone to be here, she says.

"This is my 50th solo exhibition and, quite by chance, it happens to be my first one here. I have no idea why Singapore never happened before, given how often I have transited through here right from the 1970s."

She has watched the intense transformation of the city state through hotel room windows. While a lot has changed, she commends Singapore for being "a wonderfully green city that has kept many elements of its heritage intact. I absolutely love visiting Little India", she says.

She adds: "I like to watch how the landscape changes or is altered. I am drawn to construction sites. Even when I am painting the Colosseum, I am looking for signs of what is being done to keep it the way it was."

Several of the works on display document this. For instance, Close-Up, a 35cm x 26cm etching done in 1976 which won the first prize in the Biennial organised by the Hong Kong Museum of Art, shows a construction site with bamboo fastened with rope. As an artist, she looks for sites like these.

"When I travel, I am always looking at the view from the hotel room window or the apartment I am staying at to see what the city looks like," she says. One such undated work, titled The View, catches Sydney in its glory through her window.

She is equally drawn to water and loves to spend time on the beach watching people and the fluid movements of water. Water figures prominently in several of her art works in this show. She captures the calmness of a duck gently wading in a pond in one and beach balls bobbing in the sea in another.

"I spend a lot of time swimming on the beach. There is something about the sea. It is seemingly never ending. That is what I want my art to be. I want each viewer to imagine, to perhaps be able to reflect through it."

Reflection is what has driven much of her life. In 2009, Umberto Croppi, Rome's Councillor for Culture called her "an artist who knows how to see".

Born in Nice, France, where her father, Mr Ernesto Arrighi, was the Italian consul, the globe-trotting artist was raised in Sydney, worked in London and now lives in Artena, south of Rome.

She teaches art at the Academy of International Arts in Rome and feels it is important to share what she has learnt over the years. She enjoys teaching as much as painting.

With an almost yogic calm, she says: "Life is beautiful because we share."


This article was first published on Sep 29, 2014.
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