Jeanne Grignani, born Michot, was ‘the great woman behind the great man’.
Despite her shyness, she had a strong personality.
She was born on the first day of spring in 1916 in Melitopol, near Odessa, Ukraine. At the time, her father was a professor of French literature at the Imperial Lyceum of Moscow. With the impending 1917 Russian Revolution looming ahead, they left Russia from the northern port of Murmansk, and after various adventures through England and France, they finally arrived in Italy.
She spoke perfect French and went on translating Chekhov from the original, while listening to Tchaikovsky and Musorgskij, till her last days. I started tracing her origins in 1995 and only recently I have found out that her family had had French Brittany noble origins for about 800 yrs (see: myheritage.fr); but she wasn’t aware of this during her lifetime.
In Italy, Jeanne was a fashion figure artist, as well as a poster designer, and created some of the most beautiful Italian fashion posters in the fifties, highlighting the high quality of the Italian style (next to Brunetta – whom she admired very much – in the periodical of Bemberg, or in the periodical ‘Fili’ – ‘Threads’ – edited by Domus). She worked for brands of national importance (Pirelli, la Rinascente, Singer, Necchi, Borsalino, etc.), and supported Franco greatly for several years, after marrying him in 1942 (with some difficulties, and with the crucial help of the Consulate, being considered of ‘unwanted’ French origins).
“In 1943, after the army was dissolved, I returned to Bergamo where my wife and Daniela, born in those days, lived displaced. What to do? My wife designed for fashion, I could help her inventing models; but I was not a tailor, I was interested in vertical lines, axes, horizontal relationships in the female figure; I was, in short, the Courrèges of that time. The first results were disastrous; my models looked like vaults. But slowly, slowly, observing my wife’s drawings, sweet figures with hands playing in the wind, of a liberty femininity, I understood that I had to draw the lines from the fluctuating movements of the figure, and from the coordination of the decorative relationships. Thus, until 1946, we lived on this work.”[from the Italian-French magazine ‘arte e società’, 6/7, 1973]
At the very beginning, Jeanne drew in a quite scholastic way, but Franco probably already understood her artistic potential and was used to bringing her mountains of American magazines with inserts from talented designers (“I had subscribed to the Sunday insert of the New York Times” – ibid) that she studied with great interest.
She was highly regarded (in 1960 she won the second ‘Rossana’ prize in Santa Margherita Ligure for “having presented creations of great taste and sketched with enviable skill”) and received many letters of admiration, but she did not like public events, she left home very rarely and preferred Franco to receive the honours for her. But the choice not to attend fashion shows turned out to be one of her strengths: she was not influenced by the environment and she was freer to express herself.
Jeanne certainly contributed to enhancing some of her husband’s advertisements and it is known that she was a fundamental driving force behind Franco’s success with the Palma d’Oro in 1959 for Necchi’s successful advertising campaign.
I know she loved René Gruau, but she had a lighter style and the women she portrayed had great femininity, they were thin as if they had no weight (“seem to proceed lightly on spring meadows”, as it was written in the Italian magazine ‘Gioia’ in 1952, or “shampoo women”, as my grandfather called them), quite in contrast with the prevailing style of the time. She believed in the advertising motto ‘dress well’ (‘vesti bene‘) to the point that I’ve never seen my grandmother without her high-heeled shoes, for which she had a real passion! (During a bombing raid on Milan during the Second World War, she told me she had fearlessly gone back on her bicycle to collect a box of brand-new shoes that had fallen on her way…)
Antonio Boggeri, who in 1933 opened the legendary Studio Boggeri, one of the best and most important design studios in the world with whom both Jeanne and Franco collaborated, wrote an article which appeared in 1954 in the Swiss magazine Graphis, issue n° 56 (a periodical committed to presenting and promoting the work of exceptional talent in international graphic design, advertising, photography, art, and illustration) under the title: “Jeanne & Franco Grignani”.
The text is originally in English (as well as in French and in German):
To compare J. and F. Grignani with other famous artist couples would be interesting only if something more definite were known about their method of working. For my own part, however, I should be at a loss to say by what system of collaboration their finished designs are really produced; and though I have known them for many years, I have never pried very deeply into a secret which has seemed to me of little importance to those who are primarily interested in the results.
Jeanne and Franco Grignani are husband and wife, and it may be that in their work they quarrel and make up like any other mortal couple. But the facts behind their artistic relationship – whether the personality of the one has influenced the other, whether the wife exercises a critical function, whether she contributes ideas and argues about them, and what would have become of the one without the other’s company – these things are difficult to ascertain. More has therefore been written about their visible accomplishments than about the interplay of their characters, the stimulating effect, say, of a romantic temperament on one of more meditative bent, or the reactions of contrasting disposition.
The one thing that is clear is that the more pictorial qualities of Jeanne’s work harmonize perfectly with her husband’s fine graphic sensibility. The dreamy elegance of her figures seems made to measure for the subtle tastes of Franco Grignani; and in fifteen years of unbroken collaboration their two voices have been trained to blend in a perfect duet. The ideas are mostly the husband’s, but when his graphic compositions centre upon a figure, he asks his wife to supply it. It is here, I imagine, that discussions begin on how the figure is to look, though no-one has so far overheard them.
Jeanne Grignani was born in Russia and went as a child to France before settling in Milan. An accomplished pen might digress very charmingly on a past so individual and rich in promise. And it seems significant that in the female figures that blossom from her brush there is something of the energy-packed fragility, the nervous delicacy of the slightly mysterious persona who produced them.
There is, I am told, a surprising correlation between the characters of children and the graphic world of their drawings. I think, perhaps, that when an artist’s work comes within the compass of a single design, a design that repeats itself incessantly with variations drawn only from passing fashions, this unique image must in some way be an image of the artist, just as the child’s drawing is the spontaneous expression of its own identity. That is why I always see, in the figures drawn by Jeanne G., a little of herself.
Franco’s work is very different; its relation to the free fantasy of a fashion drawing is that of a caged bird to a swallow. His is the world of graphic precision: rigorous, subtle, made up only of pure apperceptions, minute optical vibrations: things not quickly learnt and impossible to impart.
Grignani knows his keyboard as well as any pianist. He knows that sometimes a drawing is needed, a very definite drawing, and he has beside him, as in a fairy story, the very hand that can provide it. Then, with the drawing before him, discussed and revised once or half a dozen times, he begins his task of assimilation, absorbing completely what was at first extraneous to him; and in the end the finished work seems as though it must have come in a flash, conceived and projected by a single mind. And in fact very few people, even in Milan, know that there are two Grignani’s; though everybody, and especially the feminine world, is familiar with her designs, ubiquitous in the fashion journals.
It was out of this closed world that her husband offered her egress, and it is a pity only that the instances of such a fruitful collaboration are not more frequent. For the examples are rare in which drawings come into their full rights and are integrated in this way in graphic compositions, blended on an equal footing with the chosen elements of modern art.
Jeanne Grignani’s sketches will be exhibited in 2020 at the Pirelli Foundation (re-scheduled), as part of an exhibition dedicated to women who had been protagonists of the 1900s: “a story of female creativity and innovation”.
More pics of the ‘Vesti Bene, Vesti LANA’ advertising campaign can be browsed from the website of the Cirulli Foundation.
further related post: A monograph on Jeanne Grignani
[*] courtesy of Daniela Grignani
[a] from 2a Mostra Nazionale Artisti Publicitari, 1959
[b] & featured pic from Italian Ways: 1 & 2
[c] from Graphis issue n° 33, 1950
 AIAP / CDPG Centro di Documentazione sul Progetto Grafico, courtesy of Lorenzo Grazzani
Last Updated on 29/09/2021 by Emiliano