By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
At Level nightclub in South Beach on a Thursday night in late June, models pranced down the blood-red runway wearing sheer, hip-hugging sarongs below and body paint on top, outfits courtesy of Anastasia Monster of Art. On a stage the self-proclaimed “last of the Great Masters” splashed colors onto a canvas while two go-go girls dressed in cat suits danced to the blaring techno music. A crowd of partiers stood mesmerized, at times confused by the whirl of activity. “It was absolutely breathtaking,” says Gerry Kelly, a Miami Beach clothing designer, part owner of Level, and all-around clubland specter.
Anastasia is a nightlife temptress herself, with her cultivated Gothic look -- she often wears a cape in public and has long black hair, ashen skin, full red lips, and piercing blue eyes accentuated by exaggerated makeup -- and with her self-titled moniker, Monster of Art. She's also a Renaissance woman in a South Beach kind of way: By her own account she sculpts, restores cathedrals, designs clothing, paints, draws, plays the piano, composes, sings, takes photographs, models, and speaks nine languages, including Latin.
Anastasia also dabbles in car detailing. Parked outside Level that same evening was a limited-edition Monster of Art custom-designed Jaguar XJ8. This English luxury sedan made its official debut at North Miami-Dade's Warren Henry Jaguar back in May 1999. It features $40,000 worth of exterior and interior designs in 250 grams of 24-karat gold, accents in silver and bronze, gemstones, and hand-painted Greco-Roman images. The car retails for about $110,000, but so far no takers, says Warren Henry Zinn, the dealership owner.
Not that there haven't been a few inquiries. For instance Felix Trinidad, the boxer promoted by Mr. Showmanship himself Don King, almost bought the flashy Jag. But in a slightly embarrassing moment for dealer and artist, the boxer and his flamboyant promoter backed out at the last minute. In what was billed to be a star-studded event, members of the media, including Univision and Channel 10 (WPLG-TV), as well as members of the richer-than-average public filled the Warren Henry Jaguar dealership on a Friday night in July; they milled about and waited for the duo to arrive. And waited. The dealership's business manager, Jorge Villalon, betrayed some skepticism when he remarked, “Who would buy that? Lets hope Trinidad does.” But he didn't. The Anastasia-decorated ride, which she designed for “a warrior,” remained motionless in the showroom at the end of the evening, without a noble hero to drive it into the sunset. “They should have released it right in front of Versace's house, with all those rubies and all that gold,” said a press photographer who asked not to be identified. “It's a tad too much.”
Actually Anastasia has something else planned for that area in front of Versace's former home: a golden fountain. In fact all that glitters, especially if it is a tad too much, is what Anastasia sells and what, Trinidad aside, a number of South Florida celebrities and wannabes buy. The artist, who boasts both in person and in her promotional materials that she was born on the same day as Leonardo da Vinci, began weaving a web of gaudy art the moment she arrived from Italy three years ago; for the unabashed self-promoter, South Beach and its particular purveyors of style were a perfect fit. Perhaps her most famous client to date is Sylvester Stallone, who commissioned Monster of Art to paint Madonna di Stallone, a portrait of his wife, Jennifer Flavin, and their baby; any resemblance to a Renaissance painting of Mary and the Christ child is entirely intentional.
The 34-year-old model and former nightclub owner instantly fell in love with South Beach. “It's a paradise,” Anastasia says from her carpeted condo in South Beach, which doubles as an art studio and overlooks Star Island. The walls are covered with paintings, sketches of sculptures she plans to erect in public spaces, and computer printouts of photographs in which Anastasia is surrounded by the rich and famous. There's even one of her greeting Pope John Paul II. Inside a cage dangling from the ceiling is a three-month-old Amazon-green Brazilian parrot named Picasso that Anastasia says she will teach to be as multilingual as herself. She calls him her son. Next to the bird cage there's a small television set atop two plastic crates spray-painted gold; other crates are topped with gold sculptures. In the center of the living room is a leopard-print area rug. “When I come to South Beach I go crazy. Beautiful people, young, happy -- it's something magic,” Anastasia comments in her heavily accented English. “I became very interested to stay in Miami because Italy was full of art. Here I really can fill a big hole, because America is a new country and it gives me the possibility to build big monuments. Americans are very open because they're new. To South Beach I like to give a lot.”
Monster of Art's entourage, which includes Europeans, Europhiles, assorted socialites from as far north as Palm Beach, and those who claim nobility, call her a genius and pay special tribute to her beauty and wit. (She refers to herself as a monster because “I am the best of the best. My father always told me I was the incarnation of Leonardo.”)
Chief among the circle of admirers is Anastasia's Norwegian manager and housemate, Sir Roy von Hansen. The six-foot-six former Alpine skier with long golden locks says he's a Knight of Malta, though the 29-year-old was dubbed by a bogus prince whose exploits have been recounted in this paper (Diplomatic Impunity, July 24, 1997). But more on his titles later. Hansen wears dark sunglasses at night when he accompanies Anastasia; the two complement each other in a ghoulish kind of way, she with her raven-haired Elvira-inspired look, he her pallid counterpart. Hansen handles Monster of Art's day-to-day affairs. More important though, he does the networking at high-society charity events and in South Beach nightclubs that sets the stage for “the maestra,” as Hansen calls her, to charm her audience. Hansen lines up prospective buyers of Anastasia's art. “We produce few pieces and at a very personal level,” Hansen says. The list includes names (again also printed in promos) of suitably impressive clients; customers include the deceased King Hussein of Jordan and the Vatican. Lately they've been courting City of Miami Beach officials, trying to interest them in monstrous sculptures for public spaces, though the city is turning out to be a tougher sale.
The couple's professional arrangement is unheard of in the art world, says Helen Kohen, a former art critic for the Miami Herald, of the match made in Heaven or Hell. “She has an in-house promoter; that's rare,” Kohen says. “In the art world there are agents and dealers. Manager is a word usually applied to a prize fighter.” Together Anastasia and Hansen have woven in members of Miami's monied elite known for their philanthropy, not necessarily their status as serious contemporary art collectors. They've also attracted an equally artistically backward, though much younger, VIP-room jet set.
Michael Capponi, owner of 320, a new nightclub that will open in October near Lincoln Road Mall, where Bar Room used to be, has just closed a deal with Hansen and Anastasia. The former skateboarder, who's been living in Miami since 1978, has chosen Anastasia to design the club's logos and paint the walls of an upstairs VIP area to be called the Anastasia Room. “I think she does great work,” Capponi says, cell phone in hand. “She's Miami's greatest artist, and I want to give her an Anastasia room.”
But while Anastasia's lifestyle revolves around a very in and now crowd, she says her muse remains grounded in the old world. In fact Michelangelo, who along with da Vinci comes up in conversation often, visits Monster of Art in her dreams. “I dream all my ideas,” Anastasia explains. “When I wake up in the morning, I write my ideas. I dream everything. In my dreams I meet with Leonardo, Dali, Michelangelo.” According to a glossy brochure, Anastasia has “invented the style New Renaissance.” Impossible, says Kohen. “In art you can only invent a technique. It seems like she's invented a new style of creating an atmosphere of celebrity and then fitting herself in. The art world doesn't even blink at this.”
In the foyer of Carlo Amato's Grove Isle condominium, Ermias Sahle-Selassie, the grandson of Halie Selassie (the late Ethiopian emperor whom Rastafarians believe was the incarnation of the black Messiah) sits at the dining-room table, chain-smokes Marlboro Lights, and talks about being in exile since the age of fourteen. Selassie awards young Ethiopians scholarships to study in the United States through an organization he named after his late grandfather. Amato, an Italian native who also holds a dubious knighthood, says he hunts leopards and elephants in Africa and has tusks arching over a couch in his study to prove it. He's helping Selassie with the organization.
He is the proud owner of two Anastasia originals and has hooked up Monster of Art and Hansen with Selassie. They plan to auction off a painting, and most of the proceeds will go to Selassie's scholarship fund. “Anastasia is reachable,” Amato says. “She does what you see; you don't have to guess. I like to know what I am seeing. She's a rather unusual person, but most artists are,” he offers. Not that he praises all her talents equally. “Now the Jaguar thing is not my cup of tea,” he says. “She said she'd do it to my car and I said, “Please no. Do something else.' I would not like to meet these people who have this done to their cars, but somebody will go for it. She's able to charm people into making them feel what she wants to express. It's part of the game; she has a group of followers.”
Sanford Ziff owns an Anastasia original: a drawing of Moses. Ziff, benefactor of the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum, former owner of Sunglass Hut, and currently an importer of alpaca (wool from a South American animal related to the llama), met Anastasia two years ago while at a private party in Key Biscayne with his wife, Dolores. “She was wearing those glasses, you know with the eyelashes, and we've been friends ever since,” Dolores says, sounding like Mrs. Howell from Gilligan's Island. “She's really quite an enchanting person, you know -- tall and exotic and clever -- and I adore her glasses.”
The glasses Dolores speaks of are just one more of the multitasking Anastasia's inventions, one that another supporter has literally bought into. He is Clayton Umbel, a former partner of a steel mill in New Jersey who is now an insurance consultant. He loves Anastasia's glasses so much he's starting a company that will mass-produce them. “I said, “We can do something with this!'” Umbel exclaims. The company will be called Smart Art, Inc. Already, Umbel says, nine shareholders are involved in the venture. In October Anastasia, Hansen, and Umbel will go to Hong Kong to kick off the manufacturing of her glasses. Umbel and his wife, Lisa, own half a dozen Anastasia creations, from paintings to sculptures. “I've collected her art because she's one of those gifted people who seems to say the right thing at the right time,” Umbel says. “She is certainly one of those people connected to the light.”
Gloria Hollis, a Palm Beach socialite and actress who says she volunteers for a whopping 265 charities, has an Anastasia portrait of herself hanging in her home. It was a gift, she says. Anastasia covered the 30 by 42-inch plaster-based board with 24-karat gold leaf. “She sees me as a leopard, so my face, my whole body, is like a cat woman,” Hollis explains. “It's very Gothic.” Anastasia and Hansen sit on committees for two organizations with which Hollis is involved.
Sylvia Fragos, who works in real estate, organized an exhibition for Anastasia on Williams Island in January. More than 500 people attended the Sunday penthouse brunch, Fragos says, and Monster of Art sold six pieces and was commissioned to paint three portraits. Fragos says the works sold ranged from $5000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Her work is very different from the run-of-the-mill artist of the day; it's very personal,” Fragos explains. In March, during a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation charity event, Fragos organized a fashion show and art ball for Anastasia held at the Williams Island Ocean Club. Anastasia painted live. The piece was auctioned off for about $3000. “She's a very exciting individual,” Fragos asserts. “I'm just in awe of her.”
Monster of Art seems to focus on three themes in her paintings: Medusas, mermaids, and madonnas. She throws into the mix dragons and Roman ruins, but once in a while she tackles more profound topics; for instance she has painted a closeup portrait of an agonizing Jesus nailed to the cross. Her most popular piece, of which she has painted variations that have been bought by lawyers and business executives, she says, is a sepia-tone image of an Old World library full of leather-bound books.
Another huge fan is LeiMarco, a local fashion designer originally from Italy, who designs clothes for Anastasia and has worked on some projects with her. Anastasia hand-paints corsets and has collaborated with LeiMarco on fifteen art and fashion shows. Last month they did a show at B.E.D., the restaurant/club in South Beach where patrons literally eat and drink on mattresses. In October they're planning a private event on Fisher Island. A prince from Pakistan, celebrities from Hollywood, and the sons of Mexico's previous president Ernesto Zedillo will attend, LeiMarco says. “For me Anastasia is the Dali of the millennium,” the 27-year-old opines. “She is a genius. She's my big diva in my shows. When she's onstage she becomes a monster.”
Vittorio Viglianesi, a Design District developer from Italy, has six Anastasias back home in Rome, three in his Palm Island villa, and two more he calls “jokes.” “Now I show you the jokes,” Viglianesi says, briskly walking from his living room to a bedroom, smoking a cigarette. One is a portrait done on a piece of cardboard of Viglianesi's girlfriend, a digital artist from France named Sylvie. “Anastasia did it in an hour one night after dinner as a gift,” he says. “She's very fast.” The other, a bat woman painted on a wall outside, near the pool, Anastasia did one Saturday afternoon when Viglianesi invited her for lunch. “She told me: “I want to make you a gift,' and I said, “I'd like something hard.' I don't have the taste of most businessmen my age,” says the 53-year-old, who owns a Hummer.
One of Anastasia's biggest buyers has been Warren Henry Zinn. The owner of Warren Henry Jaguar declined to give details of his dealings with Anastasia and Hansen, and the artist's manager doesn't discuss business transactions either. Instead Hansen likes to use the words “gift,” “charity,” and “donation.” Hansen says there's a contract, but it's unclear if it binds Zinn to a set number of Anastasia Jags. In June the Miami Herald reported that ten cars were produced in 1999 and another twenty were slated to go on sale in 2000. Big dreams but no cigar. “I don't think the idea was ever for someone to buy the car,” fashion designer Gerry Kelly says. “It's like the designer doing haute couture. We do all these crazy pieces even though we know no one will buy them.” Zinn claims sales have gone up from the various party unveilings. “The car has given us exposure to customers who live in other areas who never knew we were here,” he says.
Irina Anastasia Bogatchev was born in Florence, Italy, the only child of an Italian mother and a Russian Orthodox priest. She says she was raised in a monastery in Zagorsk, Russia, under the tutelage of another Russian Orthodox priest and uncle, where she learned age-old techniques used by Italian Renaissance artists, among other things. “We were self-sufficient,” Anastasia recalls. “We would only buy what we could not produce ourselves.”
In 1989, at the age of 23, she left the monastery to discover the outside world. She slept in train stations until landing work as a model in Milan. While modeling for five years, Anastasia says she perfected her art on the side. In 1991 she got a break: She was hired as the interior designer and decorator of two restaurants in Rome and Milan. Each has more than 50 Anastasia paintings on display. In 1993 the Vatican commissioned Anastasia to do restorations and consultations on some antique frescoes, she claims. That year she created her first line of fashion, called Anastasia Couture. Then the big time: In 1997 Sylvester Stallone (she calls the actor who played Rambo “Stalloné”) commissioned her to paint a portrait in Miami of his wife, the Madonna di Stallone. She also designed for him a humidor with Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed going head to head painted on top.
Around the same time she was working on Stallone's Madonna, Anastasia met Roy Hansen at the Living Room, a very velvet-rope South Beach nightclub. They met for lunch the next day, and Hansen has been hooked ever since. While most assume the two are dating, Hansen says they simply are close friends. They live together on Palm Island and share a penthouse studio at the Floridian, located on West Avenue in South Beach. Randy Gumenick, part owner of the Floridian, also owns some works by Anastasia. He turned down an interview.
Sir Roy von Hansen, who says he comes from a family of art collectors, was vacationing in South Florida in 1995 when he decided “it was time to switch terrain and come to tropical Miami for good.” On and off he's been living in the Magic City since 1997. He says he made a living organizing events at clubs before he met Anastasia. He inherited the “von” title from his mother; the sir, however, was no hand-me-down -- that was obtained in Coral Gables, from an order of poser knights.
Hansen became a sir through the services of a peddler of phony titles, one Enrico Vigo, who calls himself Prince Henri Paleologue and claims to be a grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, a religious military order dating back to 1070. Now it's made up of wealthy Catholics who are committed to charitable and humanitarian relief and to preserving church dogma. According to Guy Stair Sainty, a historiographer of the British Order of St. John, respected scholar, and an honest-to-god certified knight, Hansen, Amato, and Vigo are not authentic Knights of Malta. South Florida, he says, is a hotbed for pseudoprinces, noble pretenders, and alternative knights who have purchased their titles.
Vigo also claims Pope John Paul II recognized him as the hereditary emperor of Byzantium and Prince of Thessaly. “This man has come from nowhere,” Sainty says. “All his claims are an absolute hoax. A butcher could have made [Hansen] a knight.” Vigo, who is originally from Germany, was once a hairdresser in Genoa. He came to South Florida because “there is a lot of money and incredibly ignorant people,” Sainty adds with a sneer. “They all dress up and go to parties and in their minds they imagine that they're part of high society Europe. It's the kind of thing that gets Americans ridiculed.” During the 1980s Vigo was a celebrated social fixture among the Palm Beach gentry. The “prince” threw one of the biggest parties in town, the Imperial Byzantine Ball, and has bestowed many South Floridians with titles for a price in ceremonies held at Palm Beach's Flagler Museum. “It's his business,” Sainty comments. Lately Vigo has been knighting people at the Biltmore Hotel. That's where Hansen became Sir Hansen this past March. Though he denies ever having paid for his title, Hansen says Anastasia had been planning to donate one of her paintings to the Miami chapter of the Knights of Malta. “That won't be happening now, that's for sure,” says an embarrassed Hansen, who says he didn't know about the bogus nature of the local knights until being informed by New Times.
On an early Tuesday afternoon, before Anastasia appears for an interview, Hansen gives New Times a museumlike tour of the studio and explains that Monster of Art “loses a lot of energy talking, so I take care of the boring stuff. She works nonstop. She gets so lost into her painting she loses time and space. She suffers from poor circulation from painting in the same position for long stretches of time; all of her blood goes to her brain and she has a very big brain.”
Hansen elaborates on the ideas that fuel her art and describes the techniques Anastasia uses to create. “The Vatican commissioned Anastasia to do this one,” Hansen says. “It's called Libre et Libre and it's painted on hardwood, which is prepared with ten layers of silk [it was the prototype for the popular library paintings]. For color she uses egg tempera, a combination of egg yolks and pulverized precious stones. The color lasts for 2000 years. It makes the piece immortal. It's the maximum you can get from a painting.” Mozart plays softly in the background, and Anastasia remains locked inside a bedroom for a full hour. “Miami hasn't realized how fortunate it is to have an artist of her stature,” Hansen boasts.
When Anastasia finally emerges, she's dressed in a metallic dark blue Armani mesh coat, black pants, and black, rounded, bulky shoes. “Sorry, I was working,” she says while shaking her hands, and then heads for the kitchen. She returns shortly and brusquely asks the New Timesreporter: “Where are you from? Oh, Cuba [pronounced Cooba]; I have been to Cuba many times.” Anastasia goes into the kitchen, brings back a cup of tea, and returns to sit on an oversize red velvet couch, which she designed. “My art is very classic,” Anastasia begins. “But not conservative. I always think of new generation. I like to invent, always something new. Because what is important in your life is to give something to society. If not your life is for nothing. [That] is my message.”
Hansen is sitting at a distance and has faded into the background with Mozart, though he monitors Anastasia's English by correcting her pronunciation and throwing out words that escape her. There's talk about their vision of South Beach. “Our mission is to promote Italian art and culture here in Miami,” Hansen says.
One of Anastasia's biggest projects is Miami 2000, a colossal golden bronze monument she wants to build in Bicentennial Park. The 170-foot structure overlooking Biscayne Bay would be seen from “every corner of Miami,” Anastasia describes. In her design Anastasia has planned for 2000 marble steps leading to the sculpture's base, with fountains and laser lights. Above, a torch-bearing siren representing the glory of Miami would be upheld by an outstretched arm of a man, with fluttering birds below. “We think this monument would put Miami on the map,” Hansen contends. “All great cities have a monument. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rio de Janeiro has the Christ on the sugar loaf, Miami will have Miami 2000.”
Then there's the Versace Forever fountain, which she hopes to erect across the street from the slain designer's former mansion. Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin looked at sketches of the design a year ago at Anastasia's studio. He declined to give his opinion, only saying that a final decision should come from the commission after the Beach's art in public places committee makes a recommendation. But Hansen hasn't proposed the project yet. He hasn't contacted anyone one from the City of Miami about Miami 2000, either.
While riding around South Beach in the back seat of the still-ownerless Jaguar, Anastasia stakes out the areas where she envisions her brand of art on display. “You see this meeting place?” Anastasia asks, referring to some bleachers under a hut on the grassy area along Ocean Drive. “Look at this, look at this, nobody go there, horrible. You make fountain and all the young people, children, mothers with babies go.... The fountain brings life; it's a beautiful creation. The Versace monument will be black marble and bronze, gold-plated with Medusas. And Medusas [will] throw drinking water for poor people, a gift from Versace.”
Then there's the South Shore Branch Library at 225 Washington Ave., in front of which Monster of Art wants to erect a gold-plated sculpture of an open book between two Romanesque pillars. “I like gold,” says Anastasia of her desire to cover most of her creations in the metal. She even cooks a killer risotto, she says, using champagne and gold leaf. “To me gold is like the sun.”
“It brings people energy,” Hansen adds. “But I don't take sun,” Anastasia retracts. “I stay in shadows. I like to see outside, but I always stay in shadows. I love sun, but my skin cannot take sun, because my skin is very white,” she explains. “Though sometimes we go boating,” Hansen interjects.
At B.E.D. some nights later, a friend of Anastasia, who asked that his name not be published, summed up Anastasia's talent in a few sentences. “Everybody else comes second when it comes to her,” asserts the Peruvian native. “She's so artistic it's not even funny. Her mind is from the Fifteenth Century; her body is from the Twenty-first.” And, he asks, “Have you ever seen Anastasia's big blue eyes?”