Leonardo DiCaprio Had an ‘Open Mind’ When He Commissioned Artist Urs Fischer to Make This Very Unusual Portrait of His Family

The artist's latest portrait in wax, on view at Gagosian in Paris, shows the actor with his parents.

Leo (George & Irmelin) (2019). Copyright Urs Fischer, courtesy of Gagosian.

Urs Fischer coyly titled his new exhibition, now on view at Gagosian in Paris, “Leo,” and the announcement contained no information apart from a vague image of a torso facing another body. But if you look closely at that torso, you’ll figure out that it is a very, very famous torso—and there’s no mistaking that the “Leo” of the show’s title refers to the Oscar-winning actor, environmental activist, and art collector Leonardo DiCaprio.

At last night’s opening at Gagosian’s space on Due de Ponthieu, steps away from the Tuileries gardens, a thick crowd of Parisians and people in town for FIAC flooded the entryway, trying to get a glimpse of what exactly the Fischer was doing with the star of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Upon entering I witnessed a scrum of people huddled around the statue installed at the center of the gallery. I sifted through the people—including Larry Gagosian himself, surrounded by collectors such as Delphine Arnault and Maja Hoffmann, artists such as Marcus Jahmal and Jean-Marie Appriou, curator Francesco Bonami, dealers Bill Powers and Sadie Coles, and a man rocking bonkers-awesome Rick Owens high-heeled boots—and saw that the focus of the oohs and ahhhs was one of Fischer’s wax figurines, which are activated by lighting a candle on the top of the head. This melts the material, and the work of art eventually gets reduced to a pool of wax splattered on the floor.

Those who buy them—and they sell for almost as much as $1 million—can get the whole thing refabricated at cost ($50,000, in 2017) and delivered back to their home, ready to be melted again, and ordered again, and melted again, ad infinitum.

The work in the gallery. Photo: Nate Freeman

And, indeed, the man melting in Paris was Leo DiCaprio. That night the lit candle had taken off some of Leo’s forehead, and by today Leo’s skull is probably gone. Intriguingly, Leo isn’t depicted solo, but with his parents, George DiCaprio and Irmelin Indenbirken, who divorced when Leo was 1 year old. He was mostly brought up by his mom, who often accompanies her son to awards ceremonies and, sometimes, art openings. Intriguingly, in the sculpture, mom and dad are each interacting with a different Leo: from that very, very famous torso springs not one but two Leos, each with a full Leo head ready to be melted down. With his mom, he’s embraced in a bear hug and has plastered across his face that goofy Leo smile that’s known around the world. With his dad, Leo’s staring off into the distance—a distant Leo, an introspective Leo.

I wanted to ask Fischer about the twin Leo heads, but he had wandered off from his own opening, as he does from time to time, a studio manager explained. He actually just went a block away, to a cafe where the crowds at the show were still visible, to chat with Jasmine Tsou—the proprietor of New York’s beloved JTT gallery, where Fischer had a brief but brilliant pop-up show in 2017.

Fischer eventually came back to the gallery, and we found a spot to chat. “Leo initially approached me to do a portrait—some people approach me, you know,” Fischer said. “I know him, and I know everybody that I make the portraits of in one way or another. And I thought for a second, and I asked if he could do it with his parents. He said yeah, he was totally game, it was cool all the way. We all met, and we tried to figure out, and we went in with an open mind.”

I asked if Leo had seen pictures of the work (sadly, the real Leo was not present at the opening to pose alongside the wax Leo, which is actually bigger than the real one by about a foot.) “I don’t know if the parents saw it but, but I sent him photos, while it was in the process, and when it was finished,” Fischer said.

A view of the smiling Leo head. Photo: Nate Freeman.

While the work at the gallery is for sale, Leo commissioned it from Urs and will receive an artist’s proof, as is customary for those who the artist depicts in wax. The images were drawn from real interactions between the three of them, as they all posed for the artist together and he created scans of their interactions.

Fischer’s wax sculptures have always been conceptual works that acquire power as they disappear—and the process of destroying the thing and then buying a new version of the work for a fraction of what the original version of the statue cost is a pretty great commentary on this whole business—but this disappearing double-portrait makes for one of the best shows up in Paris right now because it achieves another kind of transformation. Here, Fischer has rendered one of the most recognizable faces in the world, the face of Leo, into a child of divorce, into something as simple as the son of a mother and a father.

“It’s like all of us—we all have parents, man, like it or not,” Fischer said. “Sometimes we like them and sometimes we don’t. That’s kind of how it goes.”

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