Francesco Vezzoli created The Bitter Tears of Vera von Lehndorff in 2002, the year after his performance at the 2001 Venice Biennale. There, in an act that showed his fascination with layers of reference and meaning, with a unique form of visual and artistic archaeology, he had taken the iconic 1960s German supermodel Veruschka, also known as Vera von Lehndorff, and had placed her in the pavilion as she embroidered her own image from decades earlier. Veruschka, who is still a presence in the fashion world and indeed recently starred in the James Bond film Casino Royale as one of the poker players, was on the cover of Vogue numerous times during the 1960s; she was also shown in the iconic scene of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup as the model he straddled while photographing her, a moment immortalised in the film posters. Vezzoli enthusiastically tapped into this glamour in Venice. 'It was a little dream,' Vezzoli recalled recently:
'I was invited to the Biennale for the first time. The idea was to take a fashion picture and dig out the roots of the image. We got Veruschka, we got the same dress from the Valentino archives, and the same hair extensions from the same Roman hairdresser. Veruschka was a great performer. She perfectly understood the spirit of the project. She was just sitting there doing needlework on the bench that Luchino Visconti used for Senso (1954). It was like a milkshake of references: Veruschka, Visconti, Valentino, Vezzoli. It was all just too much' (Vezzoli, quoted in S. Castets, 'Greed', V, Spring 2009, p. 230).
In The Bitter Tears of Vera von Lehndorff, Vezzoli has reprised the image of this Muse as she weeps sequin-like tears. He has taken this image and added a sadness to it, begging the viewer to look more carefully beyond the glamour and superficial nature of the source material, a fashion shot. Perhaps he is hinting at the privations Veruschka endured towards the end of the Second World War, following her father's execution as a would-be assassin of Adolf Hitler. Playing on the form of her name, Vezzoli has added another layer of reference in the title, which recalls Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a film with an all-female cast locked in a claustrophobic plot with lesbian overtones evident in their relationships. Vezzoli has thus created a work that has a palimpsest-like range of references to fashion, to glamour, to celebrity, to sexuality, to cinema and to history.