L’autrice di quelle pagine si chiamava Carla Lonzi. Come è possibile, mi dissi, che una donna sappia pensare così? Ho faticato tanto sui libri, ma li ho subiti, non li ho mai veramente usati, non li ho mai rovesciati contro se stessi. Ecco come si pensa.
The author of those pages was called Carla Lonzi. How is it possible, I wondered, that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking.
Taci, anzi parla: “Shut up. Or rather, speak,” as Italian art critic turned activist Carla Lonzi called her “Diary of a Feminist” in 1978. Her title indicated an imperative mood full of doubts as to what to do with words, right at the point of her public disclosure of the private notes she had kept from 1972 to 1977. Her diary noted personal experiences, dreams, meetings, and reflections: an ever-moving stream-of-consciousness-style record that was also an attempt to master written language from a woman’s perspective. Likewise, I might classify some of my own recent explorations as a “language movement,” i.e., an itinerary that draws me near to a cluster of Italian women artists and art writers from the 1960s and ’70s that were connected by their redefinition of language as something textual, corporeal, performative, political, and oblique. Although often uncomfortable with the idea of “rediscovering,” I’ve found myself increasingly attracted to this late-century period, when the boom of mass media, commercial communication, and the fetishism of modern technologies in Italy found a subversive antidote in visual poetry and the so-termed Nuova Scrittura (New Writing).
Such writing placed itself at the intersection between image, word, and nonverbal codes. For women writers, artists, and activists like Lonzi, as well as Carla Accardi, Mirella Bentivoglio, Tomaso Binga, Ketty La Rocca, Lucia Marcucci, and Giulia Niccolai, among others, this was a period of articulation, of new experimental forms of expression that attempted to break free from the semiotic and silencing constraints of the patriarchal order, overburdened with the oppressive legacy of Fascism and Catholic morality.
Perhaps my attraction to this past era is an unconscious reaction to the current new wave (or deluge) of “technological language,” which occupies all spaces of communication and contact, dictates social rules and behaviors, and increasingly pushes singularities into pre-ordered, promptly marketable forms of narration: assertive, extroverted, outspoken. I think the polar pull of this postwar work for me is also, however, a reaction to my specific situation of speaking in Italian but writing mostly in English, my lingua franca and perennially vague terrain, where assertiveness meets so many limits. Interrogations on how to make oneself seen and heard, and to expand the capacity of generating audibility without losing touch with one’s “peripheral” perspective and culture, are my own concerns, just as they were those of a group of Italian women so many decades before me. As is the continuing need for women writers and artists everywhere to individuate a means of expression beyond cramping binary logics—the need to speak up instead of being silenced.
I first began this travel backwards thanks to artists like Binga, La Rocca, and Marcucci, who didn’t label themselves as feminists or actively participate in the movement but whose deconstruction of the codes of communication generated eloquent forms of “difference,” where female identity is called into play as a medium of resistance. Frequently ignored or indexed as “minor” and marginal by mainstream criticism, these artists surfaced together with a generation of women art writers like Lonzi, Lea Vergine, and Annemarie Sauzeau, all of whom I have learned to listen to. Nevertheless, until recently their works had a limited visibility and volume both within and beyond Italy’s borders. A peculiarity of the Italian context is that some crucial voices of the twentieth-century feminist movements—like that of Lonzi, for instance—had strong links with contemporary art. Paths from the visual to the verbally articulated kept crossing in my head. I was fascinated by how these women found ways out of a condition of muteness: the artists détourned readymade images of popular culture, turned to asemantic writing, and raised their voices in performances, readings, and live actions, while the writers employed a language that asserted its need to be reinvented, reprocessed, and filtered by female subjectivity.
Mirella Bentivoglio, Io (Me, 1970s)
Indeed, in Julia Kristeva’s introduction to La lingua della nutrice: percorsi e tracce dell’espressione femminile (The language of the foster-mother: Routes and traces of female expression, 1978), written by Italian art historian, critic, and writer Elisabetta Rasy, Kristeva talks specifically about women’s “texts of silence”: “interwoven with the unsaid, riddled with repetitions, where women articulate, with the parsimony of their words and the ellipsis of their syntax, an innate gap of our monological culture: the saying of non being.” Kristeva’s note about the status and saying of women’s “nonbeing” is central. Before the advent of leftist students’ and workers’ movements in 1968 and the following decade, Italian women—who had gained voting rights only in 1945—were widely disadvantaged, but had little right to say so. The Fascist Family Code, untouched since the forties, positioned them on a subordinate level, mostly as mothers and carers. Until 1963, women could be legally fired if they got married and were denied access to entire sectors of the public service, like the judiciary; the protection of female workers was sanctioned only in 1972, a year after the institution of public nursery schools. In the period I am retracing here, the short-lived Italian economic boom had a gender-specific impact: between 1959 and 1965, more than a million women lost their jobs. In 1969, the percentage of female workers had dropped to 25 percent. Women were pushed back into the domestic sphere and the traditional role of casalinga, the housewife, pictured, by contrast, as obsessively happy in the illustrated magazines and advertisements of the time. Divorce was legalized in 1970 and a referendum to repeal the law was defeated in 1974. In 1975, the reform of family law finally granted equal rights to both spouses. Abortion was at last ratified in 1978, after heated debate and conflict.
In the meantime, the postwar need to rethink and reformulate education on more egalitarian bases—education being one of the few fields where the professional role of women was crucial—generated radical pedagogical experiences. These included the Scuola di Barbiana, run by the priest Don Lorenzo Milani, who wrote a famous book about the experience, Lettera a una professoressa (Letter to a teacher, 1967), which critiqued the inequity of an Italian system that favored the children of the wealthy and disregarded the poor. In 1971, psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli and Lea Melandri and Luisa Muraro, two leaders of Italian feminism, started the magazine L’Erba Voglio, which also championed nonauthoritarian practices in Italian schools. Pedagogist Elena Gianini Belotti, then director of the Montessori Center in Rome, framed the impact of gender-based conditioning in her landmark essay “Dalla parte delle bambine” (1973). In the English translation, its title was clearer: “What are Little Girls Made Of? The Roots of Feminine Stereotypes.” In order to change things, undo exclusion, and to shake the very foundations of Italian society, it was imperative at this time to start from the primary site of repression of all otherness: language.
In 1975, a series of graphic works by Accardi, Mirella Bentivoglio, Valentina Berardinone, Binga, Nilde Carabba, Dadamaino, Amalia Del Ponte, Grazia Varisco, and Nanda Vigo were created to sustain the opening of the Libreria delle donne (Women’s bookstore) in Milan. The initiative was promoted by the Milanese Via Cherubini collective, the epicenter of the “speech groups” based on the practice of autocoscienza, which “presupposed and promoted a perfect reciprocal identification. I am you, you are me; the words that one of us uses are women’s words, hers and mine,” as the collective wrote. Autocoscienza was grounded in psychoanalysis and philosophy, and based on the grassroots notion of “partire da sé” (“to start from oneself”), in order to find Les mots pour le dire (The words to say it, 1975), to borrow the title from Marie Cardinal’s great autobiographical book on her healing process through analysis, published the same year.
The Libreria delle donne is still open and active, as is the Casa Internazionale delle Donne in Rome. A new generation of art historians and scholars—Raffaella Perna, Elena Di Raddo, and Giovanna Zapperi, among them—is at work on the legacy of Italian feminism, and Lonzi’s writings are undergoing a revival, thanks to their republication in 2010. Nevertheless, the scarce diffusion of Women’s Studies programs in Italy and the lack of English translations of many core Italian feminist texts of the 1960s and ’70s period silenced many of the female voices integral to this important moment. By going back to them—by listening, reading, looking—I’ve found something I needed: a genealogy of dissonance and dissent deeply rooted in my culture. Not a language of affirmation, then, but one of inquiry and individuation, destabilization and refusal. Gaps, silences, pauses, intervals. Uncertainties, outsides. A language full of lacunae, sometimes filled by the body.
I owe my understanding of the importance of lacunae to a 1963 book by art historian, poet, and critic Cesare Brandi. A landmark only recently translated into English, Theory of Restoration redefined theoretically the concept of (material) authenticity:
What is a lacuna that appears in the context of a painted, sculpted, or even architectural image? If we return to the essence of a work of art, it is not difficult to feel that a lacuna is an unjustified, even painful interruption in the form. Moreover, if we remain within the limits of the epoché (that is, if we remain within the limits of immediate perception), through the spontaneous pattern-making of perception, we will interpret the lacuna in terms of figure and ground. The lacuna will be sensed as a figure that relegates the painted, sculpted, or architectural image to the background, against which the lacuna “figure” stands out. The disturbance produced by the lacuna comes much more from this receding of image to ground, and from the lacuna’s violent intrusion, as a figure, into a context that tries to expel it, than from the formal interruption that the lacuna produces within the image.
Tomaso Binga, Senza titolo (Untitled, 1975), poster edition, 100 x 70 cm. Edizione Libreria delle donne, Milan
Carla Accardi, Senza titolo (Untitled, 1975), poster edition, 70 x 100 cm.
Edizione Libreria delle donne, Milan
Mirella Bentivoglio, Senza titolo (Untitled, 1975), poster edition, 70 x 100 cm. Edizione Libreria delle donne, Milan
Brandi advised that all integrations should be made reversible and “recognizable at first sight, without any special documentation, precisely as a proposal to be put to the critical judgment of others.” Restoration as restitution of visibility, instead of arbitrary reconstruction of a lost original—and one open to a constant reconfiguration of meaning. To restore the evidence of a gender gap in recent Italian art history “interrupts” the traditional procession of father figures and makes them regress to the background, for a change. It also allows for the irruption of other identities. And it offers, in the process, the surprising evidence of how many female voices still tend to be unearthed, studied, re-enacted, and amplified, mostly by other women.
At the same time that Brandi was sanctioning how to articulate absence, a linguistic revolution was taking place in Italy. The publication of the poetry anthology I Novissimi (The Newest) in 1961, and the establishment two years later of Gruppo ’63, marked the birth of the so-called neoavanguardia. Poetry, literature, and semiotics went on the attack against old langue, while the diffusion of TV, Beat music, and the new language of technology associated with the fast industrialization of the northern regions and the growth of a “modern” middle-class caused further turbulence. One of the few female members of the Gruppo ’63 was Giulia Niccolai, who in 1966 issued her first and only novel, Il grande angolo (The wide angle). It was a semi-autobiographical account of her experience as professional photojournalist, often traveling to the United States for Life, Paris Match, Der Spiegel, and the newsreel La Settimana Incom. Structured in nonchronological order, her book takes the form of a diary to reflect on the personal crisis of the author, who records and processes tons of images but is unable to make them hers and separate reality from fiction. In a revealing passage, the protagonist is alone in her room, in front of the looking glass: she unconsciously poses as a fashion model but fails to recognize herself in the reflection. The narrative style is fast, broken, the vocabulary mostly visual, as if to mirror the rolling of images and their deconstruction.
Nevertheless, Niccolai would choose words over images: her second book was Humpty Dumpty (1969), a collection of visual poems at play with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), in which she practices her bilingual skills by means of humor and nonsense. In 1972, with her partner, the poet Adriano Spatola, Niccolai moved to the countryside of the Apennines, at Mulino di Bazzano in Parma, a “republic of poets” in which they founded the poetry magazine Tam Tam. In 1980, writer and friend Giorgio Manganelli would introduce Niccolai’s anthology of poems, titled Harry’s bar e altre poesie, with a pun on her disobedient love for pastiche, which is virtually impossible to translate: “Come Carroll, la sciura Giulia sa che è tutta una faccenda di parole, e che le parole si scrivono e scrivendole si possono incrociare, innestare, tagliare, topsyturvare, tailare, addietrare, disavanzare.” I will attempt a clumsy translation anyway: “Like Carroll, ma’am Giulia knows that it’s all a matter of words, that words are written, and by being written they can be crossed, grafted, cut, topseyturveyed, tailed, moved backwards, dis-advanced.”
Perceived as a liberating means of expression, freed from the conformism of literary language, keen on parodying and subverting neoliberal jargon, and open to contamination from foreign languages, poetry was a key medium of the era: written and circulated in print, but also read aloud, acted, performed, shouted, and combined with music, recordings, and moving images, all in line with Fluxus. The Florentine Gruppo ’70, created in 1963, was the first to make way for “intermedia” readings as well as for proto-feminist guerrilla semiotics. One of its founders was Lucia Marcucci. In 1965, on the way to Naples to perform Poesie e no 3 (Poems and non-poems 3), Marcucci found a round phone road sign and held it in her arms. Someone snapped a picture. She provocatively labeled it “La ragazza squillo”: the call girl, but also, in an ironic reversal of roles, the girl who rings, who makes some noise and calls for attention and engagement. A year later, during a congress of Gruppo ’63 in La Spezia, Marcucci read her poem “Ti Ex-Amo” (I ex-love you), a mix of linguistic registers and styles (advertising, journalistic, colloquial, diaristic, judiciary, literary), including fragments in English, all of which paste together a sardonic image of a woman’s condition in Italy at that time:
Lady lioness of the zodiac,
pull in your claws—your role
is a passive one this month.
More important than forging
a path to success will be
experimenting with new hairdos,
make-up, clothes, and then
letting success beat a path
to your door. By the end of
the month, you’ll have a
yellow brick road of your
very own to follow, especially if
you’ve cleared the way of all obstacles.
Giulia Niccolai, Macchina da scrivere oggetto (Typewriter-object, 1976), print and insert on paper, 39 x 26 cm. Mart, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto
Female identity as an artificial construct dictated by others determined the structure, tone, and subject of many experimental poems of the period, including some by La Rocca—see, for example, her “Una buona idea” (A good idea), which appeared in Letteratura in 1966. La Rocca had joined the ranks of Gruppo ’70 at its outset and, like Marcucci, had started out by creating collages of magazine images of young women that collided with shocking advertising slogans, in order to short-circuit medium and message. La Rocca read Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Marshall McLuhan, and she taught in elementary schools around Florence: language was her daily workbench, high and low.
With the series “Lettere-Scultura” (Letters-Sculpture, 1969–70), La Rocca expanded into the third dimension her enquiry into language, alphabets, (self-)portraiture, and affirmation, by turning the letters “i” (I) and “j” (pronounced like the French je, J) into large anthropomorphic sculptures in black PVC, akin to figures with a round “head” on top of a tall slim “body.” In 1970, she installed them in small groups—suggesting the members of a family—in a park in Modena, as part of a public art exhibition. In a photo from the same time, La Rocca appears under the sheets next to a reclining “j”: she is, literally, in bed with herself. Successively, with the “Riduzioni” (Reductions, 1972–73) series, La Rocca began to reprocess photo images—of art works, film posters, politicians, and family snapshots—in a new way, by minutely scribbling “I/You” (in English) along the profile of each figure, thus adding a new layer to the binary (positive/negative) construction of photography and reinscribing it with personal meaning, the individual trace of one’s own unconscious. In 1974, La Rocca wrote:
(It is not a time of declarations, for women. They are too busy and they would have to use a language which is not theirs, within a language which is alien and inimical to them. Hence I can only say that—with unusual intimacy—a generous and bare yet free space—code at hand): as for me, I have all the deficiencies of women without having their qualities; a negative femininity, like others, deprived of everything, except of the things no one is interested in, which are manifold, even if they would need to be put back in order. Hands, for instance, too late for female skills, too poor and incapable for keeping on grabbing. It is better to embroider with words.
Lucia Marcucci, I segreti della stampa (L’arma universale) (The press's secrets [The universal weapon], 1971), collage on cardboard, 66 x 48 cm
Despite claiming that it was better to “embroider with words,” La Rocca had turned to corporeity and the quintessentially (clichéd) Italian body language of hands. In the black-and-white photographic book In principio erat (1971), hands “converse” with each other by exchanging gestures and silent messages. With Appendice per una supplica (Appendix to an appeal, 1972), the artist translated these operations into a video exhibited at the Venice Biennale, in the “Performance and Videotape” section curated by Gerry Schum. Asked the next year to contribute to the experimental TV program for deaf people Nuovi Alfabeti, aired by the public broadcasting company RAI, La Rocca decided not to mimic sign language nor to appropriate it, but rather to explore the same realm of expression, a more emotional, free, and authentic side of communication. The result was a brief episode titled “Le mani” (The hands), transmitted on June 19, 1973, in which her choreography of abstract gestures was interpreted by a mime. The following year, in an untitled artist book, she would use only her facial expressions, one per page, to communicate—it is, factually, a face book. “The face is pantomime, the language made it,” La Rocca writes in You, you (1973).
One of La Rocca’s last projects (she died in 1976, aged thirty-eight) was the performance Le mie parole e tu? (My words, and you?), presented at various locations in 1975; it was another extraordinary confrontation with silence. For it, she read aloud her text Dal momento in cui … (1971), while members of the audience were asked to echo fragments of it and to repeat “You” louder and louder, until her voice became inaudible, when she bent down and covered her ears to protect herself from the pressure.
In this action that I’d call conjugation
I am an example to myself and the others of a total subjugation
to language, to its most tempting infrastructures,
I force myself to express myself by means of a refined example
the other participants to the action conjugate a drama
which is both real and my interior drama, my relationship with the medium:
captivating but sterile: language does not determine freedoms
illusory ones, but it is contagiously prolific, it creates victims who conjugate
their own condition and call it: “you.”
In November 2015, after years of failed attempts, I finally saw Le mani at Istituto Svizzero in Rome. It was thanks to The Ketty La Rocca Research Project, created by artist Sally Schonfeldt, who began her research into La Rocca’s work and life in 2011, during her studies at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (ZHdK). Schonfeldt’s project is now a vast archive, one that she displays as a public “research center” and reading room, with original works on loan, books, and magazines, all easy to reproduce (a copy machine is included), bring home, and circulate. One of the thickest volumes on view is the diary and “travelogue” that Schonfeldt kept during her initial research, to record her findings as well as her personal reactions to them, and to avoid, as she writes, “confusing this process of return with rediscovery.”
Transfixed by the mime’s gestures on the boxy monitor showing the RAI’s video, overwhelmed by distant memories of black-and-white TV from my early childhood, I spent ages at the Swiss Institute browsing the material. That afternoon, Schonfeldt and I exchanged information on La Rocca, the bridge between us, and indulged in the guilty pleasures of fandom. During the opening night, artist and DJ Anna Frei mixed an excerpt from Schonfeldt’s diary with the sounds of early electronic music composed by women, in a live set full of echoes. Later, we would continue to exchange e-mails and letters about La Rocca, and Schonfeldt’s statement, which came with them, was another homecoming:
When I first came across La Rocca’s oeuvre I was astonished by its powerful expression yet at the same time disturbed by never having come across her work before. Her work has incredible depth and was pioneering in so many ways (her deconstruction of language, her exploration of non-verbal language) that still resonate strongly today. Therefore it became very important to me as a contemporary woman artist to find an alternative way to approach the obscurity of her and many other women artists in the prevailing canon of art history. I wanted to approach this absence not from within a traditional academic position of art history writing but rather through an aesthetic mediation of her work resulting out of my own subjective artistic research, which had as its aim the creation of a generational dialogue that sought to address this absence from the contemporary present. I felt the overwhelming desire to make La Rocca’s work visible again, to revisit it through the eyes of a fellow artist.
Lucia Marcucci, La ragazza squillo (The call girl, 1965), photograph mounted on board, 29.7 x 21 x 0.5 cm. Mart, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto
In the 1960s and ’70s, the institutional front of art criticism was the realm of the “other.” At the time, to be a woman artist in Italy was still “incredibly difficult,” as La Rocca wrote to Lucy Lippard in 1975. La Rocca often displayed and performed her Riduzioni alongside the grammatically correct, but de facto nonsensical text Dal momento in cui …
Starting from the moment when any development proceeds from a practical point of view, setting up a precondition, a concrete demand that would be acceptable in the frame of a perspective free from unobjective judgement, into a field so broad that it unavoidably encounters the assertion that it is not quite applicable to …
Language, then, as a meaningless, empty shell.
In 1966, in a conversation with Carla Lonzi published in the magazine marcatré, the painter Carla Accardi remarked:
Art has always been a male kingdom … [W]hile we step into this field … there is a need to unmask the prestige which surrounds it and made it inaccessible … Because women … after that initial movement, which made them behave like men … stepped forward and said: “Yeah, what have you been telling us for so long? See, we’re getting in, this is a simple thing, you can see it, if you look at it too.”
After graduating with a degree in art history in Florence, and working widely as an art critic and curator, in 1963 Lonzi issued a public attack on Giulio Carlo Argan, the “father” of Italian criticism and art history, with the article “La solitudine del critico” (The critic’s solitude) in the newspaper Avanti!, in which she contested his notion of the critic as ideologist and supervisor of artistic movements, one who exercises his power out of self-referential reasons. A few years later, in 1969, she published her crucial book: Autoritratto (Self-portrait). In line with the French nouveau roman and its rejection of traditional narrative forms, it subverted the codes of art writing by mashing together, in a seamless flux of conscience, the fragmented recordings of the author’s conversations with fourteen artists—all male, except for Accardi. Instead of a linear series of interviews, Lonzi composed a horizontal, choral, and polyphonic sketch in which the author forms part of the subject. Even the illustrations were noncanonical: the artists appeared at home or in otherwise private settings. Lonzi included also a picture of herself, at her desk, but it’s only a few years later, in Taci, anzi parla, when Lonzi fully adopts the diary format, that she realizes how she had never really thought of herself as a writer. Only by recognizing and voicing the realization of others could she allow herself to emerge as a subject. To “refuse culture,” she writes, made her stronger, but still unable to consider “the moment of creation” as something to call her own. At that stage, she had already quit art criticism and the art world at large, to embrace feminism—a move that Lippard would also embody a few years later, traveling from the collective, hybrid, and nonlinear criticism of Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973) to the feminist-focused work of From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976).
In 1970 Lonzi cofounded, with Accardi and activist Elvira Banotti, the separatist group and publishing house Rivolta Femminile, which issued an eponymous manifesto. In 1971, a new manifesto titled “Assenza della donna dai momenti celebrativi della manifestazione creativa maschile” (On woman’s absence from celebratory manifestations of male creativity) advocated the urgent need to refuse the official, quintessentially male culture, and to dump the classical role of passive viewer or muse of the artist—a firsthand experience for at least two of the compilers. Accardi had been one of the founders of Forma 1, formed in 1947 and the main postwar group of Italian abstract painters and sculptors. Though the group had proclaimed itself “formalist and Marxist,” it was nonetheless attacked by the Communist Party establishment for its refusal to embrace social realism. From 1949–64, Accardi was married to another group member, Antonio Sanfilippo. In 1964, the year of their separation, she participated in the Venice Biennale with a solo room of her works.
Ketty La Rocca, Il Mio Lavoro (My work, 1974), contact sheet and ink on paper, 35 x 35 cm
Lonzi, meanwhile, was the partner of sculptor Pietro Consagra, another key Forma 1 figure. Their relationship and creative endeavors conflicted on several planes, from the private to the political. Lonzi pushed her personal and radical quest for authenticity to the limits, by recording and publishing all the discussions leading to her breakup with Consagra, in Vai pure (Now you can go, 1980). She had broken up also with Accardi, who didn’t wish to give up her work and identity as a painter. Interestingly, during the years of her militancy, Accardi had begun to work on sheets of Sicofoil, a transparent plastic acetate, which allowed her to overturn the hierarchy between recto and verso, as well as to expand painting into space, in the form of ambient installations covered in bright and fluo signs, which she called “tents.” It was again on strips of Sicofoil, hanging from the walls, that Accardi decided to install the first piece she created after quitting Rivolta Femminile, in 1976, at Cooperativa Beato Angelico in Rome, an artist-run exhibition space that later organized exhibitions dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani, and Regina (Queen). Titled Origine (Origin), it included a series of photos of the artist’s mother along those of a distant great-aunt. Accardi tried to narrate her genealogy by combining old and new, figuration and abstraction, before finally returning to abstract painting and the forging of her own language.
Another protagonist of this period, and one who was also self-reflecting on women’s creativity, was Annemarie Sauzeau, who shared with Lonzi and Accardi the experience of living with a well-known artist: she was the wife of Alighiero Boetti (they married in 1964, had two children, and separated in the early eighties). In 1974, together with Elisabetta Rasy, Manuela Fraire, and Maria Caronia, Sauzeau founded the pioneering Rome-based publishing house Edizioni delle Donne (Women’s Editions), inspired by the Parisian Éditions des Femmes, born just a year before. At the same time, she was busy with the research for the conceptual book I mille fiumi più lunghi del mondo (The thousand longest rivers in the world), cosigned in 1977 with her husband, who is often credited as its sole author. It would be stimulating, I think, to reconsider the influence of Sauzeau and the pensiero della differenza, or the philosophy of difference, on Boetti’s constant fascination for “duality,” alterity, and plurality; his own redoubling into Alighiero & Boetti; and his focus on noncanonical alphabets and the pauses of language, like periods and commas, in, for instance, Ononimo (1975), the series of Biro works painstakingly executed by anonymous hands.
In 1975, the Italian magazine Data published Sauzeau’s in-depth survey on the recent links between American feminism and contemporary art in New York, titled “L’altra creatività” (The other creativity). In it, she chronicled the emergence of women artist collectives and female-centered exhibitions, which she could map thanks to her meetings with, as she wrote, “Lucy R. Lippard and the artists Agnes Denes, Nancy Spero, Joyce Kozloff, Blythe Bohnen, May Stevens, Howardena Pindell.” A year later, Sauzeau translated into Italian Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (which instantly inspired a hit by the cult prog-rock band Area, whose band leader, Demetrio Stratos, reads bits of the opening paragraphs of the manifesto), and wrote a perfectly timely article for a special issue of Studio International on “Italian Art Now.” Titled “Negative Capability as Practice in Women’s Art,” and accompanied by short individual texts on Accardi, Iole de Freitas, La Rocca, and Marisa Merz, Sauzeau’s piece opened with a negation:
In Italy, like anywhere else, many women artists still deny the idea of a female art. They feel either offended or frightened by a hypothesis which seems to imply a deliberate fall back into the gynaeceum. If the word “feminine” frightens these artists it is because they are not confident about the possibility of filling it with a reality which is different from the metaphorical womanhood invented by men. They say, and they are convinced, that art is good or bad, but has no sex.
Nonetheless, Sauzeau mapped three main areas of works: First, “the rediscovery and exploration of the body.” Second, an approach which “deals with woman’s ancestral second nature: the oppression and negation which are also self-oppression and self-negation. … Women’s art sometimes starts on this pilgrimage of rediscovery and vindication of traditional gestures … once their matter-of-fact function has been cancelled and their value, as a trace of some deep intimacy between body and mind, has been restored.” Third, the conceptual field, where things change when a woman “reaches the point of exercising her ability to symbolize areas of life which have been historically unexpressed (and sheltered) for so long. In this case she enters the double space of INCONGRUENCE, by which I mean that she can still be read and appreciated through the cultural criteria of the avant-garde, formal quality, and so on, BUT also through another criterion, as a landmark of an ALIEN culture.” Finally, Sauzeau summed up her thesis with crystal clarity:
The actual creative project of woman as a subject involves BETRAYING the expressive mechanisms of culture in order to express herself through the break, within the gaps between the systematic spaces of artistic language. This is not a matter of accusation or vindication, but of TRANSGRESSION.
Carla Accardi, Triplice tenda (Triple curtain, 1969–71), varnish on Sicofoil on perspex frame, 550 cm diameter. Collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
This transgression would be embodied, in both language and the body itself. In 1974, Lea Vergine—another vital voice of this period—released, in a bilingual edition, the first international survey of performance art, titled Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language. In her introductory essay, Vergine analyzed, in psychoanalytical terms, the urge of expression conveyed by the new trend, and the “unsatisfied need for love that extends itself without limit in time.” She also stressed how several artists involved tried to “create a crisis in the crystallization of sexual roles.” She wrote: “As we know, there is a certain level of anatomic hermaphroditism to be found in all of us: but for the most of us the dominant sex has repressed the psychic representation of the vanquished sex.” Besides La Rocca, the rich photographic documentation in her book includes works by Urs Lüthi, Gina Pane, Joan Jonas, Gilbert & George, Dan Graham, Luigi Ontani, Rebecca Horn, and Annette Messager, among many others. Interestingly, Body Art appeared the same year as Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman (1974), the landmark feminist book whose first section is beautifully titled “The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry.”
Body Art would also come out of the period when the Italian LGBT movement was slowly finding its expression. The Fuori! (Fronte Unitario Omosessuale Rivoluzionario Italiano)—or Italian Revolutionary United Homosexual Front, whose acronym reads as “Out!”—was created in 1971, with groups in Milan, Rome, Padua, and Turin. In his Elementi di critica omosessuale (Elements of a Gay Critique, 1977), a milestone of Italian gender studies, Mario Mieli—a young leader of Fuori!—wrote: “The term ‘transsexuality’ is the most apt, in my views, to express the plurality of tendencies of Eros, as well as the originary and innate hermaphroditism of every individual.” And, further on: “I define as ‘transsexuals’ all adults who live consciously their own hermaphroditism and recognize in themselves, in their bodies and minds, the presence of the ‘other’ sex.”
In 1977, poet Bianca Pucciarelli, the wife of influential art critic Filiberto Menna, announced her gender-bending marriage to Tomaso Binga—her male alter ego and artistic and literary public persona since 1971—at Galleria Campo D in central Rome. Two small black-and-white photos in old-fashioned frames welcomed the guests: On the left, a young Bianca, portrayed in the candid attire of her real wedding, in 1959, smiled openly; on the right, an older Tomaso, with short hair, squared glasses, dark suit, severe look, was pictured in “his” office, in the typical pose of the man at work. If, in Body Art, Vergine evoked De Sade’s Juliette, “who wants to be married twice in a day, first dressed as a woman, and then dressed as a man,” Binga’s own exercise in drag and mimicry mocked the stereotypes of male supremacy, as much as her poetry readings, installations, and performances—all of which are done under the name of Binga to this day—probed into women’s rights and access to speech.
In 1976, for the installation Casa Malangone, Binga lined a set of rooms in a private house with a kitschy wallpaper of different colors, scribbled with ordered lines of “desemanticized” (her definition) writing, like mute words boxed in by domesticity. Meanwhile, her Io sono una carta (I am paper), a performance she staged in 1977 at Galleria d’Arte Moderna, in Bologna, was a tableau vivant made of three wallpapered walls, decorated with illegible calligraphies. The artist wore a camouflage dress made of the same wallpaper, so that by standing still she would merge with the surroundings and become invisible. After reading a poem aloud, Binga freed herself of the dress and left it behind, hanging from a rocking chair. The poem went:
Io sono una carta velina
Io sono una carta piegata
Io sono una carta assorbente
Io sono una carta vetrata
Io sono una carta da parato
Io sono una carta da lettera
Sono una cartuccia
E va sparata
I am a tissue paper
I am a folded paper
I am a blotting paper
I am a wallpaper
I am a sandpaper
I am a stationary paper
A brown paper
I am a cartridge
It has to be shot
She had come out, with an ironic bang.
Tomaso Binga, Oggi spose (Just married, 1977), black-and-white photographs in vintage frames, diptych, 19 x 13 cm each
Tomaso Binga, Io sono io, io sono me (I am I, I am me, 1977), ink on black-and-white photographs, diptych, 40 x 30 cm each
Alright, it’s my turn to emerge from the background and explain why, like Sally Schonfeldt, I feel the need to return to these voices and “use” them now, decades later. This era of Italian feminist writers and artists has aided my understanding of how one can challenge the language of the oppressor, so to speak, and turn it against itself, infiltrating it with doubt. I needed these older Italian women—and their use and misuse and mistrust of language—in order to consider how we are still conditioned to censor, silence, and utter, and what narratives we are made to “like” and produce in order to be liked. Furthermore, this generation of writers and artists allowed me to reappropriate the feminist education that I received as a girl from a mother who didn’t believe much in the power of words and abstractions. And if it took me a few years to figure out that at the core of my present puzzle, as an art writer and teacher, was the question of what to do with language, my first answers came from the margins.
Indeed, I wouldn’t have come across many of these stories, works, and artists if I hadn’t been invited by Lorenzo Giusti, the director of MAN Museo d'arte provincia di Nuoro, to work on the oeuvre of Maria Lai, who was the point of departure for so many new threads, providing me with a good reason to brush up on notes, books, and bibliographies of feminism. I began to gather this material as a kind of DIY studies in the nineties, when I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship from the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of City University of New York (CUNY). And it was in CUNY’s library that I was introduced to Jean Rhys and her crucial vindication of the mad woman in the attic, in Wide Sargasso Sea, a book written in 1966, a date close, once more, to the chronologies of this text.
Maria Lai, Diario di sei giorni (Six days diary, 1979), paper and thread, 6 pages, 30 x 20 cm each
Lai herself was a Sardinian sculptor who had studied with the modernist (and misogynist) master Arturo Martini in Venice, before settling in Rome in the mid-fifties, where she silently, almost clandestinely, worked for many years. She resurfaced in the early seventies with a series of works titled “Looms,” which she made by reversing a painting and using the back stretcher as a loom on which she wove with found materials, colors, straw, and thread. In 1977 Lai met the poet, artist, and critic Mirella Bentivoglio, who wrote about her I pani (Breads, 1977), exhibited at the Il Brandale gallery in Savona. The work featured small sculptures made of bread, in accordance with an ancient folk Sardinian tradition, which were distributed as gifts to the public in a quiet performance.
During the same years, Lai would begin to create books and canvases in which the lines of text were “written” with a sewing machine. Certainly, the idea of “embroidering with words” applies beautifully to her unreadable Scritture (Writings), which embody a language full of silence, as Emanuela De Cecco has observed. A personal favorite of mine is a series of small canvases that Lai installed face to the wall, so that viewers would be confronted with the wooden frames and could “read” the sewn texts only from their back side, from which hung long, tangled threads, like hair let loose and down. The title of this work, Autobiografia (Autobiography, 1979–82), rings so many bells. But it’s another series of textile works, titled Lavagne (Blackboards, 1980), that evoke Lai’s experience as a high-school teacher, as well as her own difficulties as a child. Lai did not attend school until she was nine years old; she learned to read and write fluently only in second grade, thanks to the poems that her teacher, and later friend, the poet Salvatore Cambosu encouraged her to declaim. In the Lavagne works, Lai reproduces the orderly checkered grid of the school blackboard, white on black, but lets their lines run obliquely, open up, embracing disorder and imperfection.
Lai’s artistic turning point came with Legarsi alla montagna (To tie oneself to the mountain), a collective action carried out in 1981 with the involvement of her whole village, Ulassai. Asked by the municipality to create a monument to war victims, she decided instead to create a work for the living: she tied together her community by convincing everybody to make a blue ribbon, twenty-six kilometers long, run from home to home, across the streets, before it was entrusted to a climber, who fixed it to the top of the mountain looming over the village. As much as a surprising social sculpture, Lai had created a contemporary ritual, an occasion to celebrate the present.
Lai was a friend of Filiberto Menna and Tomaso Binga, who in 1982 participated in a new festival organized by Lai in Ulassai, which ended with an adventurous “poetical striptease” on the village square. It was through Binga’s voice, which reconstructed for me that day of performances, miles away from all art centers, that I learned about Lai’s determination to “bridge the gap” with the help of a poetic gesture, in finding an accessible language for a context where Italian was hardly spoken and illiteracy was still quite common. Legarsi alla montagna marked the beginning of a new series of public actions, performances, and workshops by Lai, works that finally gave her a voice and a significant amount of visibility within the larger contemporary art world.
Maria Lai, Legarsi alla montagna (To tie oneself to the mountain, 1981–2013), photographs taken by Piero Berengo Gardin on the occasion of Legarsi alla montagna in 1981, intervention by Maria Lai with a blue pen in 2003. MAN, Museo d’arte provincia di Nuoro
My research into Lai also brought me to Materializzazione del linguaggio, the catalogue of an exhibition I keep returning to, over and over again. Organized by Mirella Bentivoglio as part of the Venice Biennale of 1978, it was the culmination of a seven-year-long international investigation, carried out on the conflicted terrain of the “ghetto exhibition” for women’s art only. The brief English summary explained: “Obviously not only women are discussing these problems, but for women they are double motivated. The new forms of poetry are the re-appropriation of what they, together with men, have elaborated from the primary sources of existence: language; sterilized by the male hemisphere in the codes of the scission.” Page 7 lists Cathy Berberian, Mirella Bentivoglio, Tomaso Binga, and Irma Blank. On page 29, Lai’s Volume Oggetto (filo) (1978) and La Rocca’s You, you (1973) sit side by side. On the last page, among the performances announced for the occasion, is one by Giulia Niccolai.
It is a book I never came across as an art history student, nor later on in my research and work—a fact I deeply resent. The book records and materializes, by itself, a language that would have been helpful to learn before, use as a tool, interweave with mainstream art histories, react to and—why not—transgress with. When Sauzeau was asked to curate a room in homage to Lonzi at the Venice Biennale in 1993 (Lonzi died in 1982), she installed a life-size reproduction of a photo of the writer bent over her typewriter, dressed in the long woolen socks she often wore at home; the photo was shot in Minneapolis by Consagra during the winter of 1967 and ’68. Sauzeau also reconstructed Lonzi’s private collection of artworks, often generated by the meetings on which she based her Autoritratto. Somehow, in this homage, it seemed to me, Sauzeau had betrayed Lonzi and the latter’s insistent withdrawal from the public sphere, so as to reinstate Lonzi’s position as a pioneering art critic. Just a few days after Sauzeau’s own death in September 2014, Arte e Critica magazine published “Una presenza alle mie spalle” (A presence behind my shoulders), a long article on Lonzi that Sauzeau had finished the summer before. In it, Sauzeau writes:
After her early poems of ’58–’63 (published only posthumously), it was in art criticism that Carla looked for—and found—a language, a writing on her own, a special, polyphonic, semiotic, corporeal, musical “tongue,” in symbiosis with her artist friends. In my view, Carla Lonzi did not allow herself to become a writer … she self-punished herself and forced herself to deliver—to co-sign with other female hands—only ideological texts. A ministerial and militant writing.
It was the perfect advice, I thought, to combat the fear of breaking the silence: others and ours. (Or, as Sauzeau wrote, once again: “The actual creative project of woman as a subject involves BETRAYING the expressive mechanisms of culture in order to express herself through the break.”) In order to (paradoxically) shut up and speak, we need to keep on rewriting and, yes, betraying our history.
Maria Lai, Senza titolo (Untitled, 1979), photograph of an intervention with metal on a wall in a seismic area. Mart, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto
Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2014), p. 77.
See Claire Fontaine, “We Are All Clitoridian Women: Notes on Carla Lonzi’s Legacy.” Online: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/we-are-all-clitoridian-women-notes-on-carla-lonzi’s-legacy.
Specifically, my research in preparation for the essays: “1966 e dintorni: Ragazze squillo, riot grrrls in evoluzione, poesia e ‘lingua mancata.’ Ketty La Rocca, Lucia Marcucci, Giulia Niccolai,” in Ennesima: An Exhibition of Seven Exhibitions on Italian Art, exh. cat. La Triennale di Milano (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2014); “The Imitation Game,” in La Grande Madre, exh. cat. Palazzo Reale (Milan: Fondazione Nicola Trussardi / Skira, 2015); “Nuovi Alfabeti,” in Shannon Ebner: Strike (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2014).
Julia Kristeva’s introduction to Elisabetta Rasy, La lingua della nutrice: percorsi e tracce dell’espressione femminile (Rome: Edizioni delle Donne, 1978), p. 9. My translation.
Linda M. G. Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 103.
Carla Lonzi, Autoritratto (Milan: et al. / Edizioni, 2010).
Cesare Brandi, “Il trattamento delle lacune e la Gestaltpsychologie,” in Studies in Western Art: Acts of the Twentieth International Congress of the History of Art, New York [held in New York City, September 1961], ed. Millard Meiss (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 146–51. My translation.
Giorgio Manganelli’s introduction to Giulia Niccolai, Harry’s bar e altre poesie (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1981), pp. 7–15.
Later published as a supplement of the magazine Tèchne 5–6 (May 1970). “I ex-love you” is a line delivered by the protagonist of “Il Nuovo Mondo” by Jean-Luc Godard, the second episode of the movie Ro.Go.Pa.G. (Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti, 1963).
Le presenze alfabetiche e lo spazio parlato, Palazzo dei Musei, Modena, 1970, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva.
Leslie Cozzi, “Notes on the Index, Continued: Italian Feminism and the Art of Mirella Bentivoglio and Ketty La Rocca,” Cahiers d’études italiennes 16 (2013), p. 220.
On La Rocca’s relationship with photography, see Raffaella Perna, “Ketty La Rocca e la fotografia,” in Ketty La Rocca: Nuovi studi, ed. Francesca Gallo and Raffaella Perna (Milan: Postmedia, 2015). See also: Raffaella Perna, Arte, fotografia e femminismo in Italia negli anni Settanta (Milan: Postmedia, 2013).
Lucilla Saccà, Ketty La Rocca: I suoi scritti (Turin: Martano Editore, 2005), p. 96. My translation.
Ibid., p. 103. My translation.
“Discorsi: Carla Lonzi e Carla Accardi,” marcatré 23–25 (1966), republished in Carla Lonzi, Scritti sull’arte (Milan: et al. / Edizioni, 2012), p. 477. My translation.
Giorgio Zanchetti, “Premessa e profezia. Crisi della creatività, crisi della critica e relazione secondo Carla Lonzi,” in Anni ’70: l’arte dell’impegno, ed. Cristina Casero and Elena Di Raddo (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2009), pp. 41–43.
The work was revised by Accardi on the occasion of a later exhibition, in 2007, with the inclusion of photos of herself.
After Boetti’s death in 1994 Sauzeau released Alighiero e Boetti: Shaman/Showman (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2003), my favorite artist biography of all time.
Carla Subrizi, Azioni che cambiano il mondo (Milan: Postmedia Books, 2012), p. 15.
The article became a minor classic only later, after being reprinted in Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, eds., Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970–1985 (London: Pandora Press, 1987). Recently, it regained visibility when taken as the starting point for Cornelia Butler, “The Feminist Present: Women Artists at MoMA,” in Modern Women, ed. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), p. 13.
Lea Vergine, Il corpo come linguaggio (La “Body-art” e storie simili) (Milan: Giampaolo Prearo Editore, 1974), p. 29. In 1980, Vergine curated L’altra metà dell’avanguardia 1910–1940, a survey of over one hundred women artists of the avant-garde, held at Palazzo Reale in Milan, Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, and Kulturhuset in Stockholm.
These quotations are my translations from the Italian edition: Mario Mieli, Elementi di critica omosessuale (Turin: Einaudi, 1977), pp. 14–15. Published in English as Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1980).
Vergine, Il corpo come linguaggio, p. 29.
Martina Corgnati, Artiste (Milan: Paravia Bruno Mondadori, 2004), p. 295.
See Marta Serravalli, Arte e femminismo a Roma negli anni Settanta (Rome: biblink editori, 2013), p. 82.
We co-curated the exhibition Maria Lai. Ricucire il mondo. Dagli anni Ottanta al Duemila at MAN Museo d’arte della provincia di Nuoro in Summer 2014.
Emanuela De Cecco, Maria Lai: Da vicino, vicinissimo … (Milan: Postmedia, 2015).
Mirella Bentivoglio, ed., Materializzazione del linguaggio, exh. cat. Biennale di Venezia, Magazzini del Sale alle Zattere, 1978.
Annemarie Sauzeau quoted in Roberto Lambarelli, “Anne-Marie Sauzeau verso Carla Lonzi e ritorno,” Arte e Critica. Online: http://www.arteecritica.it/onsite/ANNE%20MARIE%20SAUZEAU-VERSO%20CARLA%20LONZI%20E%20RITORNO.html. My translation.