As Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of its unification, the country passes through a rather dark moment in which the political economy and the power of the media seem to be in league against the artistic and intellectual resources of the country while contributing to the degradation of the image of women. Thus maybe it is no mere chance that the milieu of Italian culture is presently rediscovering the figure of Carla Lonzi; the Florentine art critic who was linked to many artists from the 60s in addition to being the life partner of sculptor Pietro Consagra, noted aboveall for her theoretical role of “autocoscienza” (‘consciousness raising”) in first wave Italian feminism.
Her book, “Autoritratto”, (in English Self-Portrait, to date, untranslated) originally published in 1969 and impossible to find for decades, was finally reissued in a compact and sumptuous volume by the Italian publishing house Et. Al. in October 2010. To read this book now is like opening a double window on the world of that time and the world of today: if on one side, this permits us to observe our distance from aesthetic questions of the 60s, on the other side, it freshly reasserts the eternal intellectual dilemmas of the artistic community against the background of a society– in this specific case, that of Italy– which hasn’t changed a great deal.
In order to compose “Autoritratto”, Carla Lonzi recorded conversations directly, availing herself of the then new technology of the tape recorder, a series of interviews with some of the most important artists of her time, including those of arte povera, pop art, abstract, conceptual, and informal art: Lucio Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, Luciano Fabro, Pino Pascali, Giulo Paolini, Mimmo Rotella, Carla Accardi, Giuseppe Alviani, Enrico Castellani, etc. Lonzi then transcribed and reassembled the fragments of these conversations until she formed a kind of collage of voices, which variously overflow into one another and alternate with evocative, caption-less black-and-white images, a mode of image/text juxtaposition reminiscent, avant la letter, that of W.G. Sebald. The reader thus finds her or himself navigating this flux of somewhat disconnected discussions, occasionally interrupted by snapshots– everything devoid of information– which depict the artists and the author in moments of disarming familiarity, as if the conversations actually issued simple dinner among friends, which just happened to be recorded.
Beyond the voices of the artists themselves, which is without a doubt a privilege to be able to listen without editorial filters and in the intimate and spontaneous tone of a private conversation, “Autoritratto” is striking above all by virtue of the figure of the author, whose marginal position sharply emerges vis-à-vis her “coexistence” with her interlocutors. After having studied in Florence under Roberto Longhi and working for a decade as an independent art critic, she felt the necessity to reflect on her position, which she did in this book, realized by adopting a kind of strategy of “infiltration”, so to speak, in the art world. Certain passages are particularly illuminating: for example, the confessions in which Lonzi recounts her youthful religiosity, her sense of dispossession of usual things of life, and beginnings as a critic as well as her approach toward art as if it were a kind of faith– powerless and in search of salvation: “At a given point, I experienced the work of art like the possibility of an encounter, as an invitation to participate offered directly by artists to each one of us.”
After the profound disappointment with the institutional and academic world, Carla Lonzi definitively abandoned her career in art in favor of militant feminism. The last text the writer dedicated to the art world was significantly titled, “Assenza della donna nei momenti celebrativi della manifestazione creative maschile” (Absence of women in celebratory moments of masculine creative manifestations).
Lonzi’s “Autorittrato” is then not only one of the most vivid testimonies of a particularly interesting moment in the Italian scene, but it is also kind of farewell to art. This in turn signals a profound existential and intellectual transformation of a middle class woman, who persevered toward an increasingly radical critique of culture as theoretical practice separate from life, and who finally fought for her own emancipated status as a woman. According to Carla Lonzi, art is a resource that can be made available to us all in order to live in creative way and in accordance with the general good; the critic, however, is she or he who is traditionally called upon to judge and to deploy her or his power of discrimination to mediate and “neutralize” the force of art on behalf of a society of foreigners who essentially fear it. By refusing this position, Lonzi invited artists to take up the position of protagonists and accept full responsibility for this role.
What can someone do then who doesn’t want to assume the position of a critic? Become an artist as well? That which is certain is that it is possible to begin reclaiming possession of the world in order to no longer feel like a foreigner within it. In the words of Luciano Fabro, “claiming possession of the world does not have an abstract value, but means creating a breach through which all those who are available can pass; the pleasure of creating this breach is a true pleasure, to feel oneself, as well as others, moving together.”
Translated from the Italian by Chris Sharp