The return of the repressed: Carla Lonzi in the present

More than twenty years have passed since Emanuela De Cecco, in the introduction to her book Contemporanee, co-written with Gianni Romano, highlighted the lack of attention that Italian art critics had paid to post-war women’s art. At that time, the author identified a “double absence”[1], that of women artists from exhibition catalogues and critical anthologies, and that of voices ready to note this first absence and to abandon established historical and curatorial trajectories: “Informal, conceptual art, arte povera, performance, a return to figuration and so on, are some of the main key words that come to comprise the pieces of a story that ends up lacking any surprises”[2]. More than just keywords, these were the watchwords that dominated the narration of Italian art history during the period of my own formation (which roughly coincided with the publication ofContemporanee). It was back then that De Cecco highlighted – and she was among the few who did so – the Italian university’s incapacity to open up to gender studies in the field of art history and to become an active promoter and focus of theoretical elaboration. This delay can also be considered in other terms, as a specificity of Italy, where the spread of feminist thought has often followed less institutional channels than in the Anglophone countries. Nonetheless, the lack of attention among a large part of the academic world contributed to delegitimising the artistic practices not included in the canon of nineteenth-century art history, and this had repercussions that reach even into the present and are tangible in Italy’s public and private collections. In the last ten years, considerable steps forward have been made in this direction, and the exceptional return of critical interest in Carla Lonzi’s thought (largely linked to scholars working in universities) is a major indicator of this turnaround, though it has deeper reasons extending beyond the simple demand for equality, which Lonzi’s own feminism did not aim for. “The positioning of woman does not imply participation in male power, but a questioning of power”[3], she wrote in 1974. After occupying a marginal place in art historiography for years, her experience has returned to become the focus of extraordinary attention, culminating in the re-editions and translations of Autoritratto, in the 2011 multi-author book Carla Lonzi: la duplice radicalità. Dalla critica militante al femminismo di Rivolta edited by Lara Conte, Vinzia Fiorino and Vanessa Martini, in the collection of her Scritti sull’arte, edited in 2012 by Conte, Laura Iamurri and Martini, in the two substantial monographs published by Iamurri and Giovanna Zapperi in 2016 and 2017 respectively, in the more recent volumes (both from 2020) La storia dell’arte dopo l’autocoscienza. A partire dal diario di Carla Lonzi by Carla Subrizi and Feminism and Art in Postwar Italy: The Legacy of Carla Lonzi, edited by Francesco Ventrella and Zapperi[4]. Together with this extremely rich body of contributions, of which I have only given a quick and partial account here, Lonzi’s story has been the object of reflection in a series of exhibitions opening in Italy between 2019 and 2021: Il soggetto imprevisto (Frigoriferi Milanesi, on 4 April 2019), Doing Deculturalization (Museion, 13 April 2019) and I say I (La Galleria Nazionale, 22 March 2021[5]. Although elaborated according to very different curatorial perspectives, these exhibitions are united by the common attempt to prove the present-day relevance of Lonzi’s writings and her legacy in the field of contemporary art, thanks to the creative reactivation of materials belonging to her archive or to archives linked to the history of Italian neofeminism[6]. These exhibitions are also an indication of the strong interest in the relationship between archives, galleries and museums, curatorial practice and feminism that has developed in a generation of scholars and curators born during or immediately after the experience of the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. For the younger generation of feminists, as Kate Eichhorn has made clear, the archive is in fact “not necessarily a destination or an impenetrable barrier, but rather a site and practice integral to knowledge making, cultural production and activism”[7]. But the interest in Lonzi’s writings, and more generally in the relationship between art and feminism in Italy, has not only influenced the new perspectives advanced in the field of art writing and exhibition writing, but also the work of a generation of female artists active since the 1990s who, with their works, have contributed to reactivating the radical nature of Lonzi’s thought and refusal. The exhibition Suite Rivolta. Carla Lonzi’s Feminism and the Art of Revolt[8], curated in 2016 by Anna Daneri and Zapperi, took stock of this situation, shedding light on the transformative potential and resonance that Lonzi continues to have in the contemporary world. Artists such as Silvia Giambrone, Chiara Fumai, Marinella Senatore (not present in the Lisbon exhibition) or the Claire Fontaine duo – though working according to autonomous visions and languages – interrogate Lonzi’s thought as living matter, inserting it into the present, using it as a tool of revolt to “rise to the test of a universe without answers”, in Lonzi’s words providing the title of Giambrone’s self-portrait exhibited at Villa Medici in 2010. What, then, explains this interest in the demands expressed by 1970s feminism? Why do the works and texts of those years continue to attract and raise questions that women artists and art critics perceive as urgent and relevant for our own present? The reasons, logically enough, are manifold and cannot be pinned down solely within the perimeter of art history. Today’s focus on the feminist uprisings of the 1970s is in fact intimately linked to the growing strength of feminist, transfeminist and queer movements, which in the last decade have shown great vitality on a global scale and have been able to reinterpret the rebellious and insurrectional spirit of the women’s liberation movement In 2018, the “feminist tide” returned to the streets with the third International Women’s Strike: thousands of activists, in seventy different countries, mobilised against job insecurity, wage inequality, sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The activities of Non una di meno, Lucha y Siesta and of the rich network of women’s houses, bookshops, feminist and LGBTQI+ collectives scattered throughout Italy, have seen a growing participation, with important cultural effects that are able to impact this country’s imaginary. To restrict our perspective to the field of art, we should not underestimate the propulsive force of significant international exhibitions such as Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum in New York (2007), Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution at MOCA in Los Angeles (2007), Elles@centrepompidouin Paris (2009) or Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Hammer Museum (2017), which also had a major echo in Italy The attraction exerted by Lonzi and the radical feminism of the 1970s should also be read in the context of a more general fascination with the art of that decade, which did not only result in a repêchageuseful to the market. Numerous artists active in Italy since the 1990s have chosen to turn their gaze to the 1970s, to the collective expressions of dissent that emerged in that decade, and they have launched an excavation operation to burrow into the history and thought of that period, to redesign affective and political genealogies outside the linear conception of time and to recover the repressed histories capable of providing answers to the questions of the present. Returning today to question and reread Lonzi thus means seeking to break with the hegemonic historiographic models and operate a vigilant critique of the forms of representation and ideologies in which we have too long been embroiled.


[1] E. De Cecco, Trame: per una mappa transitoria, in Id., G. Romano, Contemporanee. Percorsi e poetiche delle artiste dagli anni Ottanta a oggi [2000], edition consulted Postmedia Books, 2002, p. 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C. Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel. La donna clitoridea e la donna vaginale e altri scritti, Rivolta femminile, 1974, p. 14.

[4] Recent studies dedicated to Carla Lonzi include: L. Iamurri, Un margine che sfugge. Carla Lonzi e l’arte in Italia. 1955-1970, Quodlibet, 2016; G. Zapperi, Carla Lonzi. An Art of Life, DeriveApprodi, 2017; Feminism and Art in Postwar Italy. The Legacy of Carla Lonzi, ed. by F. Ventrella, G. Zapperi, Bloomsbury, 2020; Carla Lonzi: la duplice radicalità. Dalla critica militante al femminismo di Rivolta, ed. by L. Conte, V. Fiorino, V. Martini, Edizioni ETS, 2011; C. Subrizi, La storia dell’arte dopo l’autocoscienza. A partire dal diario di Carla Lonzi, Lithos, 2020.

[5] The Unexpected Subject. 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy, exhibition catalogue, Flash Art, 2019; Deculturalize, exhibition catalogue, (Bolzano, 2019), Mousse Publishing, 2020; Io dico io – I say I, exhibition catalogue (Rome), Silvana Editoriale, 2021.

[6]This was the theme of the talk Quattro mostre, Carla Lonzi, l’archivio, which I gave at the conference Archivi esposti. Teoria e pratica dell’arte contemporanea, Università degli Studi di Bari, 15-16 October 2021. Its proceedings will soon be published by Quodlibet, in a volume edited by M. Maiorino, M.G. Mancini, and F. Zanella.

[7] K Eichhorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism. Outrage in Order, Temple University Press, 2013, p. 3.

[8] The exhibition was held from 18 October to 6 December 2015 at the Museu da Eletricidade in Lisbon.