Carla Lonzi, Art Critic and Feminist. Introductory Remarks. Art criticism undone
10 juillet 2014, Giovanna Zapperi
Mots clés.

Intoductory remarks to the conference Carla Lonzi : Art Critic and Feminist, organised by the Travelling Feminism research group ( ) at the Maison Rouge in Paris, with contributions by Lucia Aspesi, Chiara Fumai, Elisabeth Lebovici, Griselda Pollock, Dora Stiefelmeier, Francesco Ventrella and Giovanna Zapperi.

Carla Lonzi, an emblematic figure in Italian feminism, was an innovative art critic in the 1960s. Her Self-portrait, published in 1969 and now translated into French for the first time, is a book-montage made from conversations recorded with 14 artists where Lonzi deconstructs art criticism and invents a style of writing based on subjectivity, exchange and non-linearity.
This conference aims to explore the diverging trajectory of Carla Lonzi, who abandoned art for feminism, in order to investigate the relations between art and feminism from a minority perspective that is little known outside Italy. Between historicization and actualization, we will explore the potentialities of Lonzi’s path toward a feminist revision of the history of her epoch and its topicality for a feminism of the future.

In 1969, Italian art critic Carla Lonzi published Self-portrait (“Autoritratto”), a book based on the principle of montage consisting of a series of conversations tape-recorded with fourteen artists (all male except Carla Accardi) between 1965 and 1969. The book is also a farewell : in 1970, together with Accardi, Lonzi founded “Rivolta Femminile” (Feminine Revolt) and never returned to art criticism. Lonzi, who died in 1982 at the age of 51, became one of the founding figures of Italian feminism, and the author of a number of provocative texts and manifestos ; in 1978 she also published her monumental journal under the title Taci, anzi parla : diario di una femminista (Shut up, actually speak. A feminist’s diary), and later, Vai pure. Dialogo con Pietro Consagra, a four-day conversation with sculptor Pietro Consagra, her life-long partner, which ended their relationship. These texts are not only among Italian feminism’s most important documents, they also represent feminist experiments with writing, creativity and knowledge production in which Lonzi reinvents a number of traditionally “minor” forms of expression : the private journal, the conversation, or the manifesto.
Very quickly, Carla Lonzi came to occupy a central position in Italian feminism, which, paradoxically, is also one of the reasons why Autoritratto was so quickly forgotten. Despite the fact that the book is, among other things, an extraordinary source for the study of Italian art of the 1960s, it never became a canonical text. On the contrary, it must have seemed incompatible with official art historical narratives, as well as with the kind of cultural packaging through which Italian art was promoted in the 1970s and 80s. Barely mentioned in art critical and art historical discourse, Lonzi’s radical undoing of the traditional forms of art writing went unnoticed, or was simply considered as a sort of prologue to her subsequent feminist engagement. However, since the publication of its second Italian edition thirty years later, in 2010, the book has gained considerable attention — a sort of “après-coup” that Lonzi seems to share with a number of women of her generation.
Self-portrait is based on the montage of a series of conversations that Lonzi recorded, transcribed and assembled. Each conversation is first fragmented, then recomposed as a non-linear ensemble, where Lonzi ceases to ask questions or discuss the artist’s works, but where she speaks for herself, in her own voice. She thus constructs the fiction of an uninterrupted conversation in which her role is essentially participatory. Once the original continuity of the conversations is destroyed, Lonzi composes a text in which she and the artists, converse, so to speak, with each other. Lonzi had requested the artists to send her pictures, so that the ongoing conversation is punctuated with a number of illustrations, thereby simulating the traditional text/image format of art history books. The majority of these images are personal or travel snapshots (only a small number reproduce artworks). Consequently, their presence throughout the book provides a subjective element within the discussions that comprise the text. Lonzi quite literally undoes both the practices and poetics of art writing hegemonic in her time : she abandons the authority of interpretation in order to participate in the creative moment, while her focusing on subjectivity and non-hierarchical exchange also undermines the primacy of the image – of the visual — as one of formalism’s epistemic foundations.
Lonzi, who had worked as an art critic for over a decade, had registered her frustration with conventional art writing as early as 1963, when she published a polemical article entitled “The critic’s loneliness” (La solitudine del critico), in response to what she perceived as the dominant form of art criticism based on detachment, paternalism, and authority. During the 1960s, Lonzi became increasingly committed to artists rather than their products, and felt increasingly alienated in her role as a critic. Participation became a way for her to surpass the role of passive observer, the spectator inevitably located outside, a position which she ambivalently identifies with both the critic and the woman. Accordingly, Autoritratto emerges as a search for an authorial female voice in opposition to the prevalent practices of art writing. Moreover, the assemblage-like construction of the book (tape-recording, transcription, and montage) enacts a complex process of becoming a subject within the male dominated art world of 1960s Italy. In her book, Lonzi rejects the critic’s authority, coherence and unity by dispersing her own voice within a non-linear, dialogic, and collective narrative. Within these terms, the book also resonates with her feminist writings, in which issues of subjectivity and self-representation are crucial, as well as participating in the broader framework of feminist revisions of art history.
How should we understand Lonzi’s perception of the radical discontinuity between art criticism and feminist activism ? Lonzi’s trajectory also poses the question of the repressed – or missing — link between art and feminism in the Italian context : Rivolta Femminile was launched by Lonzi, an art critic and Accardi, an artist, on the basis of their refusal to position themselves exclusively and professionally within the art world. For Lonzi, there was no possible reconciliation between her activity as an art critic and her subsequent feminist engagement, a fact that has contributed to the view of her work as dramatically bifurcated. Lonzi’s feminism builds on the radical refusal of the prevailing concept of creativity, in particular, the notion that art itself could be an emancipatory practice for women. Rivolta Femminile considered it illusory to conceive of art as a liberating force for women insofar as patriarchy had already colonized creativity, such that cultural creation was always an already a patriarchal product.

Drawing on the issues raised by the book, I would like to sketch a set of open questions or avenues to be developed in the future, as well as providing some directions to explore Lonzi’s writings and activity from a feminist perspective.

A first question concerns Self-portrait’s non-linearity, which in many ways echoes themes that Lonzi would later develop in her feminist writings. One could say that the book is an alternative, fragmentary, and subjective history of Italian art in the 1960s, a sort of history of and in the present. The book rejects dominant modes of art writing, beginning with its refusal of the notion of a linear and homogeneous time that is able to unify artists, movements and historical facts. In addition, Self-portrait’s non-linear narrative and temporality echoes Lonzi’s perception of feminism as an interruption in the continuum of historical time (which is also the continuum of woman’s oppression). In her text Let’s spit on Hegel (written in 1970), Lonzi describes the feminist subject as representing the sudden emergence of an “Unexpected Subject” (Soggetto Imprevisto), a subject that requires neither the past nor the future : “a new subject [that] pronounces a new word and in that pronouncement is confident of its diffusion” ; and, as she writes in the final sentences of the text : “There is no goal, only the present. We are the dark past of the world. We are accomplishing the present”.

A second question could be related to Lonzi’s rejection of formalism that resulted in her rupture with art and embrace of feminism. Sabeth Buchmann – who was scheduled to participate today but was unfortunately unable to join us – wanted to address this topic and compare Lonzi with Lucy Lippard. Of course, formalist models of art criticism were then dominant internationally, and Lonzi had developed her own version of it, in keeping with her training as Roberto Longhi’s student, a prominent Italian art historian of the period. Although Self-portrait rejects the primacy of vision as the driving principle of writing on art, Lonzi does not reject notions of authenticity and truth in relation to art or artists, which she derived from her formalist vocabulary. Furthermore, these ideas, which occupy a pivotal role in Autoritratto, return in Lonzi’s feminist writings, especially in her elaboration of sexual difference and her notion of woman’s authenticity as a liberating force.

Another question to be explored is Lonzi’s complicated relation with women artists – and I think we will learn more about this in the first session this afternoon. During her career as an art critic, Lonzi never really championed women artists, with the notable exception of Carla Accardi who became her best friend in the early 1960s. But later, Lonzi’s separatist feminism led to a refusal of culture itself as a patriarchal construction. Her call for a radical de-skilling (or “de-culturation”) as a means for feminist action resulted in an uncompromised, yet often contradictory rejection of patriarchal culture. Consequently, she actively refused to support women artists throughout the 1970s, accusing them of inauthenticity and of complicity with patriarchy, or worse, their having taken advantage of women’s oppression .

The last point I would like to emphasize is that despite her detachment from the artistic arena, Lonzi’s feminist writings are punctuated with reflections on art and sexual difference. The most notable example of her continous interest in art is the short manifesto she wrote in 1971 (signed “Rivolta Femminile”) entitled “On woman’s absence from celebratory manifestations of male creativity” (Assenza della donna dai momenti celebrativi della manifestazione creativa maschile). In this text, she develops her idea of woman as the passive spectator of the artwork, which certainly has to do with both Lonzi’s role as a critic and with the type of abstract, non-figurative art that she advocated. For Rivolta, spectatorship is equal to passivity and exclusion, and therefore corresponds to the role assigned to women. However, Lonzi’s identification with the spectator is ambivalent because, for her, to be excluded from the creative process also meant to have a certain degree of power (“art criticism is power”, as she writes in 1970). Also, contrary to the almost contemporary theorizations in the Anglo-Saxon context, Lonzi’s texts never mention woman as the object of the look, she is rather the indispensable viewer who passively observes and thus legitimizes male creativity. I believe this issue deserves further attention since it introduces different issues within the predominant discourses of feminist critique that emerged the art of the time.

Conference’s schedule :

The conference is organized around three panels ; in the first one, entitled « Art and feminism, circa 1970 », Griselda Pollock and Elisabeth Lebovici will address Lonzi’s discontinuities in her thinking about art and feminism. Griselda will question the invention of alternative modes of knowledge production within feminist creative practices (which includes writing), while Elisabeth will focus on the political significance of the rupture in the context of 1970s feminism. The second panel will look at Lonzi’s –often-complicated – relations with women artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Dora Stiefelmaier will recount her own acquaintance with both Lonzi and Accardi in the late 1970s and share important archival material about the disagreements that resulted in Accardi’s break with Rivolta Femminile in 1974. Lucia Aspesi will go back to the 1960s and show a short film made by experimental filmmaker Marinella Pirelli featuring Lonzi and Luciano Fabro ; she will discuss the relation between Lonzi and Pirelli and the condition of women artists in 1960s Italy, another largely unexplored subject. The third panel focuses on the potential of Lonzi’s writing and practice for a contemporary critical appropriation in the field of both theory and practice. Sabeth Buchmann’s intervention was scheduled for this section and I really regret her absence today. Beside wanting to focus on Lonzi’s rejection of formalism, Sabeth projected to discuss this shift in relation to a biopolitical agenda of emancipatory identity politics of that time. Francesco Ventrella will focus on Lonzi’s Autoritratto in the framework of a feminist-queer reading of the text, which will put her in dialogue with important Anglo-American feminist theorists ; Chiara Fumai, who is part of a younger generation of feminist artists, will close the day by recounting her own involvement with Carla Lonzi’s feminism in her performative practice.

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