Female artists of the 20th century

In the critical reading of the art of the twentieth century, Dora Bassi captured the tension between art and life, sexuality and expressive autonomy in the figures of female artists to whom she devoted her research. Conferences, courses, seminars, and essays focus on the issue of the relationship between art and gender identity. [1]

[1] Where not stated otherwise, translations are ours.

(Berlin 1917- Auschwitz 1943)

D. BASSI, Charlotte, in “LAPIS. Percorsi della riflessione femminile”, n.11, marzo 1991 (“LAPIS. Paths on feminine reflection” – Translator note)

“Please, follow me, I show you the way”. Led by a reserved and kind functionary, we descended into the basement of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. There, jealousy preserved, is one of the most complex and extraordinary works in the modern history of art: “Leben? oder Theater?” (Life? Or Art? – Translator’s note). An autobiographical tale through images to which Charlotte Salomon entrusted her survival and, perhaps, immortality. The museum has provided respectful and careful protection for this work, but also has relegated it to a too long silence: today very few people know the figure of this Jewish artist, who died young in a Nazi camp, but who was so proud, determined and conscious of her expressive power, to the point of leaving her story to history, as if it were a precious living cell.
“What Van Gogh did in his later years, that brush stroke made of extraordinary brightness that was unfortunately labelled as pathological, I managed to obtain it now…”.
The impulses that lie at the basis of every artistic creation appear, in Charlotte Salomon, concentrated in the aim of imposing the urgency of this work: introspection along the tortuous roads of memory, first hand evocation of places and atmospheres where she had previously been immersed, moulded into the form of an extremely modern and brave concept of art, functional connection between art and life, and, eventually, the cry of victory for having defeated annihilation. All of this was painted and written on 860 sheets of paper, organised through extraordinary expressive techniques, without hesitations nor afterthoughts, with spectacular incisiveness. A narrative journey composed of words, images, music notations destined towards a utopical stage.
The whole work is preserved in metal cabinets and safe cases, labeled with numbers, ordered in series that are accurately respectful towards the original project, but for many reasons are kept frozen as if in exile.
Charlotte did not want this. When leaving her work in the hands of Doctor Moridis in Villefranche-sur-Mer, she said: “Take care of it. This is all my life.” Among the papers, she had introduced the recommendation to keep the numbering unaltered, to not disrupt the narrative cycles. Obviously, her aim was double: to find herself by giving a meaning to her life, which she expected to be brief, and to donate herself to others by means of a message that could transcend her own time.

“I have never forgotten that I love and three times I approve of life, and that in order to fully live it, it is necessary to accept that reversal, pain and death that are part of it”.
In truth, “Life? Or Theatre?”, a corpus of 1325 pieces, includes, together with the narrative core, loose papers, annotations, and schemes of composition, and was presented to the public several times: in Amsterdam, inside the Jewish Historical Museum; in some German cities (1965-67); in Tel Aviv, Locarno, and Berlin. After the acquisition of “Life? Or Theatre?” by the Jewish Historical Museum, it was transposed into a documentary and, in the year in which an expansive monograph about the artist was published in New York (Viking Press and Gary Schwartz, 1981), director Franz Weisz produced a movie inspired by Charlotte. In 1986 the Academy of Fine Arts and the School of Art in Berlin dedicated an exhibition to Charlotte and a book (ed. Arsenal, 1986). In 1988 a selection of temperas was exhibited in Tokyo and in the same year, the Friulian committee of D.A.R.S. (donna-arte-ricerca-sperimentazione / woman-art-research-experimentation) set up a documentary section dedicated to Solomon within the exhibition “Guerra: immagini tra mito e storia” (“War: images between myth and history”) in Udine.
Despite all of these occasions and the resources of the Jewish Historical Museum, no in-depth study has been done, so far, about this exceptional artist. What are the reasons for this delay? Let us try to understand them. First of all, by entering a historical museum, Charlotte was absorbed within the documentary context of Hebraism and her voice, despite the careful attention of the curators, risked being confused with that of the many people who were persecuted during her time. More than once her figure has been associated with that of Anne Frank, who was so different from her in terms of age, maturity, culture and artistic conscience.
“Life? Or Theatre?” impressed because of its touching and dramatic human contents, for which Charlotte’s ethical stature superimposed itself over her revolutionary conception of art and concealed its value.
Furthermore, and this is possibly the main cause, art criticism was imbued with the ancient prejudice: a woman, a young woman, and one without a relevant artistic past, with the uncertain ascription of recognisable masters in her work. And in the whole history of art there does not really exist a woman who is a forefather. Not even the greater and older Kate Kollowitz, also a Jewish woman from Berlin, victim of political persecution, expelled from the Academia, can be considered as such. Women in the history of art are usually placed within movements and schools, next to prestigious masters, and Charlotte looks like a solitary and anomalous figure incapable of bearing comparisons nor artistic dependance.
The structure of “Life? Or Theatre?” is complex and has no precedents. The expressive organism is polysemantic, therefore difficult to label. Painting? Literature? Theatre? What is this “Singspiel” of hers? In our cultural habit, anything that cannot be defined does not exist, but Charlotte had very clear ideas and, above all, what was clear to her was the fundamental concept of the necessity of finding a point of absolute union between art and life.
Hers was not a programmatic position of the intellectual kind, but rather a declaration of faith in the superior function of the creative act, conceived in its integrity, as the human faculty to preserve and create living structures. The project was delineated in her mind and was immediately managed by her infallible instinct, without the limitations provided by cultural mediation and, most of all, with a great evocative and regenerating power that enabled her to immediately find the right expressive tone; by means of a language that was rooted in the genesis of visual communication; in its primary magical meaning. Narrating her childhood, Charlotte finds again the attentive and surprised eyes of the child: lack of perspective, sparkling and pure colours, emphasize on details, things and people observed in symbolical relationships. Evoking adolescence, sight broadens and physical space finds its representation. In it there are the characters of her story, in the essentiality of their appearance. Later, when loved ones and passions surface to conscience, the psychological representation begins. There also appears alienation, the fear of madness, the signs become thicker, shapes unloose, narrative connections break up into an emotional magma. Words made painting run along the whole work, real words, words emitting signals, words narrating, words imposing themselves for what they say and not just for the beauty of their traits. However, words are insufficient or useless, they fade and dilute into images. It is when dialogues, monologues, meditations enter the work that Charlotte draws upon different instruments, starting sequences characterised by cinematographic pauses, which are well underlined and represent the temporal continuity of actions and situations. “Chagall’s influence can be perceived. She must have seen Munch. I wonder whether she met the Expressionists. Matisse? It is from him that she took that flat and luminous campitura (the first coat of a painted background)?” Whoever goes through Charlotte’s book is prompted to make such observations, to ask these questions. Giulia, a very young friend of mine, once looked at the beautiful reproductions in an absorbed mood. She then concluded “It looks like the wall in Berlin.”
Petite, silent, smiling, Charlotte did not stand out at the Academy in Berlin. People used to call her “Lotte”. They had forgotten her Jewish surname.
“She often dressed in gray. At the end of the lessons she used to go home on her own, her hand drowned in her pockets. Even though she lived in the opposite part of town, she loved walking in front of the Zoo station. She was polite, discrete, both mature and childish. She was like a day in November. The rest of us, as students, were standoffish instead, that was fashionable at the time.”
What did the young people of the time see in art galleries?
“What our teachers taught us, we had established a relationship only with them. Our library was rich, however the majority of the volumes consisted of luxurious and recent editions on the masters of the Middle Ages. I only saw works by Max Ernst for the first time much later. Back then, everything we learned was within our classroom. Lottina loved gray and dark colours. If I had been her teacher, I would have diverted her from that shell-like grayness of hers.”
What were the artists Charlotte could have met? How would it be possible to explain her own way of painting?
“Remember we did not have access to contemporary art. That had been banished, it was impossible to see it. However, we could still read authors included in our library, that was still possible. I used to read Werfel, Hesse, Barlach…” (from an interview with Barbara Wetzel, Charlotte’s schoolmate at the Academy of Art).
“Did people discuss impressionism, for example, in Berlin?”
“No, not in Berlin. Charlotte’s painting was instinctive, it came from within. She did not have any contacts with the art of those years, not even in Paris. On the other hand, she stopped there only for a week. In our house we discussed art, literature, music, and Charlotte listened eagerly to these conversations, but then everything changed. We were isolated, our only preoccupation was to get an ‘affidavit’, a passport to escape camps.” (from an interview with Paula Lindberg, the second wife of Charlotte’s father).
Charlotte was just 21 when they put her on a train to France. She was alone, without luggage nor passport. She was leaving behind everything she loved; Paula, her beloved step-mother, Daberlohn, her first love.
“Du musst jetzt aufsteigen”.
She leaned back on the window, made ugly by anxiety, deprived of her dreams, looking at the platform to get a glimpse of the heartbreaking last image of the man that meant so much to her, that Doberlohn, half genius, half histrionic personality, who had pushed her towards painting by means of his hypnotising spirited eyes, chaining her to his narrow suffering smile during their hasty meetings in the streets of Berlin, under a street lamp, over the table of a bar, in the squalid places that, for her, held flashes of paradise. His figure, which occupies the whole central part of “Life? Or Theatre?”, appears for the last time in this goodbye, shapeless and dark against the deaf and smoky background of the station.
He and Paulinka dominate the whole “Hauptteil” of the work. The psychological game between the two is described in Charlotte’s tale in all its ambiguity. This is the story: he was a Jewish and jobless music teacher. He was recommended to the Salomon family by a mutual friend and started to spend time daily with them. He played the piano for Paulinka, famous opera singer who substituted, in Charlotte’s heart, for her mother, who had committed suicide when she was just 9 years old. Daberlohn started to worship that woman, characterised by a calm and imperious personality and who seemed to tolerate him with indulgence. This is what emerges from the tale. Charlotte draws hundreds of time her large and pallid face, typical of an interpreter of Wagner, her benevolent and close dialogue with the young and intrusive teacher who kisses her hand, kneels in front of her calling her “Meine Madonna”. In more than five hundred lay-outs, painted with rapid brush strokes, saturated from a chromatic point of view, the two figures intertwine, compose themselves, they dissolve, in an obsessive love pantomime, in neverending duets in which Daberlohn’s determinedly insists while Paula’s reticence doubles. With a nervous and vibrant sign, Charlotte represents the changing of the colours of the emotions by changing the chromatic setting and the compositional structure, by continuously moving the point of view until arriving to adopt her typical expressive technique: the sequence of the speaking or thinking face, endlessly repeated. There, she sometimes appears as a thin figure on the background, sometimes on the margins of the action while something is happening. On the sheet labelled with number 224 there are only her and Daberlohn: they are standing out on a transparent and luminous background, with the wise juxtaposition of cool and warm shades of colours, in a direct confrontation, and on the maroon-purple table, there lay Charlotte’s drawings.
“I do not know what you actually see in them, but if you like them I can give them to you.” On sheet number 275 there is their embrace. Two figures caught in a single sinuous line, accompanied by the flow of the spoken words.
“Please, stay, I don’t want you to go.”, “No, please, I must go away.”
Embracing under a street light: a single dark spot on a slightly light blue background.
Side by side in the streets of Berlin: oblique composition and aerial perspective.
She, waiting on a bench: a station, a clock, solitude, a figure in red far away coming towards her, red and green complementary colours.
Many bars, many hands held over tablecloths, so much hesitating at the corners of the streets.
When, at the end of the war, Daberlohn, who really existed and was called Wolfsohn, received “Life? Or Theatre?”, he cried, held his head in his hands and whispered: “I didn’t know… I could have never imagined anything of this.”
Paulinka had not understood either. Some years ago, someone found her and interviewed her.
“She was still a child, Charlotte remained a child for a long time, much longer than what usually happens today”.
Paula and her husband did not encounter difficulties in getting hold of the bundles left by Charlotte. Also the paintings that she had painted for Mrs. Moore did not have any importance in the eyes of their owner.
“In normal times, Charlotte would have certainly done other things. She immersed herself in the past because the present looked horrible and there was no future. For this reason she painted so much. Children are equally productive when they draw, they express themselves.”
“What does “Life? Or Theatre?” mean to you?”
“Theatre means what it looks like, what you want to appear. At the end of every tale a question remains: was it really like that or did I imagine it? The love story with Daberlohn was just a desire, a fantasy. What she narrated later, when she was more mature, was what she wished it had been.”
Then Paula got distracted and started talking about herself and her past triumphs on the stage. Daberlohn appears again on sheet 442. As if in moment of utmost union, the two figures are blended and the background is light. Here the male figure stands and absorbs the small silhouette at his feet. The halo of a violet shadow envelops them. “Never forget that I believe in you.” It is the last message.
“It was very difficult to establish contact with her. She was silent, she hardly opened her soul and tore down the wall she had built around herself.”
Daberlohn had grasped the girl’s talent.
“How could such a young person paint a picture so full of despair, sadness, resignation and death? In her sleep, Charlotte was tormented by nightmares of death. She used to dream of being a larva ready to turn into a butterfly. She used to dream of hovering around in the air in chains. I pushed her to find something else, an embrace with life.” (from a letter by Daberlohn –Wolfsohn). Daberlohn wanted to subjugate her soul to his. He, a despotic god who gives life, her, young Adam not yet born.
From sheet 459, departure and exile, with happy intervals of light blues, greens, oranges. White tablecloths hung in the sun, but also white hospital beds, white bathtubs, the white figure of the grandfather, the white nightgown of the grandmother desperately wandering in search of death. Charlotte holds steady the horrible memory of that suicide in hard and quick brush strokes, until the disconnected words of her upset mind overflow and overwhelm the images. Daberlohn’s last words: “Never forget that I believe in you”, are left alone to stop her from the temptation to commit suicide herself.
This is the epilogue of Charlotte’s life and story. Words and images are urgent and are being traced quickly. The faces, investigated so many times, now disappear, only the words remain. “All of this happened in July 1940, on the road that connects a small town on the Pyrenees and Nice, after the whole world fell into pieces”. Then there was “Life? Or Theatre?”, a show in colours with music. Charlotte has finished. She looks at the sea and a beam of light tears the light blue wave of the sky. On her naked shoulders she bears the written title of the accomplished work.

D.BASSI, Charlotte, in “Sulle ali della Shekhinah. Berlino 1917, Charlotte Salomon, Auschwitz 1943”, ed. a cura del comune di Romans d’Isonzo, 1998; id, ed. a cura del Comune di Carpi, Museo Monumento al Deportato (“On the wings of Shekhinah. Berlin 2017, Charlotte Salomon, Auschwitz 1943” – Translator’s note)

Charlotte silently waits in the aseptic caveau of the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish History Museum), lovingly protected and catalogued. Those who met her affirm she did not have great ambitions, except from that of living. The keepers of her work, with smiling quietness, do not show any hurry of giving her to the world. Dr. Nystadt, who, together with Renèe Waale put the collection in order, explains: “We would never want Charlotte to be misunderstood or exploited”. Everything she produced has been collected into an exhaustive catalogue (Charlotte, ed Gary Schwartz, New York, 1981), as wanted by the museum itself. In 1986, in Berlin another book was published (Charlotte Salomon, ed. Arsenal) where there appear interviews with people who met her personally, and where the cultural environment in which she was formed is discussed, and where – precious detail – a list is published, containing the names of the students and the professors of the high schools of the academia and of the conservatory of Berlin who were forced to retreat for being Jewish. Interestingly enough, it includes the cream of the expressionist movement. Hofer, Schlemmer, Barlach, Dix, Pechstein, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rotluff, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, Arnold Schonberg…
The people who are interviewed, the same schoolmates that used to be closer to her, are surprised by the interest that such a gentle girl, who died fifty years ago, elicits today. In Israel, in 1987, her piece “Life? Or Theatre?” was performed. Her figure is well known in Jewish educated circles, but for collectors and art historians who belong to different areas her name is still not linked to anything else. I met her by chance, because of a summer shower I needed to find shelter from. I was with a young friend of mine, who proudly wears the mythical name Saskja. Thus, we entered the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, an old restored synagogue and there, following the thread of the history of the ancient Jewish group in the city, of their civilization, of the wealth gathered and lost, of despair, of extermination, we arrived at a small room on the ground floor where, in a series of images characterised by an impressive expressiveness, Charlotte narrated her entire life. It was a narrative storyline and not the whole work, as I would later discover. The following year I went back to Amsterdam and got in touch with the museum, which accorded me access to the collection. I was thrilled.
On simple sheets of paper, all marked in the lower part with the initials “C.S.”, still bearing the signs of the pins, there enrolls some sort of visual journal like I have never seen in my whole life. In it, with wisdom and narrative intensity, Charlotte had placed the meaning and memory of her existence by interlacing words and images. This was so evident that the idea of isolating the stylistic elements, or quoting Munch, Chagall, Schmidt-Rotluff, seemed to me a squalid and irreverent operation. Despite drawing from the figurative civilization of her time with some sort of great nonchalance, she unhinged its relations, disregarded every convention, used composite languages because the intensity of communication was her only aim.
There is no apparent rule in the development of the narrative. The author uses the expedient of the simultaneous accumulation of events (like painters in the fifteenth century already did and, by virtue the efficacy of popular narration, painters such as Lorenzo Lotto); other times, when intimism and the ‘lyrical I’ prevail, she avoids references to places and perspectives, and condenses the tale within a single image taken out of any possible context. The protagonist is, from time to time, Charlotte herself, her grandmother, Paulinka, that Daberlohn who had such a role in her story. Other times, it is the event which prevails, and therefore, like in the case of the reproduction of the Nazi announcements ordering the hunt for the Jews, only the sheet remains with the single visual organisation of the words.
Charlotte distributes the words in the same way she does with colour and song, leaving the load of its meanings unaltered. The lay-outs preceding the page setting and chromatic choices give evidence of everything described above. Salomon, living within a musicians’ environment, perfectly knows the structural patterns of dodecaphonic music and, in a similar way, she sets narrative blocks and rhythms. Everything that lies behind the work is, so far, simply conjectural, because “Life? Or Theatre?” seems to emerge from nothing, protected by a half-lit halo.
Narrating her life, of which she seems to foresee the brevity, is for her an impelling necessity and the use of poly semantic techniques does not seem, to us, a cultural mannerism, nor can it be underestimated the growing excitement of the sign that accompanies the fall of the events (her father’s deportation and release, Daberlohn’s goodbye, the refuge in the Côte d’Azur – Riviera, the attempt of suicide and the death of her grandmother, her grandfather’s revelations, the fear of suicidal folly, the invocation to life, and, eventually, the conclusion of the work tattooed on her back, alive, on the sea-shore).
All of this happened between 1939 and 1942.
“She was a kind and cheerful young girl”, says Madame S., who accommodated her in her house in Villefranche –sur-Mer.
“Charlotte was reserved, polite. I remember her during a November day, dressed in gray, she was mature and childish all at the same time”, says Barbara P, her schoolmate at the Academia.
“When I tried to open a breach in the wall that Lotte kept erecting against me, she would give me a gaze that would set even more fire in my endeavour towards her, then I behaved like a clown”, Daberlohn writes to a mutual friend.
In a different way, Charlotte lived her relationship with the tormented and bitter intellectual who frequents her family. The obsession for his face prevails in the central part of the work. The sequences of the profile develop, like ideograms, from the top downwards, a profile that Umberto Saba would perhaps define as belonging to a “Semitic goat”. Outlined by means of a single sign, quickly summarised and more alive than what it actually looks like in his photographs.
The whole second part of “Life? Or Theatre?” is pervaded by his presence, until, after Charlotte’s departure for France, the memory quiets down and dissolves into narrative inventions certainly drawn from cinema: the dialogue between Daberlohn and his sculptor friend still develops along sequences, but without the juxtaposition of typical images in the narrative texts of introspection.
While the silences and the words run among them, the scene is presented as a succession of figures lying down that slightly change position, sometimes placed in number of two per sheet, other times multiplied, shortened, reduced to simple initials.
These episodes constitute a slowing down in the narrative rhythm and a focalization on moments particularly rich in reflection, or dialogue, or persistent thoughts and emotions, that are important for the development of Charlotte’s inner self.
The embrace, real or imagined, between her and Daberlohn, is repeatedly represented, but when the image floats within fantasy, it evaporates in reality, up to the newly found concreteness of the last hug, which has become at this point mythical and that she identifies with the god’s intrusiveness, to the point of entitling it “Me and Jove”.
At the end of the narrative, when the shadow of folly gets into her mind, Charlotte tears the sign apart, shatters colours, breaks down the line of the words. In a puppet-like, dismantled start, after being aware of the fatal succession of suicides within her family, the very suicide of her mother, she invokes “God, do not allow that I become mad…”
If comparisons are allowed, Charlotte’s life can be placed next to the experience of Munch and Van Gogh, but for the Jewish artist, the reflection on life is less tragic, more daily and punctual, as it is appropriate for a young woman who is not able yet to cool her world of affections into a concept.
Her insecurity in the choice of the expressive instrument and the wisdom of their use remains mysterious.

The reading of “Life? Or Theatre?” is complex: there is the story of a girl raised in an atmosphere of tragedy and death; there is happiness in her, purity, the breath of life, but when all of this causes pain and horror for the extreme violence that cut her off at 26, it is somewhere else that we have to look for Charlotte’s greatness, in what will never be misunderstood or abused, that is to say, in the clearness of a fantastic transfiguration that she has achieved above any contents, thanks to an unaltered and powerful intelligence, only common to great artists. (Milan, December 1990)


Some years ago, during an endless journey on a train, after an encounter with the work by Jenny Holzer in Cassel, it was thanks to a mysterious association that I recalled a small Cretan figurine, the so-called Minoan “Snake Goddess”. As it can be easily figured, there was no apparent analogy. The mysterious young girl with the bistre-brown eyes was more than 3,500years old. Corroded by the centuries, damaged by several restorations, she had arrived to us from abyssal distances. It was indeed distance – of times and places – that had managed to charge her with the most powerful and less probable meanings. Jenny’s installation was something completely different. A very much modern technological product, intact and polished. However, there was something strange about it, something very ancient. Something like a feeling of remote places, on which it would have been dangerous to shed light. Like it had appeared to me in a narrow room inside a wide anonymous building, the work of art looked like it was demanding a ring of emptiness and silence. The artist had entitled it “Lament”. It was a large parallelepiped made of polished marble, similar to a sarcophagus, whereupon an inscription had been engraved in lapidary characters. On the walls, there ran rapid colourful words of a broken chronicle: lamentations, invectives, invocations, verdicts. The thoughts of an upset mind, registered by a monitor. The writings were created by a system of LED signs, usually employed in marketing. A female voice was narrating, calling, evoking the story of a mother and her little daughter. It was an ancient cry, however I had not been impressed by the content, back then, but rather the shape it had taken and, obviously, the elementary evidence of a human drama. From the cold depths of a technological, blunt, indifferent world, a buried voice emerged, more than alive. Like everybody who was there, I was taken by an atavic anxiety about my throat, the terror of death, of being buried. In that moment, I remembered the Snakes Goddess, without a reason. Why? For the vertigo of the abyss, I think. And mystery, because the more a work of art is surrounded by enigma and is pervaded by inaccessibility, the more it gets into you, the more it is disquieting, the more it leaves a trace. Thus, the girl from Crete has been reinvented so many times it has become today the emblem of modern anxieties, of the nostalgia of a myth. Obviously, it will not be possible to trace back the historical truth about its original context, about its birth and for our imagination. This is good, as much as it is good to forget for a moment who Jenny Holzer is, in truth. To forget her rich family, Ohio where she was raised, the schools she went to, her move to New York, the centres of power, Manhattan, Trump’s skyscraper, the banks, the multinational societies. To forget, a little bit, also Jenny’s profound, sincere social commitment, her feminist militancy, her philosophical readings, Jung’s collective unconscious. And the invasion on every level of penetration of Jenny’s insistent messages over skyscrapers, on t-shirt sold in numbers of thousands, in the undergrounds and on the tourist buses, her messages reiterated and oversimplified, repeated with the obsession typical of a preacher and – in my opinion – without the slightest shade of irony, because true artists mean it even when they put on the stage mockery, absurdity, scandal. Obviously, I am not saying to forget all of these things forever, but as much as the work speaks and as much as it is necessary for us, as Europeans and heirs of a tired culture, to be able to envelop her with the spaces of open possibilities, those that would be fatally limited for us by the certainties, intentions and reality that belong to Jenny, an American woman in her fifties with her intense and thin face.

“It is very common to remember very well the first time you encounter a work by Jenny Holzer” – as Michael Auping says of her – “either when it appears, as a flash of lightning, over a scoreboard in Candlestick Park in San Francisco, or when you find it discreetly printed on the back of a sales receipt.”
This is exactly what had happened to me.
During the summer of 1990, that same bewilderment got hold of me and I was again out of breath in the American pavilion of the 44th edition of Venice’s Biennale of Art.
The artists had completely transformed the place, lifting the spaces and everything they contained above the city, above its calli (Venice’s typical alleys – translator’s note) and ignoring the typically snobbish environment of the festival and of the celebration of its rituals, all devoted to the privileges of the intellect.
Jenny Holzer had closed, by means of the highest degree of concentration, the whole meaning of her life as woman and as artist within four rooms, and she had blunted it, at the same time, into everything that is universal, and human.
Here, as much as in Cassel, it is not necessary to be aware of the fact that the artist, who is conscious of the feminist issues on difference, looks for and finds a language in her work that is able to clearly declare gender, because her production is completely imbued with female greatness and dignity; and the quality of the filter through which she observes herself, the world, life, is also typical, as much as the strong tension towards mystery, metaphysics, materialization. In Holzer there exists a feeling of shaded religiousness, a panic one, of the same type which belonged to Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, Eleonora Carrington, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger.
Here it is how the installation presented itself: at the two opposite sides of the half-circular pavilion there were two rooms in the green half-light. Silent crypts without lights nor colours, completely covered with marble, both on the walls and on the floor. Along the perimeter, identical benches were placed there for the visitor who would find himself immediately trapped in an almost ritual action, as if he were a penitent. To say it as it is, all the works by Jenny Holzer are authoritarian, impositive, categorical.
A young boy who was at my side whispered: “My God, it looks like we have just entered the Divine Comedy!” Still, he was also trying not to make noise while floating over the diamond tiles of a luxurious floor, all engraved with words taken from the original source of Jenny’s itinerary: an anthology of “truisms”, that is to say, of sententious truths, but which are actually arbitrary or impossible to decipher. But this is of secondary importance. What mattered was the feeling that the earth was collapsing, recalling the medieval horrors of eternal atonement. Thinking about it now, this was caused by the emptiness and solitude of the centre of the room, conceived as a sacred picture, like a templum, a place of vertical axes running through.
These two rooms were defined as waiting rooms, but also “purgatories”. Despite the dark references, a childish laugh could be heard all over the place, something pure, innocent, fantastic. Perhaps, it was the artists’ wait, supervising the visitor’s wait and pushing him towards the real wonder that was in the middle, inside an exploded heart.
It was a room all in marble, like the other ones, but throbbing with unstable life because of the colourful writings slipping like water in an artificial waterfall along the walls and multiplied due to the mirroring and polished upholsteries, giving a feeling of levitation, of immateriality to whoever was watching it, inside a luminous prodigy.

I quote hereby the text engraved there. It is about a tormented pregnancy, perhaps a delivery performed by means of a Cesarean section.

Here is another text, recited by a female voice.

If I do not remember wrong, the pilgrimage went on, moving across a little room, made incandescent by the massive LED signs that crossed and followed each other. The texts: apocalyptic forecasts on the destruction of mankind and of earth, and a personal autodafé. Sometimes, according to a temporal schedule, the room would fall into complete darkness and silence. A metaphor for total annulment or the concession of a break, of clarification? Or a fiction of the endless void that lies beyond?
Here, again, Jenny points at the ambiguous and along the whole work she plays with the dynamic opposition between light and darkness, hot and cold, aggressive and sweet, joy and pain, presence and absence, earth and ascesis.
Much has been written (and mocked) about her prophetic fervour, about her ritual mimic, about the insistence on what is sacred in lack of the sakerdos (priest – translator’s note). Many critics associated her with enlightened shamans like Beuys, to formalist intellectuals like Serra, to brilliant illusionists like Andre, but more than who Jenny is and where she comes from, there is the lucid delirious talk of her work, the expressivity of the limits of the rupture of her forms, and then, with no offence intended for anybody, questions are being asked that do not interest only her, but art in general.
We wonder whether art, conceived as the pure elaboration of shapes, is of any use when deprived of the unique faculty of entrusting powerful symbolisms with the feeling of living in the concreteness of daily events, and what is the use of the aesthetic word and the pure exercise of the intelligence if it does not compromise what is ordinary, what is prosaic. In the shade of these questions, Jenny’s work acquires solidity, braveness, charm, and moreover it is helpful to underline a linking thread that puts together, within an analogous research for identity, and for a parallel earning of authenticity and independence, female artists who are only apparently different from each other, and who, from Charlotte Salomon, to Paula Becker, Kate Kollowitz, Germaine Richier and many others, reach out to each other.


D. BASSI, testo per convegno “CORPI HARDWARE, CORPI SOFTWARE, CORPI PACHAGE, CORPI TRASH”, D.A.R.S, Udine 1995 (Text for the conference: “Hardware bodies, software bodies, package bodie, trash bodies”)

From the represented body to the body assumed as expressive instrument, up to the denial and amplification of its negative, and to the absolute vacuity of its absence. Among the possible itineraries paved by women artists in our time, I tried to trace some paths, not according to style or contents, but in terms of creative and behavioural analogies, not always wanted or explicitly declared by the artists themselves, but which still suggest the possible placement of their works along distinct currents. This was what the most famous artists of the past century most feared and abhorred – O’Keeffe, Tanning, Fini, just to mention a few – because they considered the thought of a classification reserved for women terrifying; however, times are now ready to re-examine the phenomenons that can be ascribed to a culture which has found its own identity. Rather than ascribing these artists to the currents of contemporary art, it is more important to trace a critical itinerary which is transversal to their single positions and their autonomous vision of the world. Which is, obviously, a female vision of the world. Between Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, artists already removed in time from us, and Maria Lassnig, Gina Pane, Genevieve Cadieux, there lies a half century of turbulence in the field of art and therefore there is not a formal continuity amongst their single endeavours, however each one of them has introduced a particular light, made of a unique quality, something that sets them apart and distinguishes them, and it would be absurd to deny that such a quality of light is foreign to their femininity.
I was given the occasion for this preliminary study by the topic of the conference that addresses the issue of the representation of the body. Art is made of images, visualizations, therefore what can be considered legitimate is not the attitude towards single bodies, but rather with corporeality more in general. We are not speaking about the concreteness, the corporeality of objects, either physical or mental ones, but of the projection and perception of one’s own body according to what I have already defined as “forced coexistence” (“convivenza coatta” in Italian in the text – translator’s note), conceived as an uninterrupted experience with the container of the richness of the psychic and affective world of every individual, with all the conflicts that such a coexistence determines daily.
In the apparently diversity of the expressive choices presented by these artists, it is possible to immediately observe a shared tendency in rejecting carnality, meant as everything that can be fulfilling, playful, freeing in the full acceptance of everything that it can bring. As a matter of fact, the body is considered as an assigned container, a place where symbols are gathered, a relational instrument between the self and the other, a tool conveying the ideas of social life. There is no ostentation of the sex, the dimension of seduction is avoided, the generative power is neglected, at least in terms of a form of power. These considerations are also valid for other artists – Carrington, Fini, Varo, Marisol, Saint Phalle, Richier, Burgeois – who treated the topic of the body but whom I am not dealing with today.

The body is conceived of as an enclosure of solitude, where an endless desire of escape is extinguished. It is possible to perceive a feeling of being there, and therefore a form of spiritualisation is also strong, not to the point of anagogy, as if through temporal frames, and never by means of direct or instinctive aggression. Many artists impose gradual approaches, guided by rhythm, regulated by seriality. You will observe the arrangement of Pane’s images and the value of time in her rituals of self-harm. In almost every artist I am presenting here – O’Keeffe, Kahlo, Pane – there is a widespread religiousness that imposes the acceptance of mystery as an essential component of life. It is possible to perceive some form of pain of exile from a destiny that trespasses the boundaries of earthly life.
O’Keeffe expressed a pantheistic form of religiousness with great coherence, as the key to unlock the laws of nature. The whole work of Frida Kahlo is an ostentation of suffering as a way to distinguish privilege within the traditional hierarchies of popular religiousness. Pane identifies physical pain – turned into a show by blood – with a supreme act of love towards the other, aimed at the utmost and final fusion between love and death.

The work by Gina Pane can equally be ascribed to the movement of Body Art, with all the sacrificial rites, the profusion of blood and fetishes. However, as much as it happened with Kahlo and O’Keeffe, there takes form an area of isolation and respect for the magnetism she herself emanates. Purity and silence, which are typical of religious rituality, a sense of fatality, of ineluctability accompany the slow rhythm of the performances. Pane, dressed in white, inside white scenographies, produces wounds to her own body by means of needles, razor blades, glass splinters, letting her clothes drip in blood. In the same way, blood used to run along Frida Kahlo’s back, neck, and clothes. The representation of sacrifice in Frida becomes direct action in Gina; the former an object of violence, the latter self-destructive subject, however both, so it is said, out of the power of love. In both artists there is a great sense of the spectacular. What is the body for Gina Pane? Let her speak for herself: “It is the irreducible core of the human being, the most fragile part. It has always been so, under every social system, in every moment of history. And the wound is the memory of the body, it memorises its fragility, its pain, and therefore its real existence.”
This is what Pane was writing in the ‘70s. Thus, the body is itself a structure, a system of signs. The pain provoked by the wounds is compensated by the conquest of the other’s attention, at last captured, and this happiness in childish regression is amplified, extended to the games she often loves to surround herself with. These actions ended in the ‘70s. Pane turned from actor to audience of herself and the use of a new process led her to the discovery of references, analogies which amplify the meaning of her past self-harm to the point of making her penetrate the lives of the saints (Saint Sebastian, Saint Francis, Saint Peter), inside the martyrdom of their body in order to discover their mysterious strength. “What interests me is the relationship between the fragility of that flesh and the immaterial strength that inhabits it. I am interested in the road, in the path that is necessary to arrive there. I am not interested in hagiography… To become a man is already a religious act. Either you think like Nietzsche that god does not exist or you think god exists, and is written within our life.”
In one of her last actions (1974), Pane engraves a cross on her stomach, like an essential archetype of the relationships between the self and the other. Yes, we must emphasize that Gina’s work has the involvement of the other, of the audience, as its complement. It is dedition, disclosure until the overflow of the blood.

Maria Lassnig is a world apart. Inserted within the expressionist current, with antecedents such as Kirchner, Nolde, Paula Becker-Modersohn, at the apex of the conceptual wave, and bearing for many years the consequences of neglect and unpopularity, she pursued a starting ideology and stretched it to its most extreme consequences. Human velleity and arrogance were topics of rage and of the expressionist condemnation that assumed the formation of the bodies, the unpleasantness of the forms and of the colour as an instrument for the demolition of every illusion. Lassnig, despite a long period in the United States in the ‘70s, survived through Informalism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, coherently turning completely upside down the research for identity in the spirit of self-knowledge, with a methodology that is typical of reflexive feminism. Through an insistent practice of self-portrait she developed her language – bare, simplified, indifferent to the dating that was hitting expressionism in those years and was disadvantaging painting itself, to the point of the creation of commodity products. The consequence of such a solitary and ungrateful work was the ability to maintain the relationship between psychic life and expression. The arrival is disconcerting. The bodies, treated according to knowledge, or, better to say, according to self-perception, are twisted and shapeless masses of visceral matter, deprived of logic and structure, out of any possible judgement. Identification is impossible, therefore identity will never be reached. The collocation of the environment is not even reached. Lassnig’s bodies are trash, ready to be thrown away. This artist arrives at conclusions that are strongly pessimistic by means of itineraries that put her in tangential contact with the other artists we are dealing with. Her art appears almost as the categorical defeat of every attempt of emergence from the chaos of our inner lives, which is complete dismay.
Lassnig paves the way for Lupertz, Fettina, Immendorf, Polke, Koons, because she inverts the strengths of expressionism. Colours are more fluid, transparent, soft and they softly impose sustainable deformations. The dichotomy between shape and content is accepted by Lassnig as a principle, and affirmed in the practice of painting. Something resembling Bacon. Art historians and critics forget this: history is unfair, or, better to say, inequitable.

An analogous monitoring is performed by another artist working on the level of conceptuality, of the use and control of the body, and of corporeality in general, Geneviève Cadieux. But there is a substantial difference from Pane and Lassnig: in Cadieux the other is called to work not as a recipient, an emotional speaker, but as an active part.
Cadieux’s reflection on the body, on the ambiguity of relationships, on the impulses of possession, repeatedly frustrated through love, on their state of uncertainty, on the teeter of perceptions, seems to be devoted only to life and for this reason the discourse – the images, in this case – appears harder to us, cold, disenchanted. Cadieux’s references to Lacan and Barthes are explicit and often give easy keys to unlock the reading of her work. The artist work only with photographic images printed on mirrored materials, installations usually confront each other, they activate magnetic fields and, usually being enlargements, they influence and animate the spaces that receive them. The charm of these works lies in the ambiguity, in the opening to multiple solutions, in the fervid and mobile net of relationships with the environment and with those who interfere with these energetic fields. Sight’s perturbations, once empowered, activate psychological mechanisms that Cadieux, contrary to O’Keeffe and Gina Pane, fully exploits, by introducing them within the expressive weave.
I give you an example: the body is never a whole, some fundamental parts – the face, the sex – are being erased, obscured by patinas and inks, other are being disturbed by spots or mirroring surfaces. The juxtapositions between images are hermetic and the analogies linking these icons obey mental structures belonging to the author and that might be just hypothesized. Pane also keeps her secret, especially when the main topic refers to the saints and their martyrdoms. For this reason, meeting Cadieux’s images through sight, together with the obvious notions that these faces, and these bodies of hers give us, we always ask what lies behind, what is lacking and why, whom do they belong to. When it comes to fragments, one is prompted to ask which part of the body do they refer to, the reason for the scars. Fragments, the oscillating and partial view insinuate a sense of dismay, of insatisfaction. This is the gap effect that is often alluded to when speaking about her art. The term was first used by Lacan and approximately means void, want. The term is not fully translatable, Lacan approximately defines it “the navel of dreams.” Therefore the act of erasing every element that would allow the identification of the subject puts spectators in crisis, depriving them of a sense of fulfillment. Such a turmoil provokes that anguish of castration described at lengths by Freud. For this reason, the numerous traps that Cadieux disseminates along the itinerary of the installations end up totally committing the spectator, distracting him/her from what has always been considered the aim of art, that is to say the beauty of images. I think this author should be also credited with the ability of making both conceptual strategies and methods powerful and clear, and using them in a radical way that is exemplary.