When I get on the phone with the curator Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the New Museum, his extremely pregnant wife, Cecilia Alemani, herself the curator and director of High Line Art, is already five days past her due date. They’re expecting their first child, a boy, as he nervously reports, “Anytime now.”
It’s appropriate that Gioni is about to become a father. His latest exhibition, for his other gig, as artistic director of the Nicola Trussardi foundation, is called “The Great Mother.” The show opens to the public in Milan on August 26, at the Palazzo Reale, and explores the representation of the mother in art history from the year 1900 through the present day. It’s part of the city’s ongoing international expo, the theme of which is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”; Gioni took what he calls a “primal” interpretation.
He selected works by 127 international artists, many of them women, to fill 20,000 square feet of the palace, and squeezed the art in among gilded mirrors, alongside life-size candelabras and lavish tapestries, and underneath Baroque ceilings (“a kind of dollhouse,” he calls the venue). But though the setting is ornate, don’t expect a bunch of sentimental Madonnas with child. The show is “a sort of history of the 20th century from the perspective of motherhood, because motherhood itself became a topic through which the 20th century unravels in all its complexity,” Gioni explains. “Once you start thinking of motherhood in the 20th century, you basically open a Pandora’s box. What emerges is the complicated relationship between women—particularly women’s bodies—and power. That became the nexus.”
It’s not an exhaustive history, but something of a “family album,” a look at motherhood in the work and lives of seminal female artists like Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Louise Bourgeois, and Catherine Opie, as well as in the work of the male contemporaries with whom they were conversing. Gioni chose 1900 as his starting date because that year marks the official publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams—official because the book was actually put out in 1899, but the author and publisher stamped it 1900 to mark the ushering in of a new generation of thought. “That seemed like a particularly interesting watershed.”
So a sweeping art historical look at 20th-century motherhood begins with a man, includes contributions by men (Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Salvador Dalí among them), and is curated by a man? It’s a contradiction that Gioni has struggled with. “Can a man make such a show?” he asked. “I know nothing about maternity. For a few more hours, I know nothing about paternity [either].” But Gioni considered Freud’s argument that anatomy is destiny, balanced it with Simone de Beauvoir’s rebuttal that women are made and not born, and decided that, yes, he could. “I came to the conclusion that I could do it, because if I had not, I would be involuntarily admitting that there is such a division between women and men, and that biology somehow is destiny. If I don’t do this show because I’m a man, I’m in a certain way admitting that there is a relationship between anatomy and what one is allowed to do and not allowed to do.”
As for his own impending paternity, Gioni admits that the show he has assembled likely differs from the one he would have made had he waited a year. “There is a darkness, which I hope and believe is not only my own,” he explains. “It’s simply that in the 20th century, motherhood is often seen as a metaphor of tradition, so many contemporary artists attack it, criticize it, react against it. The picture of motherhood that transpires from the show is certainly less optimistic and sentimental than the one we’re used to in mainstream culture.” Even still: “I think maybe had I been a father it would have been less dark. But again, I don’t think it’s my perspective that counts. It’s the perspective of the artist.”
No official word yet on baby Alemani-Gioni. But for those looking to check out Gioni’s other baby, “The Great Mother” will be up through mid-November. (Bring your mom, perhaps?) And for those not headed to Italy this fall—present company included—Gioni graciously shares some highlights from the exhibition below.
“The avant-garde—Futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism—shares fascination with women and machines. Obviously the psychoanalytic implications of such equations can be quite scary—a dream of men controlling women as they control their car, basically. On the other hand, this myth of a mechanical woman or an automatic woman in the case of the surrealists created a whole spectrum of possibilities to reinvent roles and stereotypes of gender and sex.
“Duchamp and Francis Picabia are two artists that depict hundreds of machines having sex with themselves; they don’t reproduce, they are useless. Many women close to the surrealist and Dadaist movements appropriated some of these ideas and turned them on their heads. For example, Mina Loy, who was a great poet, quite obscure. She wrote ‘Feminist Manifesto’ in 1914, in which she imagines a civilization of the future in which the state basically would take care of removing women’s virginity, possibly by machine, because virginity is the last bourgeois value that traps women into a state of passivity. She goes on with this prophecy of a world of equality, and of transformed gender roles.
“Man Ray shot a portrait of her wearing an earring that is made with a thermometer. We also have an assemblage sculpture made of found material. Duchamp famously said that Mina Loy excelled in low life and high art.”
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
“Another figure in the Dadaist movement was Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She was obsessed with Duchamp. She dressed in very radical clothes and she made assemblages and objects. Some people claim she might be the one who actually made Duchamp’s Pissoar: In one letter which Duchamp sends to his sister, he says my friend gave me this object, which is a pissoar. I don’t know if I would go that far, but certainly her work is incredibly radical. She was also a poet and a novelist, quite appreciated by avant-garde magazines. And she was a friend of Djuna Barnes.
“The Baroness, when she makes a sculpture that she calls God, she makes it with tubes and valves: She imagines God to be a sort of machine.”
“Hannah Höch was famous for her collages. We have one in the show which depicts a father who is half man, half woman. He has women’s legs and shoes, and from the bust up is a man. That’s one of multiple images of androgyny and gender bending that appear throughout.”
“We have three photos by her, all somehow informed by the tradition of the Madonna figure: One breastfeeding her child, another dressed up in S&M costume, and another a picture from a series in which she portrays lesbian couples in L.A. leading very conventional family lives. On the one hand, there’s the rebellious free sexuality that she proclaimed through her work—to the point where she tattooed on her chest the word pervert to proclaim her independence to be sexually adventurous and open. On the other hand there’s a kind of reversal of a dream of emancipation in the LGBTQ community, in which a dream of equality simply turns out to be the stereotype of the great American family. And then finally her own experience as a mother, breastfeeding her child. It’s interesting that they are all images that come from the same person, and they address the theme of maternity, desire, and family from multiple perspectives.”
“There are a few site-specific works. Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist, remakes [a video] piece every five years or so. He symbolizes perfectly a kind of slapstick, tragicomic update on Freud. Every five years Ragnar gets together with his mother, and she spits on his face. It’s two generations of artist, a mother and child next to each other: You assume the mother and child will hug each other, and instead she turns around and spits. They do it periodically as a family tradition. He made a new edition, and we are going to show it in a sequence that includes all the previous iterations. It’s funny, because you see both the artist and the mother getting older. In Italian we have an expression: Mammone. It means the child who loves his mother to the point he can never leave her. Italy is a country of mammoni. In a certain way, this image of his mother spitting in the face of Ragnar is also the revenge of the mother against the mammoni of the world.”
“I felt what was quite touching about this piece: The mother is not there. All the sisters are there, so it shifts the attention. The mother is evoked in her absence. You know there’s been a mother, the same mother for all four of them. You imagine each of them could be a mother. There is a very beautiful piece by Helen Molesworth, an art critic and curator, titled “How to Install Art As a Feminist.” She asks herself what would happen to the history of art if we stopped imagining it as a battle between generations, as an Oedipus complex, in which the new generation comes and kills their father and takes his place. She says: How would art history look if instead of a history of young, mostly male artists killing their fathers and taking their place, we imagined it as a sisterhood? You wouldn’t be replacing your predecessors, but you would look for similarities. You would cover history more horizontally, based on relationships of similarities over time, and sympathy. To me, this image symbolizes that, a possibility of a history of art as sisterhood. That means not only a history of art in which there are many more women, but also a model of art history that doesn’t proceed through metaphors of war and conquest.”
The post A New Milanese Art Show Is All About Your Mother appeared first on Vogue.
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