Pregnant Pause

Kate Sutton on “The Great Mother” at Fondazione Nicola Trussardi

Left: Frieze Art Fair director Victoria Siddall with MiArt director Vincenzo de Bellis. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton) Right: Patron Beatrice Trussardi with Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director at the New Museum and the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi. (Photo: Marco De Scalzi)

FORGET YOUR GETAWAY SPEEDBOAT. For the latest in stunt curating, it’s hard to top Massimiliano Gioni: The curator missed the official August 25 opening of “The Great Mother,” his sweeping exploration of maternity and its discontents, to be present for the birth of his first child. So did pregnancy inspire the exhibition or the other way around? “I can’t answer that in front of the press!” Gioni laughed. “Let’s just say the show was talismanic.”

As a gesture of goodwill, exhibition organizers Fondazione Nicola Trussardi decided to kick off the season last Tuesday with a delayed celebration dinner in the fabled Hall of Caryatids at Milan’s Palazzo Reale, the former seat of government which now functions as an upscale exhibition venue. Together with his longtime collaborator Roberta Tenconi, Gioni has filled twenty-nine rooms of the palace with works by 127 artists, building an impressively cohesive case for thinking gender politics through the lens of childbearing. Objects ranged from an old photograph of Sigmund Freud with his mother to suffragist propaganda to an image of Sophia Loren in her Oscar-winning turn in the 1960s classic Two Women to a Roman Ondák performance that each day invited a new young mother to attempt to teach her one-year-old child to walk within the exhibition space. “I didn’t know there was a performance,” curator Daniel Birnbaum confessed. “So I just found myself wondering why this baby would want to play by a Thomas Schütte sculpture.”

Left: Artist Giorgio Griffa and curator Francesco Stocchi. Right: Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum and curator Francesco Bonami.

The exhibition is less a doting portrait of the mamma italiana and more a history of the struggle for control over women’s bodies. Through a rollicking mix of perspectives—from committed misogynists and the women who love them to radical feminists and their analysts—Gioni links modern gender politics to the systematic attempt to make the most natural (and possibly most human) of processes, childbirth, seem monstrous or alien. The perceived threat of female sexuality factors as a kind of double-edged sword where art history is concerned. Figures like Emmy Hennings, Mina Loy, Maria “Nusch” Éluard, or Dora Maar have been popularly demoted to the ranks of lovers or muses for sleeping with their colleagues, while those gender-bending artists who bucked heteronormative stereotypes—Enif Roberts, Claude Cahun, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Toyen among them—have nearly slipped from the books altogether. Their legacies are reclaimed in the seventy-page work-by-work exhibition guide, which itself is a complement to the four-hundred-page exhibition catalogue featuring essays by Gioni, Whitney Chadwick, Calvin Tomkins, and Marco Belpoliti. “He’s definitely done his homework,” curator Ann-Sofi Noring said admiringly of Gioni.

For all its focus on the female body, “The Great Mother” ultimately argues for an understanding of gender as a spectrum. Still, after spending the better part of the afternoon at the Palazzo, I caught myself taking note of the testosterone of the roster at Fondazione Carriero, where curator Francesco Stocchi had produced a tightly wound exhibition of Gianni Colombo and Davide Balula that then exploded into the numeric confetti of a new suite of Giorgio Griffa’s Canone aureo paintings. “It’s about the perfect number, the golden ratio,” director Olimpia Piccolomini explained as I scanned the trail of pastel digits.

Left: Artist Davide Balula. Right: Artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg with dealer Giò Marconi.

Returning to Palazzo Reale for the Trussardi’s cocktail dinner, I bumped into the radiant Frieze Art Fair director Victoria Siddall, getting photographed on the grand stairwell. “Is it gauche to show up to this thing pregnant?” she joked, revealing that she is due in February. Inside the exhibition space, we were immediately greeted by Gioni, who was reminiscing with Harald Szeemann’s widow and daughter, artists Ingeborg Lüscher and Una Szeemann. The pair had loaned the show its Harrow, a nightmarish bunk-bed death trap that Franz Kafka invented for a 1914 short story. The esteemed older curator had had this real-life version fabricated for “The Bachelor Machines,” the 1975 exhibition that haunts “The Great Mother” like an old flame—not so much the one that got away as the one that gave you all those trust issues. In the Palazzo Reale, the ghastly Harrow is flanked by Francis Picabia sketches and illustrations from Margaret Sanger’s 1913 birth control manual. (After accepting a spark plug as a young américaine, it’s hard not to look at a drawing of an early cervical cap and see an ice cube wearing a bowler hat.) In another hall, the miniature Roman Forum figurines of a permanently installed Giacomo Raffaelli centerpiece faced off against the riot police of Suzanne Santoro’s vagina drawings.

“Given the subject matter, the exhibition is much darker than I expected,” Siddall marveled. “But I have to say, I found the Nari Ward installation of old strollers really moving.” Gioni eyed her barely visible belly: “If I remember correctly, at this stage everything is moving. You find a soccer game moving.”

Dinner was held in the magnificent, half-restored ballroom hidden behind French doors off the azure blue room of Louise Bourgeois sculptures. The massive space was manned by its namesake caryatids, many of whom were missing torsos, heads, and limbs after an English air raid in 1943. “This is the room where Picasso famously showed Guernica,” Gioni told us. “It was actually one of Picasso’s stipulations that they leave the room in this bombed-out condition so as to preserve the memory of war.”

Left: Fondazione Nicola Trussardi's Giulia Chiapparelli, Micola Brambilla, and Barbara Roncari. Right: Modern Institute's Andrew Hamilton with artists Nicolas Party and Dianna Molzan.

As if the atmosphere weren’t decadent enough, the room was bathed in a magenta-hued light, which temporarily imbued everyone with that rapturous maternal glow. Siddall traded notes with MiArt director Vincenzo de Bellis, while Birnbaum chatted with curator Francesco Bonami by the bar, not far from where MAXXI president Giovanna Melandri was holding court in a cluster of couches. Several Trussardis were in attendance, surrounded by a particularly striking group of (I’m told) television personalities and fashion icons. With my gelato-level Italian, I thought it best to stick to international guests, inserting myself into a conversation with artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, who were opening a solo show at Gió Marconi the following night. I told them how I had started my morning inside Djurberg’s Potato at the Fondazione Prada, and how, when I reached the room in the Palazzo Reale gallery screening the 2008 Claymation It’s the Mother, the guard was visibly agonized by the gruesome depiction of five ghoulish children forcing their way back into their anguished mother. Djurberg sympathized.

By this point, the handsome wait staff were circulating desserts, a reminder that I had missed the entrees. Luckily, dealer Andrew Hamilton had cajoled artists Nicolas Party and Dianna Molzan—in town for their shows at Kaufmann Repetto—to hold us a table at Nuova Arena, a beloved café willing to serve after hours. What could be more nourishing than that?

Left: Writer Marco Belpoliti, Massimiliano Gioni, and dealer Massimo De Carlo. Right: Dealer Frank Elbaz.

Left: Fondazione Prada's Astrid Welter with Moderna Museet's Ann-Sofi Noring. Right: Expo Milano's Giordana Zagami.

Left: Fondazione Trussardi's Roberta Tenconi (right). Right: Fondazione Carriero's Olimpia Piccolomini.