PRINT February 2016


Carol Rama

Carol Rama, Appassionata (Passionate), 1943, watercolor on paper, 9 × 7 1/8". © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin.

ALL HER LIFE, Carol Rama stuck her tongue out. To the bigots, the fascists (from Mussolini to Berlusconi), the petit bourgeois patriarchs, the art world—to convention in general. Sticking out your tongue is childish, provocative; but it is also the physical reflex of a body under real pressure. Rama had trouble fitting in to the society in which she lived. Yet she did not invent or take refuge in another fictive one. Instead, in an undeniable resistance, she kept questioning, disturbing, and shocking the social order through her life and her art.

When I met Rama in Turin, about three years ago—while preparing the 2014–17 touring exhibition I curated at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris with Paul B. Preciado and Teresa Grandas—I feared it was already too late. But I needed to see her, even if she could not speak any longer. She sat waiting for me in her dark, half-chaotic, half-carefully-set-designed Wunderkammer apartment on Via Napione, with her amazing signature braided hairdo (said to have been inspired by La Cicciolina). We had an intense eye-conversation, as if she was deeply scanning me.

Rama died in September, at the age of ninety-seven, leaving behind an immense oeuvre that still deserves more visibility. She has perpetually confounded historians and created persistent misunderstandings mixed with fantasies. Her work blurred practical historical categories and linearity, borrowing aspects of (and sometimes foreshadowing) late Surrealism, Expressionism, proto-Pop, Concrete art, Arte Povera, and soft sculpture. Stepping away from the hypermasculine artistic milieu of her time, she chose her crowd in literature (Edoardo Sanguineti), music (Massimo Mila), and architectural design (Carlo Mollino). In a way, she built up her own “failure” and obscurity, which in turn guaranteed her vital freedom.

Following the fate of many women artists, Rama is still perceived as a double victim: of the art world that had truly ignored her before her Golden Lion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and of her traumatic family life, which she often portrayed in her first works (her mother was in a mental institution, her grandmother was infirm, and her father committed suicide). She called herself a “premeditated lunatic.”

Her constant oscillation between figuration and abstraction allowed her to escape reductive biographical readings. Representing snakes emerging from her women and teeth floating on a blank field, she poked fun at Freudian theories of penis envy and vagina dentata. Her androgynous men often brandished multiple penises—the repetition of the same detail recalls the Italian Futurists’ depiction of movement, and the duplicated organs also resemble bundles of wooden rods, the very symbol of fascism—at once menacing and perversely attractive.

To many, Rama seemed sex-obsessed. Early on, she painted figures fucking, sucking, being sodomized (sometimes by animals), but she used pale and ethereal watercolors and delicate, flowering Art Deco wood frames. In retrospect, her work forms a coherent yet fragmented body, from the tongues of her humid watercolors in the 1940s, to the taxidermy and doll eyes of her ’60s bricolages, to her flaccid inner-tube penises of the ’70s (a material reference to her father’s factory). Even if she almost exclusively worked with two-dimensional images, she managed to create an oeuvre that feels sculptural and alive.

Rama did not become political in the ’60s. She always was. But among her painted splotches variously evoking urine, sperm, blood, and napalm, she wrote inscriptions referring explicitly to the atomic bomb or the civil rights movements, whose evolutions she witnessed. Those wide-open eyes in her work manifest a sharp political consciousness that is never moralistic. They also express a voyeuristic delight in pain, not so far removed from the explorations of Hans Bellmer, Georges Bataille, or Pier Paolo Pasolini.

In her last series, “La mucca pazza” (The Mad Cow), from ca. 1996–2001, Rama seemed to identify with the victims of this ecological catastrophe; but previously, in 1980, she had also made a portrait of a butcher, La macelleria (The Butchery), in which she is very recognizable, wielding a knife. Rama was a real troublemaker, more than a troubled mind. Today, her oeuvre appears visionary, even: twisted, proto-queer, camp, laden with a strong, dark humor. Opposed to any kind of binarism, she favored orgasmic nature above rational culture—but always made room for possible contradictions.

Anne Dressen, curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, is currently based in Los Angeles.

For additional tributes to Carol Rama by Lea Vergine, Maria Cristina Mundici, and Filippo Fossatti, see’s Passages column.