Marinella Pirelli, Film ambiente (Environmental Screen), 1969/2004, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Marinella Pirelli, Film ambiente (Environmental Screen), 1969/2004, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Marinella Pirelli

While Italian scholarship is now beginning to recover the legacies of Maria Lai (1919–2013), Ketty La Rocca (1938–1976), Lisa Ponti (1922–2019), Nanda Vigo (1936–), and the subject of this exhibition, Marinella Pirelli (1925–2009), the unique positions of these figures within the defined trajectory of art movements remain precarious. Redressing the neglect of women’s contributions to Italian art opens a view onto the complexity of cultural life on the Apennine Peninsula, particularly during the postwar era, when the Communist Party was larger than in any other Western democracy, yet the Fascist family code, circumscribing women’s participation in public life, was still in place. An alternative reading of the forces at play in the 1960s and violent ’70s thus also offers a place to start unraveling the accepted terms of patriarchal mastery.

Luce movimento. Il cinema sperimentale di Marinella Pirelli” (Light Movement: The Experimental Cinema of Marinella Pirelli) spanned the artist’s experimental films, expanded cinema installations, and light sculptures from 1961 to 1974. The survey borrowed its title from a synesthetic short film installed alongside Bruno Munari and Marcello Piccardo’s I colori della luce (The Colors of Light), 1963, which had helped Pirelli grasp film’s capacity to abstract found forms and spatial relationships. For Pirelli’s Luce movimento, 1967, however, she did not make use of any color filters or lenses. Rather, she shot the film on location at the Galleria dell’Ariete in Milan, capturing and transforming the effects of light and kinetic sculptures by Gianni Colombo, Lucio Fontana, and others installed there in the 1967 exhibition “Luce movimento in Europa” (Light Movement in Europe). The wry precision of this work and its development of a critical, formal language—an act of appropriation conflating the roles of author and spectator—recurred in Nuovo paradiso (New Paradise), 1968–69, which reinscribes the eponymous sculpture by Gino Marotta and features “documentation” of a spontaneous after-dinner action, Indumenti (Clothing), 1966–67. In this work, the artist Luciano Fabro casts the critic Carla Lonzi’s bare breasts in delicate white paper.

The final piece in the exhibition, Doppio autoritratto (Double Self-Portrait), 1973–74, was Pirelli’s last film and last appearance on camera; in this work, a “self-portrait” by the Conceptual artist Vincenzo Agnetti, Quando mi vidi non c’ero (When I Saw Myself I Was Not There), 1971, appears as a cipher for the condition of mourning. Although key works in Pirelli’s oeuvre, the “experiential films”—temporal and personal artifacts—Indumenti and Doppio autoritratto were essentially private; they have rarely been screened publicly.

By comparison, the black-and-white film that introduced the exhibition, Appropriazione, a propria azione, azione propria (Sole in mano) (Appropriation, One’s Own Action, Proper Action [Sun in Hand]), 1967–73, demonstrates a clear formal concern with contrasting light while addressing questions of artistic subjectivity and the false dichotomy of the natural and artificial, themes also explored in Bruciare (To Burn), 1971. But the centerpiece of the show was the reconstruction of Pirelli’s most ambitious project, Film ambiente (Environmental Screen), 1969/2004, a grid of suspended transparent panels, with sound and color film, which viewers could enter and thus interrupt the once-fixed space of the projected image. Despite its technical clarity, isolated in a narrow room, the piece appeared less exuberant than it does in footage of “Al di là della pittura” (Beyond Painting) at the 1969 Biennale di Arte Contemporanea in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy.

Pirelli withdrew from artistic engagement following the sudden death of her husband in 1973. Giovanni Pirelli, the novelist and tire company heir (who refused his share of the business), was a committed leftist; he edited two collections of Frantz Fanon’s work, published by Einaudi in 1963 and 1971. Pirelli’s retreat paralleled that of her friend Lonzi, who cofounded Rivolta Femminile (Female Revolt) in 1970 with the painter Carla Accardi and the journalist Elvira Banotti, and later abandoned art altogether. As early as 1966, Accardi and Lonzi discussed the “need to unmask the prestige” of the “male kingdom” of art in the magazine Marcatré. For Pirelli, that gesture of exposure was a play of light and long shadow.