Carol Rama’s Turin – A Primer
The exhibition Carol Rama: Eye of Eyes pays particular attention to the artist’s hometown of Turin, Italy. A lifelong resident of the city, Rama’s unique visual language was shaped by its economic shifts, political developments, and its impressive network of artists, architects, and poets. As we celebrate her legacy, this post takes a closer look at Turin from the perspective of an artist who knew it well.
A settlement that was partially wasted by Hannibal, Turin was rebuilt as a Roman military colony, and grew into a metropolis that was taken over by barbarians after the fall of the Roman Empire. Changing hands between the Frankish empire, the Lombard Kingdom, and the French, in 1563 it was made the capital of the Duchy of Savoy. In the mid 19th century, the city became the backdrop for the movement to unify the Italian states, as support increased for the popular, liberal Savoys to be their ruler. Consequently, in 1861 Turin became the first capital city of a united Italy. [i]
By the early 20th century, Turin was a major center of industry; curator Teresa Grandas quotes a 1921 report by the Italian communist politician Antonio Gramsci, in which nearly three quarters of the population were classified as “workers.” [ii] Among the industries that proliferated in Turin were metal production—particularly for the automotive and aeronautical industries—which included Fiat, Fiat Aviazione, Diatto, and Chiribiri. The city produced chocolate at the Gianduiotto factory, and biscotti at Wamar. Cinema was another industry that had a substantial presence in the city, with Turin boasting five cinematic production companies. Rama’s father, Amabile, whom she admired deeply, ran a bicycle and car factory. Initially prosperous, the 1920s economic crisis resulted in the factory closing when Rama was still very young. [iii]
With its strong population of laborers, Turin in the early 1900s was also the backdrop for workers’ movements, and revolts organized by socialists and anarchists. [iv] These organizations’ ambitions to empower their members were gradually undone by infighting, and Grandas notes that the resultant weakening of these groups, combined with the hostility and distrust the bourgeoisie felt toward them, catalyzed with other factors, and laid the groundwork for fascism to take hold in Italy. [v]
Rama in Turin’s Cultural Landscape
Once characterized by its aristocratic affiliation, as Turin grew to include a substantial working-class population, its cultural landscape became more complex—a reflection of the economic, social, and political changes taking place. During the postwar years, a network of galleries and museums sprang up in Turin, hosting exhibitions by artists including Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, and Kazuo Shiraga. Although we don’t know specifically what exhibitions Rama went to see, the Archivio Carol Rama holds a variety of exhibition catalogues that Rama owned, lending an insight into the city’s cultural landscape, and possible influences.
Copies of a number of these exhibition catalogues may currently be viewed as part of our exhibition in New York, Carol Rama: Eye of Eyes, while the map below plots some of Turin’s most important cultural institutions during Rama’s lifetime.
Rama’s art reflected the increasingly complex social and political realities of Turin. In the 2014 travelling exhibition The Passion According to Carol Rama, curators Grandas and Paul Preciado contrasted the figurative watercolors Rama exhibited in her first solo show at the Faber Gallery in 1945—an exhibition that was shut down almost immediately by the police for its perceived obscenity—with the aesthetics of fascism:
“The figurative motifs of Rama’s watercolours are far from the fascist ethos that glorified the regional landscape, the family or the machine as the embodiments of national and imperial progress. Carol Rama confronts them by inventing a desiring political body that resists the normative ideals of gender, sexuality and cognitive and physical normality imposed in Mussolini’s Italy.” [vi]
One of the most prominent developments associated with Turin during this time is Arte Povera—a term first used by Italian critic Germano Celant in 1967, in connection with a group of young artists who worked with materials that had little inherent value. These materials were often sourced from industry and everyday life, and their use in the context of an artwork subverted the traditional hierarchy of materials and techniques. In this way, Celant grounded Arte Povera in a sociopolitical agenda. [vii] Although Rama’s work also incorporated industrial materials, she was not included among the sixteen artists working in Turin whom Celant associated with Arte Povera. Art historian Guido Curto makes a distinction between Rama and the Arte Povera artists on the basis that, “…in her work there is always the subliminal (but not unconscious) reference to the human body.” [viii]
The sole group of artists with whom Rama herself acknowledged an affiliation was the abstract Movimento Arte Concreta (MAC) whom she worked with briefly during the early 1950s. [ix] Rama later characterized this period as a direct response to the criticism her erotic figurative work had received:
“I wanted to become part of a system, a mental order. When I joined the MAC in the fifties, I felt that I had to wean myself from that excess of freedom for which I had been criticized […] I am very happy to have had this possibility of ‘fitting in,’ in part because, not having many of the fundamentals, I learned from those who were better trained and more expert than me.” [x]
Rama’s affiliation with MAC did not last long, and as Grandas notes, the compulsion she felt to subsume herself into an external structure soon weakened in favor of evolving her own visual language. [xi]
Although most of Rama’s career was developed independent of formal artistic associations, she had many friends who were artists of a different sort—particularly poets. Massimo Mila, Edoardo Sanguineti, Cesare Pavese, and Italo Calvino were among these, and the artist later recalled how they would visit her studio on Saturdays and read their poetry. Her friendship with Sanguineti was especially strong, and following the war, she often accompanied the poet and his mother (recalled by Rama as “a fascinating creature straight out of a Giovanni Boldini painting, with red hair”) to Turin’s film club. [xii]
Though Rama never studied art formally, during the 1930s she began making regular visits to Felice Casorati’s studio on the Via Mazzini, a place described by Curto as “a lively artistic and cultural coterie, a sort of private academy.” [xiii] From the late 1920s, Casorati taught art at the Accademia Albertina, where many of Rama’s Turin contemporaries studied.
Strongly influenced by the Viennese Secessionists and French Symbolism [xiv], Casorati was a leading figure in the Italian Symbolist movement [xv] and was, by the 1920s, exhibiting internationally. In 1924, Casorati’s art was given an entire room at the Venice Biennale,[xvi] a presentation that was described in these glowing, if rather dense, terms by American critic Helen Gerard in her 1924 review of the “Venetian Biennial”:
“Criticism is mute before the superb quality and dominating achievement of the portrait of Sra. Gualino, in which, for once, the tour-de-force and intellectuality do not scream their convincing messages, nor is there the usual limpid vacuum in place of atmosphere between the subject and the background of faultless taste.” [xvii]
If this wasn’t praise enough, Gerard goes on to introduce the artist she turns to next as “a far second in the Italian phase of the neoclassical movement…” [xviii] Clearly Casorati was a difficult act to follow.
Years later, Rama recalled Casorati’s influence warmly, describing him as “a great gentleman,” and a friend and influence who offered advice without attempting to steer her artistic development toward his own preferred style. As one of Rama’s earliest supporters, Casorati helped her to secure her first ever exhibition at the Faber Gallery in Turin in 1945. [xix] This was no small endorsement from the elder artist, who curator Flavia Frigeri describes as “a bit of a powerhouse” in Turin. [xx] Casorati’s generosity continued through Rama’s career, helping ensure the artist’s work was exhibited on several occasions as part of the Venice Biennale. [xxi]
Carol Rama: Eye of Eyes is on view in New York through March 23, 2019.
[i] Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Turin, Italy,” accessed February 7, 2019.
[ii] Antonio Gramsci, quoted in Teresa Grandas, “The Rest Can Go to Hell, Other Possible Tales of Carol Rama and Turin,” The Passion According to Carol Rama. Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2014. Exhibition catalogue. 47.
[iii] Teresa Grandas, “The Rest Can Go to Hell, Other Possible Tales of Carol Rama and Turin,” The Passion According to Carol Rama. Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2014. Exhibition catalogue. 48-49.
[v] Grandas, “The Rest Can Go to Hell, Other Possible Tales of Carol Rama and Turin,” 48.
[vi] Teresa Grandas and Paul Preciado, The Passion According to Carol Rama, Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2015. Exhibition brochure.
[vii] Grandas, note 23, in “The Rest Can Go to Hell, Other Possible Tales of Carol Rama and Turin,” 51.
[viii] Guido Curto, “Carol Rama, Artist not Personage,” in Carol Rama, edited by Guido Curto. Turin: Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, 2004. Exhibition catalogue. 38.
[ix] Grandas, “The Rest Can Go to Hell, Other Possible Tales of Carol Rama and Turin,” 51.
[x] Curto, “Carol Rama, Artist not Personage,” 38.
[xi] Grandas, “The Rest Can Go to Hell, Other Possible Tales of Carol Rama and Turin,” 51.
[xii] “Anxiety is a Trip.” Carol Rama, interview by Lea Vergine, 1984, republished in Blouin Art+Auction, May 2017.
[xiii] Curto, “Carol Rama, Artist not Personage,” 36.
[xiv] Benezit Dictionary of Artists, Academic ed., s.v. “Felice Casorati,” accessed February 6, 2019.
[xvii] Gerard, Helen. “The Italians and Some Others in the Venetian Biennial.” The American Magazine of Art 15, no. 10 (October 1924), 529.
[xix] Grandas, “The Rest Can Go to Hell, Other Possible Tales of Carol Rama and Turin,” 50.
[xx] Flavia Frigeri, interview by Remi Koukou, January 2019.
[xxi] “Anxiety is a Trip.” Rama, interview by Vergine, 1984, republished in May 2017.
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