Giorgio de Chirico commented in his memoirs, “The Fascists never forbade people to paint as they wished,” and, like other Italian painters, he experienced the relative cultural clemency of Mussolini’s dictatorship (Braun 2002, 96). Mario Sironi’s Novecentist mixture of traditional and modern forms, Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes, and the shattered planes of Futurist canvases represented distinctly different styles that coexisted under the regime. Yet Olga Carolina Rama’s experience was distinctly different. Her first exhibit at the Faber Gallery in Turin was closed on grounds of obscenity in 1945. At the height of Fascism this young artist, born in 1918, was painting acts of masturbation and bestiality, as well as amputees and dismembered bodies. Given this taboo subject matter, it is not altogether surprising that her work would not receive widespread institutional acclaim, either during Mussolini’s last days or subsequently in postwar Italy.
In recent years, however, her work has attracted wider interest. Rama was featured in Lea Vergine’s 1980 exhibit, L’altra meta dell’avanguardia (The Other Half of the Avant-Garde), a show of crucial importance to the recovery of vanguard women. In 2003, Rama received the Venice Biennale’s lifetime achievement award, the Golden Lion. Now in her nineties, Rama has experimented with many artistic styles over the course of her long career, consistently challenging mores and norms. Her work has received little attention outside Italy and this is perhaps suggestive of Italy’s status, at the margins of postmodern artistic practice. Furthermore, Rama’s legacy has remained firmly rooted in her native Turin, a city of less than a million inhabitants. The vast majority of her solo exhibitions have [End Page 79] taken place there. Indeed, her work had never been shown outside Italy before 1997. A Rama retrospective traveled to Amsterdam and then Boston in 1998. In 2003, an exhibition devoted to Rama was shown at New York’s Esso Gallery, and in 2012 her work was exhibited at Berlin’s Isabella Bertolozzi Gallery. Rama’s growing status as an Italian modernist is usually linked to her postwar work, yet her paintings of the 1930s and 1940s present a compelling picture of life under a totalitarian regime. As contemporary democracies continue to debate issues of gender and sexuality and threaten to revive legislative policies against women’s biological self-determination, Rama’s art engages topical issues and puts us into conversation with a past that women today should have no wish to revisit.
With its motto, “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State,” the Fascist government in Italy legitimized its intrusion into the private lives of citizens. Fascism labeled nonstandard bodies as enemies of society and the practice of defining and disciplining individual bodies and sexualities came to be viewed as fundamental in building social consensus and national identity (Benadusi 2012). During the most restrictive years of Italian Fascism, and in its immediate aftermath, Rama pictured men and women engaged in acts of masturbation, defecation, and fornication with animals. I contend that the confrontational character of these paintings, which address the visceral and vulgar realities of human embodiment, can be interpreted as an effective disengagement from the Fascist message of order and control. Little has been said of her work as a feminist enterprise, but her early work can be understood as celebrating liberated bodies and pushing back against Fascist ideals of womanhood.
Until recently, the majority of critics have not addressed the dissident feminist implications of Rama’s imagery, perhaps because feminism continues to have a minimal impact on art historical inquiry within Italy (see Magaraggia and Leone 2010). Critics of Rama’s imagery have understood her art more as a result of her gender than as a retort to gender stereotypes. The same clichés—once attributed to the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Berthe Morisot, or Georgia O’Keeffe (Nemser 1979)—have also been directed toward Rama’s painting. In the 2004 catalog of Rama’s work for a show at the Italian MART (Museo di Arte Rovereto e Trento) the author writes that Rama “has worked the negative from the...