- Liminality and In-Betweeness:The "Domestic Pieces" of Fillide Levasti
Open shutters frame the dark interiors of Intimacy (1933), a painting by Italian artist Fillide Levasti (1883–1966) (fig. 1).1 We do not know what is hidden behind the French doors; it could be orderly spaces or dusty corners, messy kitchens, or tidy furnishings. To the painter, the domestic rooms do not seem to matter as much as what happens right outside them, in the jutting spaces of back balconies, where female characters perform their chores. The point of view is frontal and coplanar because the artist portrays the scene from the same elevation as the figures represented. In fact, she looks at them from her own balcony or studio window. The artist and her characters are on the same level, both literally and in many ways socially. In fact, Levasti is a woman, often bound to performing house chores herself; she lives in the same peripheral, Florentine neighborhood as her characters; and she is not wealthy, much like the humbly dressed women in her picture. Intimacy is one among many paintings and drawings of domestic chores performed in liminal domestic spaces that populate Levasti's œuvre during the interwar period and after World War II (1929–62).2 In the following pages, I will call this group of works "domestic pieces." Levasti's treatment of this subject is unique within contemporaneous art and visual culture because of the number of paintings and drawings devoted to the theme, and because of the simple, antiheroic, and tranquil register of the scenes. The conspicuous recurrence of canvases that portray women's work in semipublic peripheral spaces is partly due to the fact that this was Levasti's world. She paints what she sees, her direct everyday experience. [End Page 283]
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There is a component of voyeurism to this practice, but one must consider that keeping an eye on the neighbors was an accepted social habit in mid-twentieth-century Italy. Beyond voyeurism, surveillance was an issue during the fascist era.3 Corrupted residents or spies sent by the government inhabited working class neighborhoods in particular, in order to report possible political discontent.4 I contend that surveillance was not the goal of Levasti's "domestic pieces." In fact, instead of singling out individual figures, Levasti's group scenes lack physiognomic detail and therefore impede the tracking of unaligned behavior. Can we interpret the practice of doing housework on balconies and yards as such a form of unaligned behavior? The answer is not straightforward. In many ways, the women portrayed by Levasti do not conform to socially imposed models of femininity. Fascist propaganda represented women as patriotic mothers or athletic youths, while interwar advertisements suggested that they be modern and efficient ladies.5 The humble, tranquil women of Levasti's paintings lack the boldness of all these models. Instead, Levasti's female characters calmly repeat the same gestures in an unpretentious everyday setting: they sew, wash the laundry, hang clothes, mop the floor, and occasionally talk to each other with no hint of drama. The situation does not seem to change after fascism. The same actions are carried on by Levasti's women, who wear the same simple clothes in the same liminal spaces. In contrast to representations by communist artists, Levasti does not highlight the physical signs of fatigue and labor. Unlike the feminine figures idealized by conservative Catholic sermons, Levasti's subjects are hardly ever seen as nourishing mothers strictly confined to the privacy of the family. In conflict with postwar advertisements and illustrations, her female figures are not isolated in the home and they do not use new, modern products and appliances. The women that inhabit Levasti's scenes do not mirror the enthusiastic consumers of [End Page 284] 1960s advertisements. Instead they look distanced, oblivious, and melancholic.
We can detect an absence of conformity in Levasti's subjects, but how should we interpret it? On the one hand, we can see it as a subtle form of resilience and even resistance against expectations set by others. On...