Massimiliano Gioni: A Subversive, Eclectic Portrait Of The Great Mother

In the land of the exalted Madonna, Massimiliano Gioni presents a subversive, eclectic and extraordinary portrait of  “The Great Mother.”  Like the brilliant 2013 Venice Biennale, which he directed, this exhibition presents superstar and outsider artists, with a decidedly transgressive  view.  Conceived as a temporary museum, the female images, exploring the mysteries of motherhood, begin at the turn of the twentieth century up to the present. Conceived and produced by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, the show covers 20,000 square feet in one of Italy’s most beautiful art venues. Over twenty international museums have lent artwork.

I’ve never attended a more crowded art press conference,, with over four hundred journalists and full television coverage. Gioni spoke via Skype, and with my very limited Italian I understood every eleventh word,  but his enthusiasm was palpable. Later that night, between coverage of terror threats to Rome and immigrant protests in Milan, prime time covered  “Le Grande Madre” with a gravitas not usually given to art shows in America. (on Channel 3, a non-Berlusconi channel)

Grouped in meticuously curated rooms (psychology, fertility, surrealism are some of the broad themes), 127 international artists are featured. Accompanying vitrines hold fascinating publications and books relating to women’s history.  Early Emma Goldman newspapers, birth control flyers from Margaret Sanger, sixties Italian feminist manifestos, touch on the complexities of the women’s movement. The inclusion of a reproduction of Franz Kafka’s “Torture Machine” adds a macabre touch.

An entire room is devoted to Louise Bourgeois. Her work looks gorgeous in the elegant chamber, with it’s  echoes of the Palazzo Reale’s former sumptuous Court life. A survey of seventies video work stars Yoko Ono, Joan Jonas (who represents the U.S in the current Venice Biennale) and the domestic subversions of Martha Rosler. I loved the inclusion of pioneer performance artist Carolee Schneeman, whose 1975 “Interior Scroll” remains both poetic and provocative.

Gioni’s seven years as Artistic Director of New York’s New Museum may account as to  why so many of my favorite hometown artists are included in this bohemian survey. Ida Appleborg, Alice Neel, Kiki Smith, David Hammons, Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, Nari Ward, Hannah Wilke,  Diane Arbus, Dorothea Tanning, Lorraine O’Grady, Kara Walker, are just some of the stellar New York artists represented.

Another highlight is Sarah Lucas’ stuffed pantyhose sculpture, “Mumum”, 2012. It was an unexpected pleasure to see the geometric drawing of Emma Kunz, a little known visionary artist and healer whose pendulum assisted drawings I first saw in her native Switzerland.  Italian Futurism’s women are also given a room, juxtaposing what is often viewed as a modernist masculine art movement. And Dorothy Iannone’s erotic celebration “Suck my breasts I am your most beautiful mother” (1970-71) spotlights another personal favorite.

Since I am leaving Italy in a few days, I won’t be able to visit this show again. “Le Grande Madre” is just the kind of exhibition you would happily return to again, to savor and study a survey of empowering and  heterogeneous female imagery.  One can only hope Gioni and the Trussardi Foundation bring this major show to other international venues. And the New Museum on New York’s Bowery would be a perfect launching pad.

Words: Ilka Scobie © artlyst 2015

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