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Do specific female characteristics exist in art?

· ​Artists ·

I shall start with a snapshot I took, with the consent of the person concerned, who was unknown to me, in September 2016. It is the photograph of a young women crocheting, sitting on the steps in front of the portal of Santa Maria Antonietta in Chiesa Rossa, a Milanese church designed by the architect Giovanni Muzio in 1932 and known for an art work made in 1996 by the contemporary artist Dan Flavin.

The young woman was not asking for alms nor was she stopping passers-by and visitors, but was intent on her work, a female craft with a long tradition, at the foot of a sacred space.

A room of the exhibition in Milan

Milan, the Church of Santa Maria Annunciata, September 2016. It is this double name, “Maria” and “Annunciata” which seems to me to accompany the halls set up for the exhibition of designs by women the early 20th-century to date which is open at Milan’s Museo della Triennale until 22 February 2017. There is also a significant point of contact between the sacred and the creative moment even in the practices that use modest instruments, such as a needle and a simple cotton thread.

Some questions have been asked about the subject of the gender identity which gave life to this exhibition and to its rich catalogue published by Corraini. Is there a connection between design and gender identity? Or rather, when we look at artefact, is it possible to say: this has certainly been made by a woman? Or does a conception exist which is above all feminine? And further: is there a male style which differs from a female one? Lastly: how many and what genders are present in the human species and in the area of art? The answers seek some starting point in history. Here then, crammed into the catalogue is an abundant series of works of design by women, marked by very varied typologies, classified chapter by chapter and supplied with a glossary. In pages full of images and captions, some scholars comment – on rose-coloured pages – on the way this nomenclature uses verbs and nouns pertaining to women, such as: to weave, to procreate, to protect. And then: silk scarf, mother, doll, mirror, lipstick.... Terms referring to events and objects to which the world of women in their different social and cultural conditions has always been home are placed in a non-alphabetical order.

From the beginning of the exhibition, in a beautiful hall, the women artists take men and women visitors by the hand, fascinating them. Here is Carla Accardi’s house-tent, a small, coloured space, as welcoming as only children know how to be when they create places all for themselves with pieces of fabric or improvised furnishings. Here are exhibited the fairy-tale books in cloth made by Maria Lai and her precious loom. Here we have the light and most elaborate Cantù lace works made by women of the past, arranged in display cases juxtaposed with works by Rosanna Bianchi Piccoli and Sabrina Mezzaqui of our own day, which retrieve the grandmothers’ imparaticci, small square canvases used for embroidery practice in order to make respectively ceramic pieces or poetic cards for embroideries. These woven and embroidered works (in Italian the curators emphasize, ricamare means to embroider and tramare to weave, while amare means to love) by ancient and modern Penelopes usher us into the other parts of the exhibition. Some of the artefacts are known to us because they are still displayed in shop-windows or luckily shown on television broadcasts, as in the case of Topo Gigio, the famous puppet designed by Maria Perego. Others, less known, reveal the history of the presence of women in the world of art, for example, that of women whose names are less familiar than those of the men who lived beside them: Lisa Ponti, daughter of Giò, Luce Balla, daughter of Giacomo, Rosa Manni, wife of the art critic Raffaello Giolli.

However, the results of intense female relationships are not lacking, such as the passing of the baton between Giulia Sansevero and her daughter, Fede Cheti. After the premature death of her husband, Giulia set up a business of weaving furnishing fabrics and rugs in Milan and got her daughter to help her. Her daughter, ever more autonomous at the artistic level, succeeded in exhibiting her works at the fourth Triennale of Milan (1930) and proved to be a tenacious businesswoman in an epoch, the Fascist period, in which female craftwork outside the home was severely undervalued. In this regard the wooden objects designed by Maria Montessori for the children of the house, which document her extraordinary pedagogical commitment, are particularly significant. Then there is the book published in 1901 by Rosa Agazzi (who with her sister Carolina replaced the name “asilo infantile” [infants’ asylum] with “scuola materna” [nursery school]) in which 21 ways of weaving straw are described.

A fabric book by Maria Lai

All this work, of course, availed itself of talented male collaborators: carpenters, printers and other artisans who made the realization of these objects possible. Yet every artefact conceals stories of tenacious, innovative and courageous women, capable of using even poor materials which were often collected in the home environment. Something new was announced, such as the “Abito-contenitore” [container garment] made by Marion Baruch (formerly the wife of a Lombard textile manufacturer), an elderly but still very active artist today, who in a work of 1970 enclosed women in something resembling a burqa as a reaction to the glitz of the Milanese luxury of that time.

The last room, the last page: dialogues between the exhibitors about the initial questions. There are no definitive answers but stimulating reflections which will continue after the exhibition closes. Indeed, the confrontation between traditional artefacts and the most modern 3D technologies is not in vain. It shows how the modern “design system” enjoys the collaboration of many people – men and women – involved in study, in teaching and in the dissemination of innovative works.

The exhibition’s curator, Silvana Annichiarico, and the Presidents of the Triennale of Milan and of Milan’s Triennale Design Museum, Claudio De Albertis and Arturo Dell’Acqua Bellavitis respectively, have launched a challenge which – in reference to the object Neto 224, made in 1956 by the artist Antonia Campi (a pair of scissors with blades rather longer than usual) – has wished to “cut away stereotypes”.

Antonella Cattorini Cattaneo

PRINTED EDITION

 

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