“Are you living in hell? Well, try to make the most of it, even there.” — Carol Rama
Giorgio de Chirico once described Turin as “the most profound, most enigmatic, most disquieting city not only of Italy, but of the world.” Most famously, it was in a Turin square that Nietzsche rushed to embrace the neck of a battered horse before he collapsed into final madness. In this sense, genius and lunacy define Turin, the birthplace of Carol Rama, as do the triangles of black and white magic—poised between the Shroud of Turin and the ancient Roman Gates of Hell—that are said to intersect there.
On ViewNew Museum
April 26 – September 10, 2017
Such dichotomies are apparent in Antibodies, the posthumous retrospective of Carol Rama at the New Museum. Born in 1918, Rama’s prolific career went largely unnoticed until the 21st century, when she was well into her 90s. A self-taught artist, she walked the line between madness and mastery, perversion and pathos, for 60 years. Emerging from a family marked by tragedy—the suicide of her father, a mother committed to a psychiatric institute when she was a teenager—Rama’s earliest psychosexual work is the bawdiest. In fact, her pagan vision of erotic resistance introduces Antibodies, where lustful amputees, bestiality and generously saturated genitalia fill small watercolors, beautifully framed if tightly arranged. These pictures remind us of society’s compartmentalization of madness, and the gendered “hysteria” prominent in the late 19th century yet employed even today, albeit under different names. Their wombs may wander, but Rama’s women remain horrifically handicapped by dismemberment, leather straps, and high heels (Appassionata, 1940). As for the males, what look to be knobby sanguine hands (Schiele knock-offs at first blush) are actually a bundle of phalluses, groping and greedy. The milky pink females don’t appear subservient; crowned in Dionysian laurels, they wag keen tongues under bedroom eyes. Her subjects, tied down and dolled up, provide a glimpse into Rama’s psychological struggle—a woman of fierce intelligence and independence reared under Fascist Italy.
In 1945, Rama’s first exhibition was censored before opening, prompting her to abandon figurative art for decades thereafter. She took up the abstract movements of the ’50s and ’60s, such as Arte Povera, adapting them to her leitmotifs where the body persists—eyeballs, flaccid fox furs, congealed fluids, bear claws, and bloodstains are clustered and fixed amid her assemblages. As in the watercolors, Rama revels in dismemberment and abjection. Her father committed suicide following the bankruptcy of his bicycle business at the outbreak of the Italian civil war, and much of her mid-century work subsequently employs a bricolage of bicycle tires and tubes, deflated and drooping—a gesture of mannish, industrial failure (Sortilegi [Spells], 1984). In the more recent work, Rama revisits the figure with a heavier, more decisive hand. The startling Epiphany (2003) closely resembles Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), yet this angel can’t be bothered to witness history’s wake. With genitalia like a congenital wound, she stares right at you in an act of defiant presence.
Quotations from Rama infuse Antibodies, offering context and insight into her character, for instance, her “amorous relationship” with a frog or grass snakes. But the serpent is both fetishized and emulated in her painting: Rama’s armless girls are often sinister, and perceive and communicate by tongue (a favorite body part as it “never ages.”) In Dorina (1940), a black snake slithers from a vagina to form an erotic ouroboros, a complicit Eve. In Nonna Carolina (1936), the snakes make a necklace of leeches while sexless Granny dreams of a parade of prosthetics. In Rama’s “world of play,” wooden and animal limbs are quietly arranged in the air, within spaces she refers to as theaters or operas. It’s as if every living creature has been condemned to an existence inspired by the curse of Eden’s amputated, once-legged serpent—and we all must make due to find our balance. When given a heap of prosthetic legs by a relative, Rama rejoiced: “My entire childhood was in that bag.”
Returning to the early watercolors, I caught sight of Proibito (1944) in which a woman considers bestiality with an eager, flattened equine. I thought of Nietzsche embracing his horse near the gates of hell, at the edge of his sanity. Rama must have known that maddening sorrow somewhere along Turin’s rigidly gridded streets, under the statue of a fallen angel, under Fascism. Rama however, though teetering, did not collapse.