A Sense of Exclusion: An Excerpt from Carla Lonzi’s “Autoritratto (Self-Portrait)”




CARLA LONZI (1931–1982) published Autoritratto (Self-portrait) in Italy in 1969. In this text, she asks herself and others about the task of the critic, the role of art in society, and begins to deeply question the possibilities of women making art. Autoritratto is a montage interview with some of the most important artists of the 20th century: Carla Accardi, Getulio Alviani, Enrico Castellani, Pietro Consagra, Luciano Fabro, Lucio Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Nigro, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Mimmo Rotella, Salvatore Scarpitta, Giulio Turcato, and Cy Twombly. All towering figures and all living in Italy during the 1960s. The interviews were compiled over a period of seven years, rearranged and edited and made into a different sort of narrative than a single interview could have possibly created. Lonzi herself has called it a “convivio” or banquet.

This section of the nearly 300-page book, translated here for the first time into English, is one of the first points in the text were we begin to see Lonzi’s point of view on writing about art and we see how this is in fact, her own self-portrait. Lonzi was born in Florence and educated there, as well. She comes out of an atmosphere, as Carla Accardi points out here, that set her up not only for a life of culture but a life of inquiry. Autoritratto is her farewell to the art world. After working as a prolific critic for many years, Lonzi decided that art and creation were too hierarchical, too patriarchal, and that she needed to find other ways to engage with writing and feminism. It is after the publication of this book that she, with Accardi, co-founded Rivolta femminile, and produced of her best-known work as feminist activist and writer. It is also after this book that she and Pietro Consagra ended a long-term relationship.

There is much debate on how to reconcile the two parts of Lonzi’s career, the critic and the feminist activist. I am still undecided about how I feel, if I truly believe the work she was doing before Rivolta femminile, her work as a critic, wasn’t somehow laying the groundwork for an undoing of art structures, in Italy and beyond, even today. This text is interlocutory, splits open, evades expected ideas about what artists talk about and the clear narrative of great masters.

Lonzi declared that she would never write about art again, but the work she did is still transforming discussions about writing, institutions, feminism, creation. While this book is clearly a text of its time, it also provides insight into the development of art writing in Europe and how the life of a writer is complex, troubled, full of doubt as well as possibility. Looking at the work of Carla Lonzi, her art criticism and her feminist writings, I don’t see two different writers, or two different sets of ideologies, but a long process and a continued willingness to remain with difficult ideas and questions.

 — Allison Grimaldi Donahue

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CARLA LONZI: What personally attracts me to recording? It is a simple elementary fact: the ability to transform sounds into markings, into writing, to find a page that isn’t a written page, but it’s a page that … In the end, it’s like a chemical process, when there’s condensation … that from the sound it condenses into a sign, just like gas turns into liquid. I like this very much, I couldn’t tell you why … and I like to be able to read something that’s different from the usual things you read that are always products of cerebral efforts, which by now are so tiring just to think of. A person who sits at a table and puts down ideas, alone with herself and with this task of getting ideas down … it seems like such an unnatural effort to me, such a tiring exercise, for me who already feels neurotic and … yes, and the fury of all that.

CARLA ACCARDI: For others it may be banal, for others, life … for example, how a person is during their daily life. There are those who during their day … oh forget it, you’re there for a week, nothing vital happens, maybe they make you laugh, something pure. But, I am talking about you and some people who have, like, all together, if you had to write a book about these people, I sure it would be blurred in some way. Well, just like the effort you are making for this book that you’re putting together in a montage from disordered pieces … you want to get as close as possible, as close as you can, right? To preserve the others, and more profoundly, to preserve yourself, right?

LONZI: I have realized many times what I have recorded, it’s all seemed boring or I don’t know, you can’t imagine afterward, I wouldn’t take out a comma, because I have an obsession with whatever occurred as it was and all that it implies. Even a miserable fact implies everything, really, you know? It recalls something so whole it drives me crazy … Then, when I listen to it, I wouldn’t want leave anything out.

PIETRO CONSAGRA: But, but … I feel like when I haven’t written anything for a long time, when I haven’t sat down for a good reason — I sit down to write something for a reason, okay? — so, I feel like I will start to summarize this period I was thinking about, in which I went forward speaking, without writing. How did it seem? It seemed like I hadn’t really constructed myself. Writing forces me … to pay attention and to distill … what I think about things. Because it is also good to let things go, I don’t know, one enjoys this, but it is also scary, one becomes scared the brain turns to pulp … therefore, concentrating and attempting to write it down … Because then, exactly, according to one layer you come upon one thing, you hit on another layer and something else, slowly what one really thought about something is revealed, but one knows that there are all the … all the layers. But writing, concentrating, is also pretty practical, useful, yes, it conveys a tone. Now I am writing this thing for la Città and I remember that, after I wrote that book L’agguato c’è, already, at that time I said, “Who knows why I will write again, what will be the subject that compels me to write something new?” And it is this, for la Città. Now I am thinking, “Who knows when, again, I will sit down and write something, who knows what it will be about, what argument?” Because it is like, as we say, to take account, every so often, to see if things are going well because then … you know, one begins to have the sense that out of the brain pulp there can be a break, an abandonment … That on the one hand, you feel like this is your right, as a pleasure, and on the other hand though, you don’t want to reduce yourself to the level of some folks, who you’ve seen, who’ve really lost it, who tell you ridiculous things. That’s it.

LONZI: It wasn’t an interest in art, my interest that is, at the beginning, I have to tell the truth, if I retrace the steps from the very beginning it comes out that I immediately had this existential feeling, like a warning from within, but my interest was in humanity in general, since I was a girl, of strong possibilities, rich possibilities, of great moments of exaltation and happiness, of opening, as if extraordinary things were possible between beings, and then I felt, instead, the frustration of closed situations, where I didn’t understand from where it came, where I felt limitations that cut off all pleasure. So, I, from this existential feeling, I began to look, being certain that it was expressed somewhere, that it would be manifested somewhere, a potentiality that I felt humanity possessed. I knew I had it and that I felt that it belonged to everyone, no matter who they were … Besides that I considered myself, let’s say, someone on the border, who hadn’t yet entered into the country, and yet, I knew this country existed and I surely had periods when I said, “I will spend my entire life here at the border.” So, I thought that to find this path, would require actions that would smash this environment that was keeping me out, and I took these actions, one after another, as you know. Then, I understood that these actions corresponded to a kind of initiation. This seems like a fact to me … For example, I had a religious period, from age 10 to 13: it was extremely important for me. I definitely won’t manage to explain it because it isn’t as interesting as other periods … but, I understood that … I didn’t rebel against culture, this is what I want to say. For me, culture wasn’t the cure-all, neither was religion, but in the religious experience I understood that an initiation in other layers of reality that I related to was possible, in line with my aspirations, and it helped me understand how humanity was actually something, let’s say, bottomless and without real distinctions, which is how I felt about it. I arrived at art when, having passed through my religious experience, I found in the artistic experience an activity that didn’t require belief, which hadn’t really interested me anyway, but satisfied an analogous need. That’s how I came closer to art.

Then I thought that, since … then, I finished university and, for me, university hadn’t been very satisfying, I mean, it was a bureaucratic fact, of culture, rather repressive … even philosophy hadn’t enthused me, but my excitement for art continued to grow, visual art to be exact. And, so, I set about to concern myself with visual art. To concern myself … let’s say, with spending a great deal of time reflecting on these facts, and later, needing to find an occupation, a profession, I decided to become an art critic. But not thinking that this activity corresponded to judgment, to an acquisition of power, to a social maneuver, or to the work of the historian or the event organizer. When I found myself working as an art critic, I saw that it was a phony profession, completely phony, that it had … maybe 90 percent, let’s say, was the university. And so, I kept away from the professional aspects of the activity of the art critic and little by little individuated the elements that for me, are completely intolerable. The most intolerable is this: that there should be an activity that calls for itself individuals, like myself, who wanted to have a deeper initiation into what is typically considered culture, right?

ACCARDI: When I was a girl I never had what you had, seeing humanity and those thoughts … In fact, I knew a bit about you, but I never thought, hm. Then also, you’re from Florence, this seems an interesting element, because Florence had so much artistic activity in the past. To judge it now, it’s one thing … eh, that has nothing to do with the judgment one gives … but, about art, it comes out of a girl from Florence, you know? So, the artist could no longer go on, didn’t want to: that is, something else, I don’t know how to say it. An artist thinks of other things, simpler things. Me … I never had this meditation about people, you know? No, not at all. So, it is a curious thing. I remember myself with really immature behavior … Maybe, also, it’s that artists are immature people, because if they are too mature, maybe they can’t be artists. I remember some things … things I wanted to paint, that I wanted to go here or there, to become important … anyway, I don’t know … it’s interesting. Other ideas, other things.

LONZI: The critic has an awkward psychological makeup, along with a sense of exclusion. In fact, critics are all … they’re not very friendly people, I mean, psychologically, they aren’t commendable, in the sense that I don’t even like how I started out. Yes, I had this sense of being an outsider, very strongly, in worldly things, and I think this came from a childhood experience, feeling excluded from something … And it is probably this that brought me to be interested in artists, because they seemed to me those who had the least of these characteristics: they are the least detached, I think, they have less of a sense of discord … I don’t know. For which, then, my behavior as a critic coincided with a need to interfere in other people’s situations. If I have to identify a moment in which this disposition manifested itself, which would then lead to becoming an art critic … since I was little, in public gardens, if I saw other children, for example, with an adult watching them, I went over to play with them, I remember this sense of not wanting to go back very clearly, of wanting to be a part of something of the other. For this reason, I think, that at age nine I wanted to go to boarding school, to choose a situation that belonged completely to me, and in the end, I blended into that way of life to the point that my father, when he noticed, brought me home right away. If I think back on my life, there are many of these moments.

Then, I remember in middle school, when I had to write an essay about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote that I would conduct interviews, I even remember I said I wanted to interview Laurel and Hardy, specifically. I think all critics have this element, this desire to interfere in other people’s lives. Naturally, it isn’t so pleasant when, from this rather interesting beginning, it isn’t good or bad, it is a fact, existential, then it becomes a profession, an institution, so, there, it becomes something that is no longer justifiable, and at the same time, no longer even benefits the critic, because the only thing that benefits the critic is this meddling, to be able to continue to do this, to keep doing it to the point that one isn’t conscious of it and does it without any qualms, well. Instead, then, to turn it into a career, to work from a position of power, this is a crust that develops over it and doesn’t really have anything to do with it.

The critic, with this need to interfere, is the most likely to initiate things or experiences around the business of others and this is necessary to maintain, because, for me, it is very important that a part of society, small as it may be, is close to artists and this should be the group most willing and interested in them. And artists should keep these people close, that in a certain sense, present themselves as something artists need and represent, in a way, the needs of society. But, this, should be maintained in a pure state, not as an institution because once it is made into an institution, it takes on all the vices of the institution and all its ideologies. The critic, rather than being he who is accommodating and in need, becomes he who judges and creates a hierarchy. And in this activity he ends up carrying out, he erases the point of departure from which he began, and becomes a completely inauthentic person, no longer authentic.

There was a moment when Rimbaud said: everybody will be a poet, there will be a world in which everybody is a poet. So, what does this mean? It means it isn’t possible, no, no, it isn’t possible, from my point of view now, since we are talking about criticism, that this … Ultimately, a part of humanity produces things, okay, a creative part, a totally separate part of humanity comments on these things, Now, how this commentary functions for society, that expounds on art, seems to me quite useless and in the end becomes damaging because that part of humanity that produces things should, I think, inspire another part of humanity to absorb and to produce. Not to produce in a specific way, with paintings or making objects, but to produce movements of life, as beings … to develop a creative condition in people, to live life in a creative way, not in obedience with the models that society proposes over and over. That everybody will be poets, artists, not in the sense that everyone will paint the highways and apartment buildings, but that people will live in a creative way, to live in a way that isn’t detached and in peace with themselves, that is alive.

Because I cannot understand the way critics talk about artists, and then, they have such a phony life or they are phony when they talk about artists or they’re phony when they’re living their lives, because you can’t understand a person who’s so disconnected. How can a critic, who should be writing or speaking in a way that is a testimony to his way of life, but he lives in another way … like a little bureaucrat, a little careerist, an industrious person … who from that little territory he possesses, trespasses onto things that humanity has toiled at much more and much more deeply, and says his piece and then he returns to his small-minded things. This seems strange to me. Then it seems that … since humanity has no shame in commenting, yes, this I need to understand, how humanity isn’t ashamed of passing its time blabbering on about things that should shock it, disturb it, that should help it, that should … but instead humanity chatters, and with this chatter neutralizes art, exhausts it.

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Special thanks to Battista Lena, Cristiana Collu, Anna Gorchakovskaya, and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Roma for their support in this project.

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Carla Lonzi (Florence, 1931–Milan, 1982) was an art critic and feminist activist best known for her work with Rivolta Femminile, a feminist collective created in 1970. Throughout the 1960s she was an active art critic and a main voice in the Italian art scene. She occupies a singular position within post–World War II Italian politics and art and is a central figure in Italian feminism. Her work has largely been ignored by traditional art historians until very recently.

Allison Grimaldi Donahue is the author of On Endings (Delere Press) and Body to Mineral (Publication Studio Vancouver). Her translation of Vito Bonito’s Soffiati Via is forthcoming from Fomite Press. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Words Without Borders, Tripwire, Brooklyn Rail, The Literary Review, FlashArt, and other places.

 

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