BY Ara H. Merjian in Books , Opinion | 23 DEC 21

Carla Lonzi’s Self-Effacing ‘Self-Portrait’

In a new translation of her innovative interviews, the writer exposes the layers behind being a critic in the 20th century

BY Ara H. Merjian in Books , Opinion | 23 DEC 21

At more than 300 pages, Carla Lonzi’s absorbing and innovative Self-Portrait (1969) records her interactions with 14 different artists over the course of the 1960s. Now, for the first time, a welcome translation by Allison Grimaldi Donahue for Divided Press offers English readers the opportunity to read one of postwar Italy’s most eccentric and irreducible texts. Lonzi, who died in 1982 at age 51, would go on to make an even more prominent mark in Italy with her essay ‘Let’s Spit on Hegel’ (1970) and the volumes The Clitoridian Woman and the Vaginal Woman (1974) and Diary of a Feminist (1977) – all undertaken out of frustration with what she perceived as the country’s lack of contemporary feminist consciousness. Yet, before co-founding the group Rivolta Femminile (Feminine Revolt) in 1970 – and, indeed, before publishing Self-Portrait – she had penned a good deal of art criticism and studied under one of Italy’s most distinguished art historians and critics, Roberto Longhi. When Lonzi turned on her tape recorder in the early 1960s, the vocation of the critic in Italy was a forbiddingly imperious one, anchored in academic bona fides and ideological self-righteousness alike. To be a critic was to be a tastemaker. For Longhi and an older generation, it was also to be a stylist, with ambitions that vied, in a sense, with the objects of their aesthetic study. With few exceptions, that ambition was singularly male. The same was effectively true for artists in Italy. Self-Portrait’s interlocutors range in age, media practice, political orientation, but – excepting the sole case of Carla Accardi – not gender.

Carla Lonzi, Elvira Banotti and Carla Accardi during the first meeting of Rivolta Femminile in the garden of Pietro Consagra’s studio, Rome, 31 May 1970. Photo: Pietro Consagra. Courtesy: © Archivio Pietro Consagra, Milan

The volume underscores the genderedness of its genre. Yet, it also pokes holes in the enterprise of art criticism more broadly and proves original precisely in its author’s intermittent passivity. One of postwar Italy’s most established artists, Lucio Fontana, shares the same pages with the American avant-gardists Cy Twombly and Salvatore Scarpitta; the voices of future arte povera stars like Jannis Kounellis, Giulio Paolini and Pino Pascali are interspersed with those of prominent communist stalwarts such as Giulio Turcato and Pietro Consagra, a Sicilian Marxist sculptor and Lonzi’s partner. Rather than prune and polish their speech, Lonzi sets out to preserve these individuals’ verbal excurses in all their frequent prolixity. After a brief introduction by the author, the book commences:

Getulio Alviani: Look, let’s just do this, take it easy.

Lonzi: Here, Rome, the 13th of …

Luciano Fabro: … September. Early afternoon. Test to hear the recording and make sure the sound is okay. So, Carla, tell me something. Excite me.

Scarpitta: You are so beautiful …

Consagra: I’d like to say this.

Turcato: You should do something like this, but conversational, that is, don’t ask questions.

Lonzi: Yes, yes … No, no … In fact, I’ve always …

Mimmo Rotella: Actually … Can you repeat that? Because I didn’t really understand …

From the start, Lonzi is cajoled, flattered, interrupted and instructed how to manage her own conversations. Indeed, the volume often appears not so much a self-portrait as a self-effacement. Lonzi’s presence is eclipsed for whole pages at a time by the soliloquys of (overwhelmingly male) interlocutors. The latter speak mainly about themselves or other male artists, contemporary or renaissance, Raphael and Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Pietro Perugino.

Carla Lonzi, Self-Portrait, trans. Allison Grimaldi Donahue, 2021. Courtesy: Divided Publishing

How, then, do we reckon the text’s subtext, one that, in Donahue’s words, ‘challenges the very notion of the artist or writer – or translator – at work in a capitalist patriarchal society’? That challenge can only be understood, I think, as a performative and indirect one. Lonzi lets boys be boys. Positioning herself as a ‘listener’ rather than a mere chronicler, she warns her readers at the outset that her project evinces ‘less the need to understand than to the need to spend time with someone in a fully communicative and humanly satisfying way’. Self-Portrait, in other words, is less epistemological and analytical than affective and convivial – a promise made good in its preservation of verbal ticks, rambling excurses and personal (rather than professional) photographs.

The text plainly, if tacitly, responds to Umberto Eco’s The Open Work (1962), published just as Lonzi began recording the exchanges that would constitute Self-Portrait. Not unlike Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag in turn, Eco insisted upon the aesthetic object as unfinished, coming continually into meaning, created as much by its receivers and users as by the artist himself. ‘The work of art’, Lonzi writes, ‘felt to me, at a certain point, like a possibility for meeting, like an invitation to participate, addressed by the artists to each of us.’ Self-Portrait thus reframes criticism as a creative extension of the artwork, rather than a discrete or definitive appraisal. With their uncaptioned photographs and unstructured drift, the conversations take on the mantle of an autonomous literary work, parallel to its critical content.

Carla Lonzi at the HemisFair, San Antonio, Texas, April 1968. Photo: Pietro Consagra. Courtesy: © Archivio Pietro Consagra, Milan

Conversely, Lonzi takes seriously the critical faculties of artists in their own right. ‘The artist’, she insists, ‘is also on the level of reflection and not only of procedure.’ As the author knew well, the critic is often the agent of creative (and narcissistic) discursivity and can even wrest a degree of glory from their subject. Think again of Longhi’s writerly prowess, on full display in his Questions on Caravaggio (1928–34). Think of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives (1550/68). ‘But, frankly,’ Lonzi asks of Vasari in her introduction, ‘is it possible he said something about the artists that they hadn’t already lived out, at least in the work itself?’ By her own admission, Lonzi’s goal was ‘to see the role of the critic collapse’. Making good on her promise, she went on to renounce art criticism following the book’s publication. Rather than extinguish the vocation, however, Lonzi ended up dynamizing it. The achievement of Self-Portrait is not simply to have artists describe their own work or method; indeed, they often speak in its pages of other things entirely. It is, rather, to have stripped away the rhetorical, hermeneutic and ultimately self-aggrandizing layers that the critic-chronicler so often inserts between the artist and the public. Lonzi’s influence upon Germano Celant’s approach to criticism – letting the artists speak for and to their own work – forms a case in point, even as he, like Bonito Oliva in turn, came to reprise the (male) self-promotional dimension. Lonzi remains instead the conscious agent of a more self-effacing self-portrait: one which still refuses the death mask of its own success.

Main Image: Carla Lonzi at the tape recorder while transcribing the interviews for her book Self-Portrait, Minneapolis, 1967. In the background Transparent irons and other works by Pietro Consagra. Photo: Pietro Consagra. Courtesy: © Archivio Pietro Consagra, Milan

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.