Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Why would a Western European white male curator attempt to curate the definitive show on ‘the iconography of motherhood’? The task itself seems quixotic and, indeed, the problems of ‘La Grande Madre’ (The Great Mother) start with the chosen premise. As feminism and the female gender seemed subsumed as subcategories, I was nagged by the feeling that Massimiliano Gioni (curating the show in his capacity as Artistic Director of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi) may have confused ‘motherhood’ with ‘womanhood’.
Gioni’s opening wall text quickly veers away from ‘motherhood’ toward the idea of maternity as ‘biological imprisonment’ to a claim that the show is actually about ‘women and power’. To be fair, he seems to have taken to heart the problems of a man defining a lineage of either motherhood or feminism, but these contradictions are far better addressed in the range of (male and female) voices in the scholarly catalogue than in the show itself.
Making its way through the decaying decadence of the Palazzo Reale, the exhibition lurches between works by 20th-century female artists, surrounded by pieces made by their male contemporaries. Each room is themed around a supposed landmark on the timeline of 20th-century motherhood, illustrated through ephemera, posters and magazine covers. Evidence of ‘Fascism’ is relegated to its own modest vitrine, as are ‘Feminism’, ‘Suffragettes’ and ‘Birth Control’.
For a show about motherhood, there is a curious lack of whole, active, acting female bodies, let alone imagery of mothers with their children. Instead, women are all too often represented naked, prone, vulnerable, as fragments of collages, as half-robot or half-animal, even tied up or subjected to torture. That said, there are some amazing finds here, illustrative of Gioni’s singular curatorial talent for discovering unrecognized artists. As with his 2013 Venice Biennale, and even more so in his stunning Gwangju Biennale in 2010, his enthusiasm about these finds is palpable. It’s evident here in a collection of Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn’s ‘meditation drawings’ made between 1927 and 1934, in the futurist illustrations of proto-feminist author and artist, and in self-portraits from the early 1910s by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (known as ‘The Mother of Dada’), which bubble with real energy and eccentricity.
Nevertheless, these pieces are largely bracketed by works by men, and there are numerous moments that (the pun is intentional) rubbed me the wrong way. The unsettling friction begins early on with the inclusion of documentation of Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Sangrienta (Bleeding Silhouette, 1975) – which shows the artist lying face-down and naked, making bodily imprints in the ground. Nowhere does the extensive pamphlet text mention the speculation around Mendieta’s death, falling 33 storeys from her apartment window, and the suspicion surrounding her then-partner, Carl Andre. Three seminal video works reflecting on violence toward female bodies – Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Joan Jonas’s Mirror Check and Yoko Ono’s Freedom (both 1970) – are displayed in a triptych of monitors, turning the artists into a chorus line of performing bodies rather than individuals. Thomas Schütte’s rusting bronze Vater Staat (Father State, 2010) towers over Sarah Lucas’s delicate, egg-shaped Mumum (2012). Robert Gober’s warped Pitched Crib (1987) occupies the middle of the room featuring Mary Kelly’s Primapara, Manicure-Pedicure Series (1974/1996) – intimate close-ups of the artist clipping her infant’s nails. Turning away from Hannah Wilke’s affecting self-portraits as the Virgin Mary, taken before her death from cancer (Intra Venus #4, 1992), you’re immediately slapped with Maurizio Cattelan’s sardonic Mother (1999) – a photo of praying hands emerging from dirt.
The show picks up momentum when the male voices start to be expelled – as it does in a room of powerful works by Louise Bourgeois and Carol Rama. Only when I reached a group of bronze casts by Sherrie Levine, though, did I feel that an artist was speaking on my behalf. In her shiny, unapologetic bronze cast of Duchamp’s Fountain (Fountain, Madonna, 1991) I could feel an art-historical narrative being wrenched from male hands.
At its heart, ‘La Grande Madre’ feels more like a working-through of something deeply male – especially with its odd touches, such as placing framed film stills of Norma Bates’s corpse from Psycho (1960) and Maria Callas as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) on mantelpieces in the decorative rooms. I expected the show to strike a more personal chord, evoking emotions about my own mother, or my relationship to maternity. Or, in a show so clearly stamped with the curator’s mark, that it might conclude with a dedication to the curator’s own family – a small portrait or treasured family photo. Instead the ‘epilogue’ room is given to Andy Warhol’s Mrs. Warhol (1966), a portrait of Roland Barthes with his mother and Matt Mullican’s Sleeping Child (1973/2014) – three more males to put the final punctuation mark on this particular history of motherhood.