The Unexpected Subject: 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

April 4 – May 26, 2019

FM Centre for Contemporary Art, Via Giovanni Battista Piranesi 10, Milan

by Gabrielle Moser

A mouth, open wide and mid-speech, hovered over a black ground on the enormous banner hanging above the entrance to the FM Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea in Milan, soundlessly announcing the exhibition The Unexpected Subject: 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Superimposed in a diagonal line, the words “ti AM O” (a play on “I love you” in Italian) articulated the lips’ unheard utterance. A Letraset collage on cardboard created by the Rome-based artist and curator Mirella Bentivoglio and titled AM – (ti amo) (1970), the visual poem conjures up the way that identity is constituted: every “I” must have a “you” to address itself to. But it also calls to mind the words of the Rivolta Femminile, a feminist collective founded by Carla Lonzi, Carla Accardi and Elvira Banotti that, between 1970 and 74, self-published a series of essays condemning the omission of women from Western philosophy and communist politics, and argued for the vital force of language, both written and spoken, in constituting women’s identity. “Not being trapped within the master-slave dialectic, we become conscious of ourselves,” they wrote. “[W]e are the Unexpected Subject… An entirely new world is being put forward by an entirely new subject. It only has to be uttered to be heard. Acting becomes simple and elementary.”[1]

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, featuring Mirella Bentivoglio’s AM – (ti amo) (1970). 2019. FM Centre for Contemporary Art. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            But if the unexpected subject can be uttered and heard, it is less clear how it comes to be seen, especially when, as so many Italian feminists of the 1970s pointed out, the visual codes for women’s subjectivity were (and one could argue still are) constrained by patriarchal modes of representation. A contradictory impulse lies at the heart of this historical moment in Italian feminist practices. On the one hand, artists, philosophers and writers sought to generate what J.L. Austin would describe as new visual, verbal, textual and performative utterances to signify female subjectivity and sexual difference,[2] while on the other, figures like the art critic Carla Lonzi insisted that de-culturation (the un-learning of male culture) and “dropping out” were the only strategies through which women could achieve freedom.[3] As a visual arts exhibition that incorporated archival materials, video, ephemera, textiles and sound, alongside the more conventional fine art modes of collage, sculpture, painting and photography, the show navigated these two drives while also attempting to translate the particularities of Italian feminist thinking for a wide, implicitly international audience.

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            Curated by Marco Scotini and Raffaella Perna, the exhibition’s global address speaks to a wider resurgence of interest in the practices of 1970s Italian feminism, both within and outside Italy. Elena Ferrante’s wildly successful Neapolitan novels, for instance, have been read as a take on the feminist practice of affidamento, or entrustment, between two life-long female friends, in which the differences (or disparities) between two women are a generative source of sustenance and recognition.[4] The work of contemporary artists Claire Fontaine and Alex Martinis Roe, meanwhile, takes up the politics of the Rivolta Femminile and the Milan Women’s Bookstore explicitly in both its form and content, while groups such as the Feminist Duration Reading Group in London and the EMILIA-AMALIA collective in Toronto (of which I am a member) have worked to translate, annotate and activate key texts from the period.[5] Largely unknown in the English-speaking world until recently, Italian feminist thought was explicitly at odds with the horizontal model of sisterhood that dominated 1960s Anglo-American feminism. [6] Coming after the surge of “second wave” feminist activity in the United States and England, Italian feminism sought to correct or avoid what it saw as the failings of this earlier movement, including the devaluation of the authority of older and more experienced women, the fight for the legalization of abortion, the refusal to ask for maternity leave (particularly in the US), and, most importantly, the investment in equality with men as a political goal.[7]

            In the place of these bids for legal and formal equality, the women’s groups meeting in Milan and Rome in the 1970s sought two parallel forms of freedom: a representational one that required discarding an existing repertoire of representations that privileged the male perspective, and a symbolic freedom, centered on making spaces for women to think themselves differently. For this reason, many feminist groups of the 1970s turned to autocoscienza, or consciousness-raising, activities, to autobiography, and to group psychoanalysis as practices that would allow women to create a new symbolic order that could transform their everyday relationships and their understanding of their position in history.[8] Carried out in separatist, largely private spaces (another difference from the public, collective imperative of Anglo-American feminism), these activities embodied the mantra that one must “start from oneself,”[9] centering personal, lived experience as the only grounds for knowledge production.

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art.2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            In the context of exhibition-making, Scotini and Perna, therefore, set themselves a tall task: to not only try to coherently narrate an often ungainly explosion of feminist activist, artistic, political and filmic production that emerged during the period around 1978 (there were no less than 100 artists and artist groups on display across the exhibition), but of cataloguing the visual gestures that needed to be invented to articulate women’s previously unthinkable position as speaking, acting subjects. The thematic sections of the exhibition—language and writing; objects and the domestic world; image and self-representation; and the body and its performativity—were necessarily permeable and messy, and the show sometimes contradicted itself. While this is not an uncommon curatorial gesture that ideally unsettles curatorial authority and signals the dynamic ways histories are told and contested, when combined with the encyclopedic scope of the exhibition, it occasionally produced abrupt disconnections and doublings as the viewer moved through the galleries.

            Operating as a prelude to the exhibition, for instance, was a darkened semi-circular space, reminiscent of a theatre proscenium, surrounded by black curtains onto which the nearly four-hour long film Anna (1975), directed by Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli, was projected. Warped and misshapen in its tiny theatre area, the film took on a ghostly aspect: the din of a street scene on the Piazza Navona in Rome was almost unintelligible, and its visuals nearly opaque. While the film is infamous in Italy for its depiction and exploitation of its eponymous subject, a 16-year-old pregnant young woman that Grifi took into his home, it was presented in the exhibition without any explicit curatorial framework, leaving the viewer to infer that everything Anna represented provided the negative ground onto which the figure of the unexpected subject could emerge.[10]

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            Pushing through one of two openings hidden in the curtained screen, I entered into the main room, in which a towering vinyl print out of a black and white photograph of Carla Lonzi—leaning authoritatively against a gallery wall, one hand on hip, smartly dressed in a white button-down and leather skirt—announced the pivotal impact of her work on the feminists and artists of her generation. A vitrine set into the same wall displayed archival photographs of the women of Rivolta Femminile, images of Lonzi at work over her typewriter—her famous Dictaphone in hand—as well as first editions of Lonzi’s books in their identical green covers. Their titles alone are thrilling in their imperative tense and their playful, antagonistic approach: Self-Portrait (1969); The Clitoridean Woman and the Vaginal Woman (1971); Let’s Spit on Hegel (1974); Shut up. Or, rather speak: Diary of a Feminist (1978); Now You Can Go (1980). Nearby, sound and video work by Cathy Berberian, Betty Danon, Ketty La Rocca, and Katalin Ladik activated these ideas through the artists’ bodies. La Rocca’s video, Appendice per una supplica (Appendix for a Petition) (1972), was particularly evocative of the problematic that Italian feminists sought to address. In this performance for the camera, a closeup shot shows the artist’s hand as it attempts to slowly navigate the small spaces left between the fingers and palms of another pair of men’s hands. Soundless, the video plays with a repertoire of possible gestures responding to the male subject, from the sensuous and erotic, to the suffocating and forceful.

            Like Lonzi, La Rocca is a central figure for 1970s Italian feminist art practice and is one of the reasons the exhibition focuses on the date 1978. Though the works in the exhibition span the early 1960s to the 1980s, 1978 was marked by several important moments of international resonance, including the exhibition of 80 women artists at the Venice Biennale, organized by Bentivoglio (a show that is painstakingly recreated in one room of The Unexpected Subject), a posthumous exhibition of La Rocca’s work also at the Biennale (she had passed away at the age of 38 two years earlier), the publication of Lonzi’s Taci, anzi parla. Diario di una demminista (Shut up, or rather speak. Diary of a Feminist), and the issuing of a collective book/self-portrait by the “Wednesday group,” titled Ci vediamo mercoledi. Gli altri giorni ci immaginiamo (I’ll see you on Wednesdays. The other days, we’ll imagine one another). But in many ways, 1978 can also be thought of as part of the “long history” of international student protests of ten years earlier (Lea Melandri’s essay for the exhibition catalogue is tellingly titled “1968 Lasting a Decade”) in which that earlier moment’s “undetonated potential”[11] met with Italy’s particular history of armed working class strikes and autonomia post-war politics.

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            The most surprising discoveries of the exhibition were those works that elucidated this particular tension between local concerns and transnational movements. Tomaso Binga’s Alphabeto poetico monumentale (1976), for instance, echoed the strategies of conceptual art photography but made them engagingly vulnerable by manipulating the artist’s nude form into the shape of every letter of the alphabet. Documented in spare black and white photographs taken from above, the body here becomes an unactivated medium for speech. Similarly, Irma Blank’s Trascrizioni Documenta ABCD (1977) toys with the limits of speech and the politics of opacity, seeming to transcribe a 36-page typed manuscript into indecipherable scribbles that—while refusing the legibility of language—are nonetheless faithful signs of the artist’s hand moving across the page.

A room devoted to Betty Danon’s work with the International Mail Art movement, beginning in 1973, displayed more than 200 responses to her initial postcard project: a doubled pentagram which she invited international artists to intervene upon before returning it to her. Hanging banner-like from the ceiling, respondents included Carolee Schneemann, Ray Johnson and Shozo Shimamoto. Liliana Barchiesi’s Casalinghe (Housewives) series of gelatin silver print photographs (1979), meanwhile, offered intimate, moving portraits of women at their unpaid domestic and care work that resonated with the urgent politics of Silvia Federici’s landmark book, Wages Against Housework (1975).

            Given how eloquently these works spoke to Italian feminist art production’s links to international conversations, it was ironic that one of the exhibition’s missteps was its room explicitly devoted to the “international dialogue” between artists in Italy and those from the United States and Europe (and especially Eastern Europe). Featuring performance documentation, sculpture, video and photography by Schneemann, Valie Export, Joan Jonas, Marina Abramović, Gina Pane, and Sanja Iveković, among others, the section threatened to succumb to the tendency of legitimating underrepresented histories by comparing them to the Western canon of art historical and feminist works. By telling the viewer that Italian feminist art responded to international audiences, rather than allowing the artworks to show it, the gallery had the strange effect of making the earlier works feel redundant: a disappointment when the need for nuanced transnational connections between feminist artists and practices is more urgently felt than ever.

            The exhibition catalogue that accompanied the show is thankfully rich with historical context, including reprints of key essays by Italian thinkers and curators from the period, alongside generous reproductions of the artworks on view, and related press coverage from 1970s issues of Flash Art magazine. Although the English translations of the curatorial texts are sometimes awkward, the publication’s visual material and richly researched footnotes make up for them. Perhaps the issue of translation is the most urgent and unresolved one for the exhibition, beginning with its title. While the translation of Carla Lonzi’s wonderful phrase il soggetto imprevisto as the “unexpected” subject is not wrong, there are (as with all translations) nuances to the term that are lost in the economic move to its English equivalent. Imprevisto also suggests the un(fore)seen, the suddenly emergent, or the yet-to-be-realized. With its foundations in psychoanalytic thinking, Italian feminist practice has consistently recognized the powers of the unconscious on human behaviour and our limited capacity to know ourselves—it has also put great hope in the symbolic realm as the site of radical political transformation. It is perhaps this aspect of the exhibition that is the most potent: the suggestion that there is so much more to be excavated, uncovered and uttered in the unfinished project of the feminist movement.

[1] “Manifesto di Rivolta Femminile” in Carla Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel (Milan: Scritti di Rivolta Femminile, 1974). English translation by Veronica Newman available at

[2] J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures, edited by J. O. Urmson (Oxford: 1962).

[3] The Italian art critic Carla Lonzi was particularly vocal in advocating for “dropping out” as a feminist strategy of withdrawal. See Lea Melandri, “Autonomy and the Need for Love: Carla Lonzi, Vai pure,” MAY 4 (2010), n.p.; Giovanna Zapperi, Carla Lonzi: un art de la vie – Critique d’art et féminisme en Italie (1968-1981), Christophe Degoutin, trans. (Paris: Les presses du reel, 2019); and Claire Fontaine, “We Are All Clitoridian Women: Notes on Carla Lonzi’s Legacy,” e-flux journal #47 (September 2013),

[4] The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective is credited with first writing about the practice of affidamento, or “entrustment,” a term used to describe the long history of relationships between women founded on difference.

[5] For further context about these returns to 1970s feminisms from Italy and abroad, see Helena Reckitt, “Generating Feminisms: Italian Feminisms and the ‘Now You Can Go’ Program,” Art Journal 76.3-4 (January 2018), pp. 101-111; and Catherine Grant, “Fans of Feminism: Re-writing Histories of Second-wave Feminism in Contemporary Art,” Oxford Art Journal 34.2 (June 2011), pp. 265–286.

[6] It is problematic to homogenize the practices of Anglo-American feminism, especially under the rubric of “second wave” feminism, just as it is impossible to argue there is any one thing called Italian feminism. Both movements were networked, dispersed, and heterogeneous and the most interesting aspects of each have been obscured in dominant narratives of the period. See, for instance, South Atlantic Quarterly’s excellent special issue on 1970s Feminisms (Lisa Disch, ed., Volume 114, Issue 4, October 2015), and in the Italian context, Paola Melchiori’s essay “The ‘Free University of Women.’ Reflections on the Conditions for a Feminist Politics of Knowledge,” in Gender and the Local-Global Nexus: Theory, Research, and Action V. Demos and M Texler Segal, eds, Advances in Gender Research, Vol. 10, (Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited: 2006), pp. 125-144.

[7] For an overview of some of Italian feminism’s main claims, see the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: a theory of social-symbolic practice, Teresa de Lauretis, trans. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990),pp 60-63. The original title of the book in Italian translates to “Don’t think you have any rights.”

[8] In the model put forward by performance studies scholar Diana Taylor, it is not only the repertoire of female stereotypes that needed to be jettisoned, but also, importantly, its archive. It is for this reason that groups like the Milan Women’s Bookstore and the 150 Hours School began by generating bibliographies, and eventually literal libraries, of women’s writing that could constitute an alternative or counter archive. See The Archive and the Repertoire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[9] “Doing justice starting with oneself” in the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: a theory of social-symbolic practice, Teresa de Lauretis, trans. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990),pp 134-142.

[10] See Rachel Kushner, “Woman in Revolt: Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna,” Artforum (November 2012),

[11] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

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