Real Women. La Grande Madre at Palazzo Reale

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva
Palazzo Reale, Milan, 26.10.2015

La Grande Madre           Fig. 1

In a lavish chronological survey of the mysterious, the prosaic and the warm glow of female nature over the last two centuries of Western contemporary art, La Grande Madre, a 29-room exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni for the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi at the Palazzo Reale next to the Duomo in Milan, journeys through more than a hundred works and documents, drawings, sculptures, films, installations, paintings, and sound pieces by 127 artists. If the title of the show seems to embrace the archetype associated with the Italian national character of the mamma, its contents expand into a critique of a male-dominated society — and art world; sexual and artistic identity; the history of feminism and Suffragettes; references to art history; the body-conscious, the subconscious, as well as, of course, the various bruising experiences associated with being, becoming — or choosing not to be — a mother.

With works interconnected through multiple lexical and visual fields, the exhibition unfolds with serpentine associations in the palazzo’s neoclassical interiors. Works that stress female physiology’s mythical or real connection to nature set against sociopolitical pressures include pieces of pioneering filmmaking by Alice Guy-Blaché such as La fée aux choux, 1896, showing a fairy in a white dress retrieving babies from cabbages; and the primal references to Mother Earth in Ana Mendieta’s recorded actions on super-8 film of the Silueta series, 1973-80, where Mendieta imprinted a rich dark mud with her naked body, then either laid in it or filled it with blood and leaves. Eerie and poetic or bloody and performative, the works are engaging and connected to something real.
  At the entrance, the physical and symbolic forces of the womb strongly pull at the visitors in the installation by Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red I (1970-73), a large-scale blood-red sculpture made of coarse fibers resembling female genitalia whose invitation into the exhibition is at once mesmerizing and edgy.

La Grande MadreFig. 2

This quintessential encounter is echoed multifold throughout the show, as in a few rooms later in another medium with the ceiling-wide projection by Pipilotti Rist, Mother, Son & the Holy Milanese Garden, 2002/2015. The projected image distortedly zooms in and out on the bodies of a breastfeeding baby and mother, sensually set against a backdrop of greenery and electronic music, morphing the entire room and the other works it contains into a trance-like cave-space both soothing and unescapable.

La Grande MadreFig. 3

  Family ties and their layered realities and consequences on individual lives pop up here and there. Sigmund Freud, whose Oedipal theory presumes female inferiority, is one of the show’s many haunting father figures. Here, he is seen in a 1925 photograph with his mother Amalia, one of the several artists’ mothers exhibited, including Andy Warhol’s, followed by her son in her daily chores in the video Mrs. Warhol, 1966, and Ragnar Kjartansson’s — the actress Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir — whose comically twisted video-performance in Me and My Mother involves her spitting at her son’s face every five years (in 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015).

La Grande MadreFig. 4

  Louise Bourgeois, who’s oeuvre largely rests on the disappointment in her paterfamilias, expands the Freudian narrative in Nature Study, 1984, a blue headless sculpture of a sphinx with three pairs of breasts, hinting at the mythological Greek figure whose deadly riddles were eventually solved by Oedipus. If art-making is intricately related to positioning the self within society’s structure and family, and is dependent on women's ability to self-determinate, the exhibition reveals these aspects through the weaker sex's perspective, as well as via filial acknowledgement. Strong contradictory feelings and emotions that often rule human’s lives and comply with or fight tradition emerge even in the most conceptual and political works.
  An exhibition within the exhibition, La Grande Madre, dedicates a series of rooms to the various art movements of the twentieth century, such as Futurism, Surrealism and Dada, and the women who were evolving with the men whose names epitomize the avant-garde. Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Oak Creek Canyon, 1946, a photomontage by Lee Miller, a former model — Man Ray’s notably — who became a war photographer, shows an oversized Ernst ignoring the small Tanning under his left fist. While this collage was made from photographs Miller took visiting her friends, she evokes the secondary position held by female artists of her time within familiar artistic circles. The exhibition repairs lost credit by showing works by writer and artist Rosa Rosà, visual artist Suzanne Duchamp, collagist Valentine Penrose, and sculptor and poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven equitably displayed along those by painter Umberto Boccioni, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Picabia, just to name a few.
  In all its multiple investigations, the exhibition generously entangles physical and symbolic values. Notions of strength and flexibility, love and repulsion, gratefulness and revengefulness, group and individual are all but presented into a linear reading. In Kara Walker’s gouache Motherland, 2004, a take on Francisco de Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Son — Walker uses a black woman for Saturn in the shape of a mountain devouring a white beast, delivering a complex message on the protective nature of the state and its destructive force. Balancing the idea of creating a being, there is a sense of unpredictable danger, a positioning between life and death that runs throughout the rooms.
  One of its incarnations is embodied by the tarantula in the digital print Replace me, 2011, by Rosemarie Trockel, that sits in lieu of pubic hair on a reproduction of Courbet’s Origin of the World, and calls to mind images of deadly warning and black widow, associating sex and life with menace. Forcing the body of their mother for refuge, the slightly omophagic children in Nathalie Djurberg’s clay animation It’s the Mother, 2008, shows them making their way back inside their mother’s unwilling womb. The violence underlying these and many other works is also a reminder that the body — and specifically the female body — is the ultimate ground that bear the world’s sufferings.
  Some touches of beauty and meditative pauses — though often blunt and erotic — provide some relief as with Ida Applebroog’s installation Monalisa , 2009.

La Grande Madre_ApplebroogFig. 5

Made of partitions of vagina drawings, the self-portraits of the artist’s vulva are installed on silk screen in the shape of a small room, the installation hides a painted reclining nude that can only be seen through the cracks. The soft flaxen colors of the work and the intimacy it evokes, reflects on the need for women to attend their secret gardens, bringing to cognition a complex set of understandings about the eternal feminine.
  Overall a somber and poignant show — with many more works and big names from the 20th and 21st centuries in the West than stated here — it highlights the struggles and contradictions of living the life of a human being in the skin of a woman. The exhibition’s strength resides in its historical tableau of society’s gender biases through artists’ standpoints, and as such, it underlines potential changes in perspective.


La grande Madre
August 26 to November 15, 2015 at the Palazzo Reale Milan
Piazzo Duomo 12, I-20122 Milano


Fig. 1, 4
Louise Bougeois, Nature Study, 1984
© Louise Bourgeois Trust / VAGA, New York, by SIAE 2015

Fig. 2,3,5
Installation Views: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red I, 1970-73, Pipilotti Rist, Mother, Son & the Holy Milanese Garden, 2002/2015 and Ida Applebroog, Monalisa , 2009
The Great Mother, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, promoted by Cultural Office of the City Milan, conceived and produces by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in partnership with Palazzo Reale
Photos: Marco De Scalzi, Courtesy Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milano

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art writer, co-founder of Hong Kong-based contemporary art magazine Pipeline, regular contributor to Artforum International Magazine.