“No Horse But I’ve Got An Umbrella”: Women and Feminism in Contemporary Italian Art
An Interview With Sculptor Cloti Ricciardi by Nancy Proctor
First published in CRITS (NC: Western Carolina University), 1997

Beginning her artistic career in the 60s, sculptor Cloti Ricciardi was one of the leaders of the Italian Feminist Movement of the 60s and 70s. Today she ranks among Italy’s most prominent artists, having held in 1993 a solo exhibition in the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Her work continues today in Rome on the twinned tracks of art and feminism.

For the Anglophone world, Italy tends to represent the land of ancient and renaissance rather than contemporary art, as well as, in the worst of the stereotypes, the icon of masculinist culture and female oppression. But the complex reality of Italy is quite something else. A center of artistic excellence no less today than centuries ago, Italy has seen the emergence since the 60s of a powerful women’s movement and sophisticated feminist theory which have contributed largely to positioning contemporary Italian women artists as the very cutting edge of European art practice. Cloti Ricciardi is at the vanguard of this movement.

I met Clot Ricciardi in Rome in 1995, shortly after I had begun my own art practice as a filmmaker and a Ph.D. on 19th century American women sculptors in Rome. At that time, exploring the Eternal City with an eye to the 19th century topography that had been inhabited by the women sculptors of my dissertation topic, I was particularly inspired by a series of re-mappings of the Eternal City which Ricciardi had fashioned in a variety of materials. Evoking Freud’s use of the archaeology of Rome as a metaphor for the preservation of memory in the human unconscious, these works figured for me my own project of recovering a multitude of geographies, spaces, and experiences of Rome which had met and coalesced over time.

More recent works further this spatial and temporal exploration through what Ricciardi calls the ‘anomies of space and time’. The silhouette of a flying bird in reflective materials has appeared in several works and installations of the past two years. Based on a decoy used in bird-hunting, this figure represents the allurement of the gaze; neither entirely false nor strictly true, this image recalls the seduction of Narcissus by his own reflection. By highlighting the ambiguity of vision, Ricciardi invites the viewer to chart the trajectory of her/his own desire through the work. An ethical rather than a moralizing response to the politics of the gaze, Ricciardi’s sculpture engages the spectator’s own body and movement as well as his/her vision to investigate the intersections and holes in the fabric of our experiences of space and time (Discussed in Christoph Gerozissis, Transiti Italiani, exhibition catalogue, Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland, FL, 1996).

Since our first encounters, Ricciardi’s investigations into the ambivalence of the gaze and women’s position in the symbolic order have continued to provide important theoretical explorations alongside her consistently challenging artistic production. She remains for me a figure of the consummate artist-theorist, compromising neither her intellectual endeavors nor her creative ethos in the pursuit of a complete and lasting intervention into contemporary Italian culture. Cloti Ricciardi agreed to discuss with me the nature of her participation in the contemporary Italian art scene, and the role of women and feminism in shaping that world.

Nancy Proctor: I am delighted by your new video, “Senza Cavallo ma con Umbrella” [“No Horse but I’ve got an Umbrella”]. The playful images of you holding an open umbrella over your head while standing on the empty pedestal base of the Marcus Aurelius [a monumental bronze equestrian statue that used to stand in the center of the Capitol square designed by Michelangelo - a symbol of the ‘old masters’ of Roman culture in both an artistic and political sense - ed.] seem to me to epitomize the position of women artists within the art world in general today: we may not have a grand steed to carry us into history, but we attain a position of prominence and excellence in the end via more mundane but perhaps more serviceable means of support and shelter for our activities and works. Is feminism one of the primary vehicles for women artists in Italy today?

Cloti Ricciardi: In Italy, contemporary art doesn’t have an overt relationship to feminism. I know many women artists but I don’t know any who make work that is avowedly feminist. There are feminists who try to make feminist art works, but they do so on a very modest level. However, women artists are increasingly self-aware, and every individual is strongly conscious of her own value as an artist.

NP: What is the current state of feminism in Italy?

CR: Feminism is particularly alive on the level of theory today in Italy. By this I mean that there are many scholars, philosophers, and feminist theorists who are investigating the most important problems that are emerging and are attempting ever more complex responses to them. Their work has been published and their thought has been communicated in a wider arena with seminars, conferences, and public debates. Specifically political initiatives, on the other hand, seem rather static.

NP: In the United States and Great Britain today, there is a strong resistance to identification with feminism, particularly among younger women; although everyone is happy with the social and legislative improvements for women brought by the women’s movement, many perceive the label of ‘feminist’ as an old-fashioned and even unfashionable one. Do you find any sort of generational difference in Italy in terms of the readiness of women artists to consider themselves feminists, and that this impacts their work?

CR: In this period in Italy there is a trend in art practice to demarcate the body as the sole field of the younger women artists’ interests - this is a sort of female specificity, not a feminist one. All of the efforts made in this direction have had a certain success, especially if they present certain masochistic characteristics. But we also know that our bodies have been the cages to which we have been relegated for centuries; that they have been the only salable merchandise that we could exchange on the market of life; that we were ‘the body’ and men ‘the mind’ etc. etc. This type of focus on the body, as the only horizon conceded to women, is in my opinion very dangerous, especially since no one is allowed to delimit a sector of practice for young male artists. For their explorations all spheres are permitted, while this current perception of young women’s art practice attempts to confine their energy and vitality to a very restricted field. It’s a type of conceptual prison that necessarily produces masochistic results. Their work is all the more accepted for being claustrophobic and autodistructive with respect to their own bodies; when the female body is fragmented like a modernist discourse, it is the masculine imaginary that is reinforced. It is as if the masculine system requires of young women artists, in exchange for a bit of success, their own self-destruction.

NP: How about ‘women-only’ exhibitions? These have been receiving a lot of mixed press from the mainstream art media in Britain and the U.S. lately.

CR: We women artists have little love for “women-only” situations, which are acquiring here a more sociological meaning than artistic one. In fact, in the 70s when the Women’s Movement was particularly active, there were a lot of exhibitions of “women artists” which were, in my opinion, very negative because the artists were included in these exhibitions only because they were women and not for the quality, direction, or thematics of their work. Instead, in that same period, those few women who acceded to roles of power in the art world didn’t want to undertake trying to obtain a certain equality of presence among women and men artists in the most important contexts, like the museums or major exhibitions.
I should note that the Italian art world is rather snobbish and any indication of a remunerative approach has always been seen as a certain tokenism, in particular when it demonstrates historical, eradicated conventions and conditionings. No one likes to admit that one’s behavior is conditioned by such historic precedents, not even women.

NP: Do you identify yourself as a feminist artist?

CR: I am definitely a feminist. This consciousness enters into my work as well, but not in an explicit or declared way. Only in the 70s and more precisely between ‘72 and ‘75 did I have exhibitions and works that were declaredly feminist. I think it is evident that my gaze is able to cross and comprehend reality from another point of view, and this comes out in my work.

I am still very involved with the women who work actively in feminism. Although I am primarily interested in art, I feel reassured and enriched by knowing that so many women are investigating reality from our point of view in order to improve and modify it.

NP: What rapport is there among the generations of women artists in Italy? Is there a tradition for women artists to consider older women as examples, mentors, or professional ‘mothers’?

CR: As I noted before, there is an increasing consciousness among women artists of their own value, and this has permitted the recognition of the value of others as well. Now it is more common - but not very! - to find a young woman artist who considers an older woman artist if not a ‘mentor’, at least a friend. I have many women artist friends and my exchange of ideas with them is always very lively without being complicated by competitive urges; even these exist, but not in a destructive way. There is a more sporting attitude, in general, with the women. With my male friends, on the other hand, mechanisms of power are instantly in play, with a few rare exceptions.

NP: What is the most accepted route through which Italian artists pursue professional success? For example, which are the most important exhibition venues for contemporary Italian artists, and do women have access to them?

CR: In Italy there is a small but very prestigious circuit of contemporary art museums, civic galleries and foundations. Participating in this circuit represents official recognition of both artistic and commercial success, at the international level as well.

There is, however, a catch: Italian women artists are ‘prohibited’ from gaining access to these venues. In 1995 Lucilla Catatania, an excellent young sculptor, and I, with the technical support of an international institute, conducted a survey of the activities of the principal Italian museums in the previous ten years. The results were even more scandalous than we had imagined: in ten years in all of the Italian museums only one woman artist, Carla Accardi, had been represented in a respectable manner with solo shows of a reasonable amplitude. Even the Museo Laboratorio [Workshop Museum] of the University ‘La Sapienza’ of Rome [the oldest and most prestigious university in Rome] , a museum which, according to the university statutes, is obliged to conduct experimental activities and research, had not included any women artists in its most recent cycle of exhibitions at the time of our investigation. I want to underline the fact that this particular program had been underway for three years already and was aimed at emerging artists; young critics were supposed to invite young artists to exhibit from time to time. In the three years of the program about sixty exhibitions were presented, of which not a single artist was a woman. But today in Italy there are many, many young women who are good, courageous, and interesting artists. After our report, some women began to be seen, at least at the Museo Laboratorio.

The presence of women in the museums is determined by many factors (other than the fundamental one of being a man), and, among these, the quality of the work is unfortunately not the most important - so much so that exhibitions of the few really good artists are alternated with those of artists who are mediocre or even very bad. All of this is mixed with the presence of many international artists, in general of a good level, in the museums. Even among these the presence of women artists is decidedly scarce.

NP: Is there much governmental support for the Italian arts?

CR: From the panorama that I have described it is clear that in our rather odd country not only is there no government support for the work of artists, but in fact artists are impeded by the government. To be honest, however, I must add that while none of contemporary art practice in its larger complex is supported even minimally by our governing bodies at the moment, perhaps some sign of change is now beginning to appear with the new government.

NP: Does this impact women artists in any particular way?

CR: Because of the lack of government support, women artists are alone in their work, sustained almost exclusively by their passion and their will. Even women of power, the collectors, the directors of important galleries, find it easier to deal with work by male artists.

However, I want to emphasize that despite all of this, there are many strong women artists in Italy today, of all generations and directions and their presence in the art world and in the cultural scene in general is very lively and important. In fact, in my opinion, the artistic production of greatest quality and ethical tension is that of the women artists.

NP: You are a successful artist with a long and distinguished career in Italy and abroad. What have been the most important factors in helping you obtain this position, and are there still some limits and obstacles against which you continue to have to struggle?

CR: I began my activities in the art world very early, in the 60s, and I began to have my first recognition quite soon thereafter. But I quickly became aware of how sexist the art scene was, and I got involved in feminism, relegating my artistic activity to a second rank for some years. When I then took up my art practice again in full, I found a difficult situation but I was by then stronger and more aware. A feminist consciousness was certainly one of the things that permitted me to take up my ‘war path’ with pleasure. In ‘93 I was offered a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which is the most important artistic appointment in Italy. This event definitely reinforced my public image greatly. But in my opinion the most important thing is a vital relationship with the world, to know that regardless, whatever may be the level of sexism in the art system, I am a living, interesting, curious and very fortunate woman. Fortunate because I have been able to be who I wanted to be, because I am an artist, because I know many extraordinary women, because I live in a country and a civic complex that is, however odd, still very, very beautiful. And there is still so much to do, so many things to improve, so many knots of historic conditioning to untangle, particularly in the art field.

NP: What sort of knots would you like to see tackled first?

CR: What I’d like to see today is a female public that is able to have a privileged relationship to our art works. In fact, other than the obstacles posed by the masculinist system, our principal difficulty is that women art lovers, who are a large part of the public, direct their attention primarily to works by male artists. In other words, in Italy, when you say the word “artist”, everyone, women and men, thinks of a male artist.

NP: What do the arts in Italy need the most?

CR: In its entirety, contemporary Italian art needs, at an official level, the presence of works by women artists in order to be richer and more alive. Beyond this a greater promotional undertaking is necessary on the part of government organizations, in order to disseminate Italian art at an international level.

NP: Any advise for young women artists?

CR: The thing that helps a woman towards the recognition she deserves more than anything is living, and living for a long time. Only after many many years of work, when everyone realizes that nothing can stop you - only then are they ready to admit that you are an important artist.

[Interview translated from the Italian by Nancy Proctor.]

Selected recent exhibitions by Cloti Ricciardi:

1996 “A regola d’arte”, Universita’ della Tuscia, Viterbo; “Transiti Italiani”, Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland, FL.
1995 “Cose dell’altro Mondo”, curated by L. Cherubini, Trevi (Perugia); “Rimamari”, Riccardi - Mambor, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; “Hortus Conclusus”, curated by F. Briguglio and F. Moschini, Rome; “Visioni americane [American Visions]” Studio Berghoff-Cowden, Tampa, FL; “Incantesimi”, curated by S. Lux, Bomarzo (Viterbo); “Opere per sala da conferenze”, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; “Fermata d’autobus”, curated by A. B. Oliva, Spazio Flaminio ATAC, Rome.
1994 “Opere a Segno”, Fondazione Segno, Palazzo Farnese, Ortona; “Emergenze planetarie”, curated by L. Cherubini, Galleria Borghese, Rome and Galleria La Giarina, Verona; “Dimora dei corpi gravi - Tributo a Masaccio”, Erice; “Sete”, Studio Bocchi, Rome.