“I paint by instinct and I paint for passion. And because of rage and because of violence and because of sadness. And for a certain fetishism. And for happiness and melancholy together. And especially for anger.” – Carol Rama
I visit The Passion According to Carol Rama twice. I get the Luas the first time, I get a bus the second. Just fewer than 200 works are on show in this exhibition, which was curated by Teresa Grandas and Paul B Preciado and organised by MACBA Barcelona. The show has so far travelled to Paris and Finland. It will move onto Rama’s hometown of Turin after its stay in Dublin. I like travelling exhibitions, they make me feel international. It’s one of four exhibitions on display at IMMA on the days that I visit and it shares the East Wing Galleries with Patrick Hennessy’s De Profundis.
IMMA is in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. For a short while, in the 1980s, the plan was to establish it in what is now CHQ, but instead the museum is here, cramped into bedrooms and corridors. There is little room for work to breathe on a good day, and two such extensive shows in one wing is smothering. Both shows suffer for it. I visit The Passion According to Carol Rama twice because there’s something not quite right about it.
Carol Rama was born in 1918. When she was young her mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Rama began to paint. She taught herself. Before she had turned 25 her father had committed suicide. This is all happening in Mussolini’s Italy. In 1945, police shut down her first exhibition. Her works were indecent. This is Carol Rama’s creation myth. Carol Rama was braver than most.
In The Passion According to Carol Rama, the artist’s work is presented in biography. Her work begins as ugly watercolours in beautiful frames. This is the opinion of the husband of a woman viewing the work at the same time as me. He’s not wrong, but as someone who has been artfully smoking cigarettes for years now I get that he’s kind of wrong. The lines and flat fillings of the paintings are what bring the works beyond descriptive depiction and into an assertion of a focused female gaze rather than the wiggle and waggle of so many paintings of women and that, actually dude, sorry, your male ego is showing.
The women of these paintings are not hot, they are lustful. They are looking straight out right at you. They are arresting, I am arrested. The frames are so gorgeous, so decorative but I barely look at them. The men have eight dicks each. I am looking at the eight, sixteen, thirty-two dicks. I am looking at the snakes and tubes and shit emerging from vaginas. It’s odd how all the common slang words for vaginas and vulvas sound dirty. Women’s legs are hoisted up, stretched apart, they have not been spread. There are a lot of tongues, stuck out and provoking, fat and red. I feel like this is what Miley Cyrus was going for but didn’t quite achieve. Some of the women are in hospital beds, in wheelchairs, some have had limbs amputated.
Carol Rama made the paintings that are necessary now, and she made them 70 years ago. These are the works that were censored. These are her works which remind me most of the vitality of art. But she stopped making these works; she took the censorship as a warning. It’s strange to think that men used to do almost all the talking. Later, in the 1980s, Rama returns to these motifs. In the 1990s she moves onto mad cow disease as self-portraiture. There are teeth and butchers and animals’ genitals. There are mouths.
Rama began to focus on abstraction in the 1950s, becoming involved with Concrete Art. There are geometrics, and then the influence of the visual poetry of Novissimi begins to appear, and she makes her bricolage. They are organic and inorganic materials mounded on canvases. The paintings walk between the toxic, the bodily, the dangerous. Dozens of eyes are on you, there are fluids and claws. Text and maths, swarms and clusters populate canvases. It all looks infectious, as if that if you don’t catch a bad virus you will instead catch a bout of madness. And then you see the tubes and rubbers of her father’s factory and of her own private past in industrial Italy. Her sense of materials is present throughout. It’s looking at these works as part of a timeline that you see Rama most clearly as an artist. She made a lot of work, she tested herself, she is and will be a forebear. There are 200 works here. There is so much to see.
Immediately outside of the security-guarded doors of the East Wing are a screen, two seats and two sets of headphones. It’s a strange space. You’re beside the shop, you’re not inside the show, you still have the momentum from ascending the stairs pushing you up and through. I sit down to watch the video. Grandas and Preciado offer insights, contexts, hooks. Rama was high bourgeoisie, her family were industrialists, her class was conservative and Catholic, the history of her work was erased as women’s work is erased, her movement from figures to structure to figures. We hear about the gaze of her watercolours, her use of the tyres and rubber of her family’s factories in bricolage, the organic materials in her mixed media, her sense of humour. I watch the video. I don’t see anyone else watch the video. On my first visit, I don’t watch the video.
There are two reading rooms within the exhibition. A slideshow of images of Rama’s apartment are showing in the smaller room. It was where she lived and worked throughout her adult life, and is unusual for its lack of natural light. It’s always interesting to see how someone lives. In the larger room, which is a black box halfway down the main exhibition space, a number of books are laid out, and two films are screening. The shorter of the two is a series of shots of an exhibition of Carlo Mollino’s design and architecture. Carol Rama speaks, we see a nude of a woman before we see the work of a woman. The other film is Simone Pierini’s 48-minute More, even more (2003). People sit watching these films and it is in these films that I locate the not-quite-rightness. We are told that she was friendly with Man Ray, hung out with Andy Warhol, she tells us she shifted and drifted Orson Welles. Rudi Fuchs, art professional, tells us about beautiful and intimidating she was. Male gaze and male validation crowd Rama’s own words. A friend of Rama’s tells us she thinks that all of us, men and women, should perceive our identity beyond our sexuality and that Carol knew how to do that. It’s one of the moments of clarity in the documentary, a break from the commentary on her hairstyles. I can see her hair, why are you telling me about her hair, tell me about what fascist Italy was like maybe instead.
The academy wants Carol Rama for itself now. But the academy seems to have forgotten that it itself is the child of men, and so we have a show that is littered with relics of a long-lived boys club. There is little in the gallery guide for the unanointed. I wish the academy would just hush for a little while, provide some plain context and let Carol Rama provide the poetics.
The Passion According to Carol Rama is exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art until Monday 1st August. For more information on the exhibition, see www.imma.ie
Words: CSO Keeffe