The publication in 1900 of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams revealed new fields to explore regarding the images and drives that reside in a psyche that has women and sexual desire at its epicentre. Whilst this completely changed how the family and the relationship between the sexes is perceived, it was the massive introduction of women into the workplace, brought about by the First World War, that led to an irreversible structural transformation in the social and cultural fabric of the country.
Although they do not depart from the formal parameters of figurative art and a relaxed normality, the works on display in this room are imbued by a feeling of crisis and anxiety that reflects, even in a artistic universe, the interpretative uncertainty of roles hitherto codified. The dynamics of a love relationship and the representation of female intimacy are turned into something precarious that is no longer tied to particular meanings.
Casorati’s work, Susanna, evokes the Old Testament story in which the beautiful protagonist is bathing in the garden of her house, spied on by two old men who threaten her with being denounced as an adulteress if she does not have sex with them. In the painting, as a naked woman sits on a chair, her shapely body in full light and her lolling face impassive, a man dressed in grey stands behind her, motionless, observing.
The consolidated iconography of the representation of male desire and female virtue becomes, in Casorati’s painting, an expression of incommunicability and silence.
Interiors are also portrayed as being silent; occupied by solitary women, mostly quite absorbed in their meditations, who have withdrawn into an inner space, a hidden refuge, a shadow-land. These women are often portrayed reading, as if that shows them as having a greater awareness of themselves and their feelings; the expression of an intellectual life lived in solitude.
Even the mirror, a traditional theme that has, for centuries, been the expression of feminine vanity that nearly always features nudity, is no longer an instrument with which to transform the woman into one who is colluding with the man observing her, but is rather the expression her searching for her own identity. A woman looks at herself in order to understand the essence of her femininity, her own identity and her body image.
The differences and similarities between women shown in group portraits emerge as their faces are compared by first breaking them down into sections and then putting them back together - see Breviglieri’s Sisters and Ferrazzi’s Composition. Even the theme of a woman at a window, symbol of the boundary between two worlds - the outside world and the secret interior landscape protected by domestic walls - seems to lose its original meaning. If, once upon a time it was only prostitutes who could strike a pose as they sought to be admired, now ordinary women are free to do the very same thing in a social gathering. Even women who cross their legs, something that, according to rules of gestural etiquette was once deemed to be inappropriate behaviour for any “decent” woman, has become a sign of greater behavioural freedom.
The path to women’s liberation from a destiny marked by the biological “obligation” of motherhood and the penalizing division of roles, passes through an awareness that – as Simon de Beauvoir wrote: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. It is for this reason that many of the most recent works by women artists also reflect on the analysis and re-composition of a disjointed body; one that is divided, sometimes hostile and yet alive in its complexity, an active subject and no longer one represented through male eyes - see Binga’s, Indelible Kiss, and Gandolfi’s, Ambra Jovinelli.