by Paola Ugolini
Writing is the painting of the voice – Voltaire
Visual poetry is an artistic phenomenon that developed over the course of the 1950s in the blazing climate of the European neo-avant-garde movement, mainly as a way of finding new relationships between words and images, but also as a political action of explicit cultural dissent with regard to established canons. In Italy, this type of verbal-linguistic experimentation began to spread at the beginning of the 1960s, thanks especially to the Gruppo 70, founded in Florence in 1963, and to which Giuseppe Chiari, Ketty La Rocca, Eugenio Miccini, Luciano Ori, Lucia Marcucci e Lamberto Pignotti belonged. In this research area, the word ‘poetry’ conceptually stands for ‘anti-poetry’, while ‘visual’ literally indicates the permanent conflictuality of the visible inherent in the nature of verbal-visual experimentation. Linguistically, moreover, this practice can be defined as a materialistic fact, of strongly objectified products that determine their context in this interchangeable relationship between iconic sign and verbal sign. In particular, concrete poetry is one of the declinations of visual poetry, and it is the aesthetic-experimental environment in which the Austrian Greta Shödl and the Italian Tomaso Binga move, in very different ways.
This concrete poetry is a cultural phenomenon that is difficult to date and categorise due to its protean nature, but we can still date its birth to 1943, with the publication of Tipogrammi per Marinetti and Parole per la guerra by the Italian poet and art critic Carlo Belloli (1922-2003), one of the last exponents of Futurist poetry who, starting from that type of experimentation, became the precursor and diffuser of a type of poetry he called ‘visual’, marked by the semanticisation of typefaces, white space and the page. This type of poetry becomes ‘concrete’ because it moves the readers’ attention from the meaning of the text and its content to its constitutive elements: words, syllables, phonemes and letters of the alphabet, whose typographic dimension is enhanced, on a graphic level, through its arrangement on the page and also on materials other than paper. Belloli’s contact with the great poet and intellectual Emilio Villa (1914-2003), and the contacts of the latter – who from 1950 until 1952 lived in Brazil with Waldemar Cordeiro, exponent of the Grupo Ruptura of San Paolo – exported the principles of concrete poetry to Brazil, where in 1952 the Grupo Noigandres was founded. The following year, the Swiss-Peruvian poet Eugen Gomringer, with his colleagues Marcel Wyss and Dieter Rot, founded ‘Spiral’ magazine (1953-1964) in Bern, a magazine in which many concrete poems found space. In 1956, the National Exhibition of Concrete Art took place in the Museum of Modern Art in San Paolo, with the participation of Gomringer himself. The Brazilian group was therefore organising itself programmatically and drew up, in 1958, a pilot plan for concrete poetry, in which the fundamental principles of the movement were outlined, including the creation of poetry as a structure; the elimination of the poetic self in the search for objectivity; the exclusion of random and ornamental procedures; the identification of the poem as an object in its own right that communicates its content-structure and not its content-message. Italy, Brazil and Switzerland were therefore the propulsion centres for this neo-avant-garde experimentation that was born from the need to break with tradition in order to rework a new artistic language that was capable of mixing poetry with technology, painting, music, mathematics, design, architecture and photography. Fully sensing the subversion of the surrounding reality due to the industrial and technological revolution, these poets question both artistic institution and language. The common intent of the verbal-visual avant-garde is to penetrate the constitutive basis of language, breaking it down and recomposing it on a visual and sound level. Even the spoken word undergoes the same procedure of disassembly and sometimes of cancelling; in this regard the verb-phonetic experiments of Arrigo Lora Totino and verb-gestural experiments by Adriano Spatola remain famous, which began in the 1960s.
Concrete Poetry and Feminism
‘Concrete poetry,’ writes Mirella Bentivoglio in the introduction to the catalogue for the 1978 Biennale di Venezia, in which the verbo-visual work of eighty international female artists was presented, ‘reifies the linguistic referent’ (1). Carla Subrizi also underlines that, ‘The relationship between writing and art in the twentieth century outlines a complex and at the same time innovative and experimental transition… Writing and speech were at the origin not only of a renewal of literature but also of research that transformed visual space, ways of seeing and forms in art. A different grammar, as well as particular spatial and temporal concepts in the work of art were born from the encounter between writing, image and performativity’(2). Since the 1960s, many visual artists, poets, historians and art critics have not only tried their hand at concrete poetry and visual poetry to deconstruct a language that has always been masculine and patriarchal, but also ‘were the architects of some of the nodal changes of a critical, aesthetic and political passage full of openings, perspectives and ruptures that have not been fully assimilated or resolved. This passage is inscribed in the history of the relationship between art and politics and in particular between art and feminism’. (3)
The artists, almost all of whom were militant feminists, such as Tomaso Binga (the pseudonym of Bianca Pucciarelli Menna), Verita Monselles, Mirella Bentivoglio, Greta Schödl, Ketty La Rocca and Lucia Marcucci, deconstructed both form and content by writing a revolutionary new page of the history of art, in order to be able to explore with new means those fundamental issues of making art, such as gender and identity, and to talk about being women and artists in a different way. It took years for women to find their voices, it took years to learn how to speak again, it took years – certainly too many – to finally be heard, it took years to understand that the word is the privileged means for expressing oneself and therefore to be able to give voice to a gender, the female, which for too long remained mute, nailed to its biological role and walled up in the illusion of the joy of domestic life.
Feminism was among the most revolutionary intellectual and political movements of the last century, which, while having its roots in the battle for equal civil rights that began in France during the years of the Revolution, managed to shake our modern era with its subversive power – not only until the second half of the twentieth century, given that the contemporary digital Fourth Wave Feminist, which emerged in 2012, continues the fight against the patriarchy with its battles to eliminate gender discrimination and to fight for total wage equality (4). In particular, as emerges from the enlightened studies of Griselda Pollock, the encounter between art and feminism was fundamental for the aesthetic and sociological impact that artists had, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, in the transformation of artistic and literary practice ( 5). Language has always been a powerful weapon to define oneself and the world and when women, thanks to the awareness that took place with feminism and the socio-cultural transformation activated by 1968, finally re-emerged from the creative and intellectual oblivion in which they had been confined by centuries of patriarchal culture, the basis of their visual poetics was mainly centred on the two directives of the word and the body.
Artists and Language
This research, which aimed to uncouple verbal language, making it the object and subject of works of art created through performance, collage, video and photography, has defined not only a new aesthetic but also a new form of expression. The visual deconstruction of the word was essential in order to be able to say what had never been said, what could not be said and therefore finally to be able to give voice to ‘the‘problem that has no name’ as Betty Friedan defined it in her seminal book The Feminine Mystique (6). Having relegated generations of women to the home, by making them believe that being a housewife was wonderful, was the mystique that began to be revealed and told through these revolutionary verbal-visual techniques used by artists and poets. Female liberation was therefore not only sexual freedom and equal civil rights but also liberation from a masculine-coded language, so as to create a new form of visual writing necessary to give intellectual dignity to the new identity that women were looking for. Since then, language has become one of the privileged fields of investigation to understand how it is not just a means of communicating but, as the French linguist Émile Benveniste theorised already in the 1950s, a resource of human identity through which the subject constructs himself. (7)
Greta Schödl and the Weaving of Words (8)
The Austrian Greta Schödl (born in 1929 in Hollabrunn) is one of the most important visual poetry artists living in Italy. Her development took place in cosmopolitan post-war Vienna where, between 1948 and 1953, she attended the Akademie für Angewandte Kunst. With a career as a visual artist already underway, Greta Schödl meets the fascinating Italian designer, entrepreneur and publisher Dino Gavina, friend of Lucio Fontana, all of whose teatrini she produced, in addition to those of many mainstream artists at the Frankfurt fair in the second half of the 1950s. In 1959 Shödl then moved to Bologna where, despite her family life and lack of professional recognition, she continued to produce an extraordinary body of work for fifty years. His works reproduce organic and geometric forms that intersect with words, which became his pictorial means of choice. The word becomes an abstract sign, repetitive and emptied of meaning, the dematerialisation of language thus became the main object of her artistic research, which reached the complete abstraction of semantic-verbal functionality. Greta Shödl’s work is painstaking, obsessive, very precise and constant, the materials used varied: ancient linens from pillow cases, the Italian flag, old geographical maps found by antique dealers, parchment, pages from ancient botanical books or spiritual exercises, musical scores and canvas paper. The domestic experience is clearly present, the materials used are often full of references to memories of the family sphere and to her private, intimate dimension. The language used is always her mother tongue, German – ‘the mother tongue is the mediator of our first relationship with the world, a sensory, composite language, made of sound, gestures, contact, linguistic invention, which leaves its imprint on us and leaves us a creative reserve from which we can draw all our lives.’(9) The colour scheme is varied and intense: blues, pinks, yellows and always gold as the underlying theme of a coherent but always suspended discourse between reality and vision.
Tomaso Binga and the Corporal Alphabet
Tomaso Binga (Salerno 1931) is the stage name of the poet and visual artist Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, one of the best known exponents of contemporary Italian phonetic-sound-performative poetry who, as a form of protest in the face of male privilege, decided to adopt a man’s name. Her artistic debut took place in 1971 with her exhibition at the Studio Oggetto in Caserta, entitled ‘The reactive object’. On this occasion, the artist used the pseudonym Tomaso Binga for the first time. She worked with the Argentine artist Verita Monselles, with whom she created the photographic installation ‘Litanie Lauretane’ (1976), sometimes presented with the title ‘Mater’, in which Binga is portrayed naked while using her body to make the shapes of letters that spell out the word Mater. The photos, taken in the Florentine studio of Monselles, aim to create a new gestural alphabet which, symbolically, stands as an alternative to current language. The work is linked to the contemporary experiments of the Living Writing series, of which Alfabetiere mural (1976) is certainly the most famous work. In this case, too, there is the desire to replace writing with the letters of the alphabet with a physical alphabet; language, written or spoken, is perceived as a worn and inauthentic form of expression, from the formation of which the female subject is excluded. The living writings of Binga are therefore born with the aim of creating a radical alternative to masculine language. This desire to question the uniqueness of the male symbolic order is also present in the artist’s decision to split herself, assuming the dual identities of Bianca Menna and Tomaso Binga, ratified in the work ‘Oggi Spose’ (1977) in which the artist gets married to her male alter ego.
Since 1974, Tomaso Binga has directed the cultural association Lavatoio Contumaciale, which deals with poetry, visual arts, literature, music and multimedia. Since 1992 she has been vice-president of the Filiberto Menna Foundation, a contemporary art study centre in Salerno, which promotes initiatives and projects that aim to spread and deepen our knowledge of contemporary art. (10)
1. Mirella Bentivoglio, Materializzazione del linguaggio: La Biennale di Venezia, Arti visive e architettura, exhibition catalogue, Magazzini del Sale alle Zattere, Venezia 1978.
2. Carla Subrizi, ‘Punti d’incontro tra scrittura, performatività e femminismo in Italia: l’arte riscrive l’identità e la storia’ in Corpo a Corpo, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Nazionale Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Silvana Editoriale S.P.A., Roma 2017.
3. Op. Cit.
4. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In 1793 the activist and playwright Olympe de Gouges (1748-93) was sent to the guillotine by Maximilien Robespierre after asserting that the tyranny of men limited the rights of women in her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (1791).
5. Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon, Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art Histories, Routledge, London, 1999.
6. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, first edition, W.W.Norton Inc., New York, February 1963.
7. Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique gènèral, Gallimard, Paris, 1966.
8. For Greta Shödl, see Paola Ugolini in ‘Greta Shödl e l’arte di tessere parole’, pp. 7-15, edited catalogue, Richard Saltoun, London, 2019.
9. Donatella Franchi, ‘La scrittura che tesse: incontro con Greta Shödl’, in Greta Shödl, Pagine, Pagine 1957-1999, Campanotto Editore, Pasian di Prato, 2000
10. For Tomaso Binga cfr. Raffaella Perna, ‘Arte, fotografia e femminismo in Italia negli anni Settanta’, Postmedia-books, Roma 2013 and Paola Ugolini, Tomaso Binga in Corpo a Corpo, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Nazionale Arte Moderna Roma, Silvana Editoriale, 2017, pp. 25-26