Post-war Italian abstraction has long been defined as a man’s world: Lucio Fontana slashing the blank canvas, Arte Povera stealing the stage. “People are only looking at half the story,” said Niamh Coghlan, a director at Richard Saltoun. The gallery hopes to redress the balance in a group presentation at this year’s Independent 20th Century, drawing attention to a number of Italian artists: Carla Accardi, Bice Lazzari, Bertina Lopes, and Giulia Napoleone.
“Right now there’s a very particular moment looking at women in abstraction,” Coghlan observed, citing the growing number of global survey exhibitions tackling the subject: from Making Space at the Museum of Modern Art in 2017 to Elles font l’abstraction at the Centre Pompidou in 2021, and Action, Gesture, Paint earlier this year at the Whitechapel Gallery. Accardi and Lazzari were both included in the Pompidou exhibition, while Lazzari and Lopes featured in the Whitechapel show. In Italy, Napoleone had a retrospective at the National Gallery in Rome in 2018, Accardi appeared in the 2022 Venice Biennale, and an exhibition on Lopes is currently on at the Museo delle Civiltà until November.
All four artists were active in Rome during the 1960s and 70s, “yet there’s not been as much focus on them because they never really existed as a group,” noted Coghlan. By exhibiting their works side by side at Independent 20th Century, Richard Saltoun brings Italy’s women of abstraction together for the first time.
Each one was uniquely embedded within Rome’s cultural scene. Accardi was famously the only female member of the artistic group Forma 1, who declared themselves formalists and Marxists. Lazzari initially worked as a designer, collaborating with architects Gio Ponti and Carlo Scarpa, her brother-in-law. Lopes regularly held cultural salons in her penthouse apartment, befriending the likes of Marino Marini and Renato Guttoso. Napoleone, too, moved in intellectual circles, friends with Alberto Moravia and Carlo Levi. These were women who were bound up in the beating heart of the Eternal City, and in possession of the tools to turn this to their advantage.
Each found her own path to the place that would catalyze her creative output. Although Lazzari first started painting in her hometown of Venice, she moved to Rome in 1935 and eventually settled in a small apartment on Via Margutta (where Audrey Hepburn would saunter in Roman Holiday in 1953). Here she created geometric compositions inspired by her classical training in music, works that saw her featured in the Venice Biennale in the 1950s. Later she had to give up oil painting due to the solvents’ damaging effects on her sight. The setback forced an encounter with new techniques defined by fast-drying acrylic and graphite lines, a visual language that has elicited comparisons to Agnes Martin.
Born in Trapani, Sicily, Accardi moved to Rome in 1947, as soon as she had finished her studies in Palermo, and began to frequent the Osteria Fratelli Menghi in Via Flaminia, famous for its arty crowd of painters, writers, and filmmakers. The 1960s saw a move towards color in her work; first painting on the floor of her studio, she then began building forms in Sicofoil, covering the transparent plastic sheets in bright fluorescent hues. From flat surfaces they evolved into three dimensions, as Accardi created tent environments large enough for viewers to enter.
Napoleone, by contrast, focused on paper. A poet as well as a painter, she left her native Pescara in 1957 to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, where she encountered a whole cohort of writers and artists. Among them, Giorgio Morandi encouraged her signature style of works on paper: watercolors, inks, pastels, pencil drawings, and engravings. She soon dedicated herself to “representing light,” her exquisite, lyrical landscapes of dots and lines producing artworks that are at once fluid and fixed, a visual play on space and time.
Bertina Lopes—“Mama B” to her friends, “the mother of contemporary African painting” to others—moved to Rome in 1964. A political exile from Mozambique (her first husband was arrested for his anti-colonial poetry), she found herself at the center of cultural life in her adopted city. Lopes remained deeply engaged with the struggles of her homeland: it was on her terrace where Mozambican delegates met with Italian facilitators to negotiate what would become the 1992 peace agreement that ended the Mozambican Civil War. Her art was tied to her activism, and Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975 impacted her greatly. “She was celebrating the liberation through this changing visual aesthetic.” Coghlan explained, “moving away from the figurative expressive language that she had used in the late 1950s and 60s; from 1975 on, [the work] becomes abstract, joyous.”
Accardi’s art was also intertwined with her activism. In 1970, she co-founded Italy’s first female-only feminist group, Rivolta Femminile, with the journalist Elvira Banotti and the art critic Carla Lonzi. With ten other women artists and critics she opened the Cooperativa Beato Angelico in 1976, a Rome gallery dedicated to showcasing female artists, in keeping with the focus on separatism in the Italian women’s movement. The desire for women to withdraw and literally “abstract” themselves from patriarchal systems—including the art world—was seen as a means of taking back control. Accardi would later distance herself from both groups, however, commenting in a 2016 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist that: “when you start engaging with political specialists, you lose understanding. I believe we all have independent languages, independent ways of expressing ourselves.”
This search for a unique language can be felt acutely in Accardi’s work. Her masterpiece Omaggio al centenario (Centenary tribute), unseen for decades and rediscovered by chance, will be at the center of Richard Saltoun’s presentation. The painting was created in 1961, as its title suggests, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Italy’s unification. Yet it also marks a pivotal moment in Accardi’s practice as she broke from her previously black-and-white works in search of something new, co-opting the colors of the Italian flag and reinventing them in her own abstract style.
In encountering the works of the four artists collectively we can see how they expanded the idea of abstraction itself. In Coghlan’s words, they “show the way you can express a political message with an abstract language.” The rich red of Accardi’s flag is echoed in the spirals of Lopes’s canvas and a small, precise rectangle in a Lazzari composition, while the soft blue of another Lazzari piece complements the aquatic waves of Napoleone’s watercolors. “They each in their own way explore color and light through abstraction,” Coghlan noted. “It made it that bit easier to fit the works together.”
Each of these artists refused to be defined by the world around them, reaching beyond attempts to classify their works. Abstraction offered a language that surpassed simple explanation. Napoleone’s meticulous choreographies of dots and lines come to unearth new dimensions of thought, Accardi’s hieroglyphic symbols appear to free a mythic language, Lazzari’s exacting compositions unveil a new rhythmic world order, Lopes’s paintings express liberation and unfettered joy. “The freedom to act on the canvas is always the most important requirement that I know,” Lazzari once said. Although she and her counterparts may have worked in isolation during their lifetimes, their voices now come together, rewriting abstraction on their own terms.
Thea Hawlin is a writer, translator, and cultural critic based in Italy. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Frieze, The Art Newspaper, and the Financial Times.
Learn more about Richard Saltoun’s presentation of Carla Accardi, Bice Lazzari, Bertina Lopes, and Giulia Napoleone.