When the door opens to Carol Rama’s home on the top floor of a Turin apartment block, the 92-year-old artist is standing there – a diminutive figure with bright mischievous eyes, and wearing her trademark snake-like coil of hair that winds its way full circle about her head. I’m greeted with a surprisingly tight handshake before being led inside. Until recently, Rama, who has lived here for more than 70 years, blanketed herself in near darkness, preferring to have all the shutters closed, allowing in only thin shafts of light. Visitors could only grope their way around and dimly make out her numerous drawings, watercolours of gaunt looking yet eroticised figures, beautiful tapestries and photographs of herself with friends that fill the apartment. Nowadays, perhaps at the insistence of her live-in help, daylight is allowed in, and it also reveals her studio as a repository of strange objects – a parade drum, African carvings, a mannequin, a glass head and occasional works by other artists that she has met and known over the decades (a photograph by Zoe Leonard hangs next to Rama’s watercolour Passionate Woman from 1939). Her flat is a sanctuary as well as a biographical catalogue of her emotional impetus and strength – something that she describes as both ‘delirium and fear’.
In her bedroom she has surrounded herself with some of the most personal mementoes of her life. On one table sits a collection of miniature wooden orthopaedic feet that she says reminds her of her uncle Eduardo, who produced artificial limbs for disabled servicemen and civilians. By her bed is a framed poem from her friend Man Ray, and next to this a Polaroid of Rama taken by Andy Warhol (they had first met in Italy, where on one occasion she tried, without success, to read his palm). Nearby, but hung on its own above a pile of books, is a small watercolour portrait of her father, Amabile Rama. It is an unsettling picture, dating from 1939, and depicts a Christ-like head wearing a garland, and empty blue eyes that gaze vacantly upwards. It hovers over the image of four cut-throat razors, each extended to show their blades. It is a strange painterly premonition. Her father committed suicide several years later.
While Rama has been close to artists, writers and performers and has been inspired by some of them (from Duchamp to Buster Keaton), she has always based her work on the most personal family memories. As a young girl, her brother and sister would make her sit down and put her legs into the local pond, which was full of leeches. They would force her to wait until enough leeches were stuck to her legs before pulling them off – after which they would sell them to buy cinema tickets. Rama would later include leeches in an early watercolour from 1936, Grandmother Carolina, sucking at the neck of the figure and surrounded by dozens of orthopaedic shoes (she remembers these ‘piled up behind my grandmother’s bed’).
However, it was during her early teenage years that she says her life changed dramatically. Her father’s business – a bicycle factory – went bankrupt. Having once been a prosperous family, they were soon forced to sell much of the furniture. Not long after, her mother had a breakdown and spent a year in a psychiatric clinic. Rama would visit her and remembers seeing the women tied to their beds or ‘with their tongues sticking out, their legs apart or crouching down in some other position’, while her mother would sing and adorn her head with garlands of grass and flowers. It was after this that she started doing her ‘vulgar drawings’, but it was not until aged fifteen, when she visited the studio of a female painter, that she decided to be an artist. It was a turning point, she has said, as ‘painting freed me from the anguish I felt at what was happening to my family’. It also ignited her erotic desire. The works from the late 1930s are filled with images of masturbating nude men, of women with protruding red tongues and snakes emerging from their vaginas. They also regularly feature objects of containment – wheelchairs, shoes, beds. They are confrontational, fetishistic, angry pictures combining the sense of carnal pleasures with the pain of personal memory. The figures often seem dislocated in their desires, yet possess an alluring energy. ‘For me,’ she has said, ‘the eroticism is the rejection of all prudery. It is sensuality, being in touch with the senses, with the body, female and male, viewed and ‘dissected’ in its anatomical parts.’ One of these ‘parts’ she wears around her neck every day – an ancient bronze phallic pendant that was given to her by a Greek museum director, who allegedly took it from his museum’s collection.
Her father, she says, was surprisingly supportive of her erotic work and even encouraged her, perhaps recognising her anxiety in himself. Not everyone was quite so generous, and when she was preparing for her first exhibition in Turin in 1945, the police removed 27 pictures before it opened. This early work is what Rama is best known for, although it was not until 1979 that it began circulating outside Italy. Her art has developed in many different directions since then. In the 1950s she joined the Concrete Art Movement, to ‘wean myself from that excess of freedom’ and to give herself some ‘mental order’, though ironically such discipline meant that her work suffered, despite leading her to her ‘bricolages’ in the 1960s – a term invented by friend and poet Edoardo Sanguineti to describe her abstract mixed-media pieces, many of which included glass eyes bought from a Milanese taxidermist.
However, Rama’s best work has always been when it has most directly related to her own life. In 1970 she started using rubber – making abstract paintings with flattened tyre parts as well as sculptures using worn, ‘ugly, shoddy’ inner tubes from bicycles. The tubes were often given to her by friends, and a pile of these still sit over the furniture, like a heap of entrails, in a dark corner of her studio. Rama says that the rubber ‘has stimulated me more than all the other [materials]. I was interested in its character, in its temperament, suggesting a feeling of unease. Well then, as I have a behaviour that feels uneasy I work better’. You can see this in pieces such as Premonition of Birnam 1970, which consists of a collection of inner tubes with shiny protruding valves hanging on a two-metre high hurdle. The tubes are all different shades – pink, brown and black, ‘colours’, says Rama, ‘that remind you of skin tones – and like rubber skins, they feel sensual to the touch’.
While they seem a world away from her passionate watercolours, the works with rubber are as personal as anything she has made. ‘The tyres come from the memory of my father,’ she says. They are also an expression of the sadness that she still feels at his loss: ‘I am still suffering. It will never pass.’ Sometimes she has channelled these sentiments via external events, the most conspicuous and strange being her reaction to the ‘mad cow’ disease outbreak in 1996 after watching the TV images of dying cows – their last twitches reminded her of an orgasm. She began working at a furious pace for five years and produced a large series of semi-abstract works that she described as having ‘some mad erotic gestures and some remarkable similarities to us… or to me anyway’. They feature rubber cut-outs of udders, as well as painted depictions of teeth and jaw bones, all laid down on old mail sacks, some of which are punctured with hooks, metal rings or buckles.
Nowadays, Rama is too frail to work, and is confined to her apartment, but she has not lost any of her frankness and spiky wit. Her conversation is punctured with rude jokes, as well as her disdain for Berlusconi – ‘the bum-faced man’. However, underneath this mask lies the feeling that she exists to endure other people’s misfortunes, just as her father did. ‘I suffer much when someone else is suffering. I’m frightened because it is not possible that everything turns out to be all right for someone.’ At the same time, she still believes she is vulnerable: ‘I am cradled in a difficult sphere. Therefore, as I’m difficult and complicated, I’m not able to be good.’
An Italian critic once described Rama’s work as being caught in the ‘cruel snare of memory’. And it is true that her life has forcefully led her art. However, it is this inability to let go of her past that has been her salvation, as well as our pleasure.