“Language is not only bureaucracy and power,” Mirella Bentivoglio wrote. “It belongs to history, where woman had a large part. It is the woman who gives language to the human being in his first years of existence.”
Bentivoglio, a European poet, sculptor and curator in the 1960s, was not only a major participant in the Concrete Poetry movement in Italy, but also a prominent advocate for the feminist movement in art as well.
The Pomona College Museum of Art hosted the retrospective exhibition “Pages: Mirella Bentivoglio, Selected Works 1966-2012” Feb. 25 to showcase her work while getting a closer look at her artistry, use of language and motivation.
The showcase features over 60 works, including prints, sculptures, videos and photographs, marking Bentivoglio’s relationship with the visualization of writing and language.
Frances K. Pohl, professor of humanities and art history of Pomona College, curated the exhibit, which will be on display through May 17. John David O’Brien, a close friend of Bentivoglio and an Italian artist in his own right, gave a lecture on Bentivoglio’s work and the meaning behind it on Feb. 25.
“Mirella’s playfulness in her artistry—and I mean a directed and focused playfulness—complemented her poetic sensibility in a way that made the language and her art come alive,” O’Brien said.
Such playfulness is exemplified through the way Bentivoglio employed the vowels “e” and “o,” which mean “and” and “or” in Italian, respectively.
In public parks and buildings, her giant structure of letters took on all sorts of forms. Some letters were stuck together, leaning downward, some fighting one another, some interconnected. By deconstructing these letters, she changed their meanings and transformed simple ideas into vessels through which to analyze the dynamics of language and human relationships.
As Bentivoglio spoke German, English and Italian, she was well aware of the subtleties between the languages. She understood the importance of shifting the position of verbs and adjectives, as well as how pronunciation easily distorts meaning.
Aside from her work, Bentivoglio was renowned for her ability to promote women artists as curators, according to Pohl.
“She was adept in promoting the work of women artists in a conflicted relationship with what we call feminism,” Pohl said. “This is something I’ve seen with women of this generation in the U.S. who came of age as artists in the ’50s in a very male-dominated art world.”
These women artists received little to no recognition for their work until the feminist movement in the 1960s through the 1980s. Bentivoglio straddled the line between wanting to support the movement and showcasing pieces not necessarily by women artists.
She reconciled the difference by placing her focus on those artists whose work she believed deserved to be shown.
As a result, Bentivoglio was able to place more widely-acclaimed artists with those who were newer and otherwise would not be able to have placed in exhibitions. Rather than placing a special emphasis on allowing lesser-known women artists to be shown, she chose particular artworks based on the quality of the art without any special reference to gender.
Thomas Schalke CM ’18 was in attendance of O’Brien’s lecture, and noted the importance of having contemporary examples of feminism in the art world.
“It seems that a lot of the times the term ‘feminism’ is connoted with being focused solely on women, or rejecting men, instead of equalizing the playing field,” he said. “It’s neat that Bentivoglio was able to help women achieve recognition for their art in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they were recognized because of being a woman and, instead, [because of] their artistic abilities.”
O’Brien’s lecture and the following exhibition focused on not only Bentivoglio’s work, but also on the discussion it creates. Bentivoglio’s playful and insightful construction of images sparked conversation about topics like Western obsession with materialism, pollution, power of compassion and the oppression of women.
“Lectures like John David O’Brien’s help make students more aware of the presence of the arts at the campuses of the Claremont Colleges,” Pohl said. “They also draw attention to the Department of Art History as a place where exciting discussions about art of both the present and the past take place—and discussions that connect artists and their work to the events and ideas that both influence and inspire them.”