The Great Mother

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It’s the Mother, 2008 Clay Animation, Video 6 Min. © Courtesy of the Artist and Fondazione Nicola Trussardi
The Great Mother
Curated by: Massimiliano'Gioni

Piazza del Duomo, 12
20100 Milan
August 26th, 2015 - November 15th, 2015

etching, collage, painting, surrealism, video-art, sculpture, photography, mixed-media, installation, conceptual


Comune di Milano | Cultura and the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi  



The Great Mother

curated by Massimiliano Gioni


An exhibition promoted by the Cultural Office of the City of Milan 

Conceived and produced by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi 

in partnership with Palazzo Reale 

for Expo in Città 2015


Comune  di  Milano  |  Cultura  and  the  Fondazione  Nicola  Trussardi  present  The Great Mother, an exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni, promoted by the Cultural Office of the City of Milan, conceived and produced by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in partnership with Palazzo Reale for Expo in Città 2015, and supported by BNL – BNP Paribas Group as main sponsor.

The  exhibition,  which  will  be  open  to  the  public  from August  26  to  November  15, 2015,  is  a  collaboration  between  the  public  and  private  sectors  to  bring contemporary  art  into  Palazzo  Reale,  the  city s  most  prestigious  exhibition  venue,  as the  pivotal  event  on  the  Expo  in  Città  calendar  for  the  second  half  of  Expo  2015  in Milan.

The programming for Expo in Città will feature a prestigious exhibition – housed in one of  Italy s  most  popular  exhibition  venues,  Palazzo  Reale  –  which  offers  a  sweeping panorama  of  the  history  and  languages  of  art, says  Filippo  Del  Corno,  the  city's Councilor  for  Culture. “Not only will this project offer the public the chance to take an extraordinary journey through Italian and international art history and culture, it will be a  special  opportunity  to  explore  the  figure  of  the  mother,  the  quintessential  symbol  of nourishment, which is the key theme of Expo 2015. This achievement is made possible by the  Fondazione  Nicola  Trussardi  as  part  of  a  broader  dialogue  between  the  public  and private sector, which are joining forces to help spread art and culture.


“The Great Mother examines motherhood and the condition of women through a century of  artworks  that  raise  issues  which  are  not  only  still  topical  but  often  still  unresolved,” explained Fondazione Nicola Trussardi President Beatrice Trussardi. “This allows us to deal with questions related to the overall theme of the Expo from a perspective that underscores  the  central  role  of  women  in  society,  a  role  that  all  too  often  goes unrecognized.  Despite  the  enormous  strides  that  have  been  made  over  the  last  few decades and the social and political work that has helped defend and spread awareness of women's rights even in poorer countries, there are many dangers that threaten to check or  block  this  path  of  liberation.  That s  why  The  Great  Mother  can  and  should  be  an important  opportunity  to  reflect  on  the  values  that  women  bring  into  every  sector  of society, helping to make the Expo a showcase of concrete strategies and visions for the future of our planet.

With work by 127 international artists and an exhibition layout that will cover some 2000  square  meters  (20,000  square  feet)  on  the  piano  nobile  of  Palazzo  RealeThe Great Mother will analyze the iconography of motherhood in the art and visual culture  of  the  twentiethT  and  twenty-first  centuries,  from  early  avant-garde movements to the present.

From the Venuses of the Stone Age to the bad girls of the postfeminist era, and through centuries of religious works depicting innumerable maternity scenes, the histories of art and culture has often centered on the figure of the mother, often adopted as a symbol  of  creativity  and  metaphor  for  art  itself.  In  the  more  familiar  version  of “Mamma”, it is also a stereotype closely tied to the image of Italy.  

The Great Mother will be an exhibition about women's power: not just the life-giving creative  power  of  mothers,  but  above  all,  the  power  denied  to  women  and  the power won by women over the course of the twentieth century. In undertaking an analysis  of  the  representation  of  motherhood,  the  exhibition  The  Great  Mother  will trace a history of women s empowerment, chronicling gender struggles, sexual politics, and clashes between tradition and emancipation. 

Conceived  as  a  temporary  museum  that  blends  art  history  with  visual  culture,  the exhibition  will  reconstruct  a  story  that  spans  the  twentieth  century,  exploring female  icons  and  clichés  of  femininity,  and  developing  a  complex  reflection  on woman as an active participant in representation, no longer just a passive subject of it.

The show will open with a presentation of the archive of Olga  Fröbe-Kapteyn, who throughout her life, starting in the Thirties, gathered thousands of images of female idols,  mothers,  matrons,  Venuses  and  prehistoric  deities into a vast iconographic collection  that  was  used  by  Carl  Gustav  Jung,  Erich  Neumann  and  many  other psychologists and anthropologists researching the archetype of the great mother and the matriarchal cultures of prehistory.

A few decades earlier, the writings of Sigmund Freud and his observations about the Oedipus  complex  had  transformed  family  ties  and  the  mother-child  relationship into a drama  of  sexual  desire  and  repressed  tension that would leave its mark on the  entire  twentieth  century.  These  themes  recur,  transfigured,  in  the  drawings  and etchings of Alfred Kubin and Edvard Munch from the same period. The first rooms in the  exhibition  will  alternate  these  delirious  visions  with  the  didactic  image  of motherhood  popularized  in  the  late  nineteenth  century  by  the  photographs  of Gertrude Käsebier and the motion pictures of the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blaché.

A  major  section  of  the  exhibition  will  focus  on  women  in  the  early  avant-garde movements,  specifically,  in Futurism,  Dada,  and  Surrealism.  Showing  the  work  of women  artists  alongside  the  male  artists  who  have  dominated  the  histories  of  these movements,  the  exhibition  will  highlight  both  contradictory  and  complementary  attitudes that defined modernity while analyzing the radical transformations of gender roles  that  accompanied  the  profound  economic  and  societal  changes  of  the  early twentieth century. A study of the position of women within Futurism – with works by Benedetta, Umberto  Boccioni, Giannina  Censi, Valentine  De  Saint-Point, Mina Loy, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Marisa Mori, Regina, Rosa Rosà and others – will reveal  the  clash  between  impulses  for  reform  and  forces  of  repression  in  Italy  at  the time.

The  rooms  dedicated  to  Dada  will  concentrate  on  the  birth  of  the  myth  of  the automated, mechanical  woman – "the daughter born without a mother”, as Francis Picabia would call her – and her place within the rapidly changing social landscape of the  1910s  and  1920s,  in  both  Europe  and  America.  From  the bachelor  machines  of Marcel  Duchamp,  Picabia,  and  Man  Ray,  to  the  puppets  and  dolls  of  Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Emmy Hennings and Hannah Höch, to the irreverent performances of Baroness  Elsa  von  Freytag-Loringhoven,  the  show  will  describe  the  dangerous liaisons woven between biology, mechanics and desire in the early twentieth century. 

Surrealism's  fascination  with  women  will  be  analyzed  through  an  extraordinary presentation of fifty original collages from Max Ernst s The Hundred Headless Woman, shown alongside the works and documents of André Breton, Hans Bellmer, Salvador Dalí,  and  others.  Exploring  the  aesthetic  and  ethical  implications  of  the  Surrealist obsession with femininity, the exhibition will foreground the works of women artists who  both  embraced  and  rejected  the  rhetoric  of  the  movement,  in  which  they found  tools  for  liberation  but  also  oppressive  sexual  stereotypes.  This  section  will include masterpieces and famous works by Leonora  Carrington, Frida  Kahlo, Dora Maar,  Lee  Miller,  Meret  Oppenheim,  Dorothea  Tanning,  Remedios  Varo,  Unica Zürn, and other artists of the time whose fame was long overshadowed by their male colleagues.

These works will be intertwined with a selection of scenes of motherhood from silent films  and  documents  about  Fascist  birthRrate  policies,  alongside  images  of  sorrowing mothers  and  proud  heroines  in  Neorealist  cinema.  In  this  choral  family  album,  the image  of  the  mother  often  overlaps  with  the  idea  of  nation,  creating  troubling associations between body and state.

The conceptual epicenter of the second part of the exhibition will be a selection of works  by  Louise  Bourgeois,  who  assimilated  and  transformed  the  influence  of Surrealism,  melding  it  with  references  to  archaic  cultures,  to  create  a  personal mythology of extraordinary symbolic power.

Many women artists who emerged in the Sixties and Seventies – including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Ida  Applebroog, Lynda  Benglis, Judy  Chicago, Eva  Hesse, Dorothy Iannone,  Yayoi  Kusama,  Anna  Maria  Maiolino,  Ana  Mendieta,  Marisa  MerzAnnette Messager and others – created a new vocabulary of forms, full of biological references, through which these artists declared the centrality of the female body, often associating it with the powers of nature and the earth.

In  more  or  less  the  same  period  –  parallel  to  the  feminist  movements  that  will  be presented in the exhibition through a range of documents – very different artists such as Carla Accardi, Joan Jonas, Mary Kelly, Yoko Ono, Martha Rosler, VALIE EXPORT and  others  portrayed  the domestic  sphere  as  a  place  of  tension  and  oppression, calling into question the division of labor and gender roles in the home and family. 

Hierarchies  and  power  dynamics  are  also  challenged  in  the  works  of  Sherrie Levine, Lee Lozano, and Elaine Sturtevant who – in different ways – fight against the traditional  modes  of  production  and  reproduction.  Using  copies  and  replicas  or completely  refusing  to  create  anything  new,  these  artists  imagine  new  models  of property and new forms of ownership that sidestep patriarchal authority. 

By juxtaposing found images and collage, Barbara Kruger, Ketty La Rocca, Suzanne Santoro, and others began waging a semiotic guerrilla war that criticized the slogans and messages of the media, deconstructing the image of woman and mother created by mass communication.

The  works  of  artists  as  different  as  Katharina  Fritsch,  Cindy  Sherman,  and Rosemarie Trockel – active since the Eighties – reclaim art history, blending genres and  iconographic  references  to  the  theme  of  maternity  and  religious  painting  and sculpture.

The  Nineties  saw  the  rise  of  various  artists  whose  work  is  characterized  by  an aggressive  simplicity.  In  a  nowRlegendary  series,  Rineke  Dijkstra  portrays  mothers and  their  children  a  few  hours  after  birth.  Sarah  Lucas  composes  sculptures  and assemblages  out  of  androgynous  forms;  Catherine  Opie  documents  the  lives  and desires  of  gay  and  S/M  communities  in  Los  Angeles;  and  painters  as  different  as Marlene  Dumas  and  Nicole  Eisenman  portray  motherhood  as  a  joy  and  burden, liberation and imprisonment.

Pipilotti  Rist mixes Baroque painting with music video esthetics in a new work that will  transform  the  ceiling  of  a  room  in  Palazzo  Reale  into  an  electronic  fresco,  while Rachel Harrison records the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in an American suburb.

The works of Nathalie  Djurberg, Robert  Gober, Keith  Edmier, Kiki  Smith, Gillian Wearing  and  others  outline  a  post-human  perspective  in  which  technology  and biology open up new horizons for overcoming old gender roles. 

The  exhibition  will  be  rounded  out  by  other  important  contributions,  including installations  by  Jeff  Koons,  Thomas  Schütte,  Nari  Ward  and  significant  works  by Thomas  Bayrle,  Constantin  Brancusi,  Maurizio  Cattelan,  Lucio  Fontana,  Kara Walker, to cite just a few.  

In her famous video Grosse Fatigue, which won a Silver Lion at the last Venice Biennale, Camille Henrot will analyze creation myths and the genesis of the universe, narrating the birth of Mother Earth.

An extraordinary series of photographs by Lennart Nilsson – the first photographer to capture the image of a living fetus with an endoscope – will offer a hyperrealistic vision of maternity, transforming it into a spectacle bordering on science fiction.

The most recent works also include the first presentation in Italy of the famous Brown Sisters series by Nicholas Nixon, who has taken a group portrait of the siblings every year for the last forty years.

Together, these works and many others on view will delineate an image of the mother as a projection of individual and collective desires, anxieties and aspirations, both male  and  female.  Perhaps  a  less  reassuring  vision  than  the  one  we  are  used  to  from advertising and other rhetoric, but unquestionably more complex and powerful.

The  exhibition  The  Great  Mother  will  be  accompanied  by  a  catalogue  edited  by Massimiliano Gioni, to be published in two languages, Italian and English. The volume will bring together three hundred color images, illustrating monographic texts and in-depth information on all the artists in the exhibition and a collection  of  new  essays and  criticism,  written  specifically  for  the  occasion  by  Marco  Belpoliti,  Barbara Casavecchia,  Whitney  Chadwick,  Massimiliano  Gioni,  Ruth  Hemus,  Raffaella Perna, Lucia Re, Pietro Rigolo, Adrien Sina, Guido Tintori, Calvin Tomkins, and Lea Vergine

The graphic design for the exhibition and publishing products is by GOTO Design, New York.


The Great Mother is produced with support from BNL – BNP Paribas Group, the main sponsor of the exhibition.

Special  thanks  to  SKY  ARTE  HD,  which  as  media  partner  will  create  an  original production about the exhibition.


Milan, March 30, 2015