The Passion According to Carol Rama

CAROL RAMA can’t help seeing red. Red are the tongues and the nails and the tips of men’s dicks in her dirty watercolors, painted in her native Turin from 1936, when she was a teenage autodidact, until 2006, when she became too senile to work. Red is her favorite color, she once told an interviewer, “because of something I have always wanted to have been: a bullfighter. To be male. Beautiful.” In the same interview, she compared herself to a mad cow instead (Madame Bovine, c’est moi).

This comprehensive new monograph ends with those ideas and begins with a bad interpretation thereof. Paul B. Preciado contends that the body in Rama’s work is both animalistic and “transgender,” but also, nonsensically, that it’s “neither feminine nor masculine, dressed in a skirt and high-heeled shoes.” Later, Jack Halberstam announces that “despite her professed love of the penis . . . Rama’s work is clearly about fallibility [and] impotence.” Both theorists see the dicks as prosthetics, cheat codes, hacks. Yet Rama, an ecstatic materialist, isn’t interested in shortcuts. There’s no proof she ever actually wanted to be male—only that she wanted to be a bullfighter, and bullfighters were men. (Feminine men: You can see their bodycon-sleek masochism in her drawings with coiling, entrail-like phalluses, which suggest a wish to be gored rather than to screw.)

Carol Rama, Nonna Carolina, 1936, watercolor on paper, 9 1/2 × 13 3/4". © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin

To me, Rama’s closest living analogue is Marilyn Minter, the American artist of high-femme grotesque, with whom she shares abject motifs, a taste for sick fairy tales, and a sense of the feminine as material to use up and trash rather than hoard or discount. Preciado asks us to “defeminise, defolkloricise, defetishise, depathologise” Rama. But Rama loves fetishes (“I love fetishes,” she said in 1992), and she pathologizes herself as a matter of course (“there is a line of madness in my family, of which my mother was cured and I never was,” she said in 1996). She believes beauty “is something that makes women suffer.” In Rama’s world, one cause of women’s suffering is that men are beautiful, and to demystify the artist would be to leach the color from her view.