Maria Lai, Senza titolo [Untitled], 1991, thread and cloth, 18 x 16 cm, private collection, Courtesy Archivio Maria Lai, © Photo: Giorgio Dettori, © Archivio Maria Lai by SIAE 2019
In Rome, the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI) is currently holding a major retrospective of the works of Italian artist Maria Lai (1919-2013) on the occasion of the centenary of her birth.
Maria Lai, La mappa di Colombo [Colombo’s map], 1983, thread and cloth, 122 x 170 cm, Collection Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte, Courtesy Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte, © Photo: Tiziano Canu, © Archivio Maria Lai by SIAE 2019
M. Lai was born in a small village of inland Sardinia. She developed an artistic approach informed by a thorough exploration of the traditions, legends and folklore of her native region. While this relationship to the land remained at the heart of her research, she seemed to move through the artistic trends of her times with no specific sense of belonging, tracing her own path on the margins of the dominant movements, informal art and geometric abstraction. Arturo Martini (1889-1947), her teacher at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, encouraged her to elaborate a formal vocabulary based on the world of myths and archetypes. Her friendship with the Sardinian writer Salvatore Cambosu was also highly influential, in that it impregnated her work with the poetic and narrative elements that made her such an atypical figure in the Italian art world.
Maria Lai, Tenendo per mano il sole [Holding the sun by the hand], 1984-2004, thread, cloth, velvet, 33 x 63 cm, Courtesy Archivio Maria Lai, © Photo: Francesco Casu, © Archivio Maria Lai by SIAE 2019
The exhibition Tenendo per mano il sole [Holding the sun by the hand] borrows its title from M. Lai’s first “sewn fable” (1984), therefore paying tribute to the central role of narrative elements in her work. The layout of the exhibition is structured like a story and focuses on the various stages of her second period of activity; that is, the works she began creating in the 1960s, which would only be presented to the public as from 1971. In the ten intervening years between the beginning of her career and the period during which she produced the body of work shown in the exhibition, M. Lai withdrew from the art world, suffered a personal crisis and strengthened her bonds with literary circles. Her friendship with the writer Giuseppe Dessì prompted her to rediscover Sardinian traditions, particularly the culture of women’s weaving, which she drew from to transform the act of sewing into an artistic, non-functional gesture. The pieces presented at MAXXI are divided into five thematic sections, run through by the leitmotiv of the thread – both as a material and as a metaphorical object that conveys the notions of relationship, bond and proximity. As suggested by the first chapter, Essere è tessere [To be is to weave], the need to establish connections between objects and individuals is inherent to all of the artist’s works.
Maria Lai, Telaio del meriggio [Midday frame], 1967, wood, twine, canvas, paint, 100 x 153 x 20 cm, Collection Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte, Courtesy Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte, © Photo: Tiziano Canu, © Archivio Maria Lai by SIAE 2019
Maria Lai working at La scarpata [The escarpment], UIassai, 1993, © Photo: Maria Sofia Pisu
From the first Telai [Looms] to the Tele cucite [Sewn canvases] and from the Fiabe cucite [Sewn fables] to the Geografie [Geographies], to the last section, devoted to her performative pieces from the 1980s, visitors find themselves immersed in a world in which playfulness and imagination play a central part in the artist’s weaving process. For M. Lai, these two activities, far from being the exclusive domain of childhood, were fundamental elements in the elaboration of social ties and of a political vision of the world. To her, art was a catalyst for encounters, as shown in her work Legarsi alla montagna [Connecting with the mountain] – one of the first examples of relational art in Italy – in which the artist involved the villagers of Ulassai in the crafting of a long ribbon designed to link all the houses in the village to the mountain nearby, as a tribute to local folklore.
This exhibition marks a new step in the acknowledgement of M. Lai’s work – a process initiated in 2017 at documenta 14 Kassel and the Venice Biennale – with a selection of over two hundred pieces, most of which had never been shown publicly to this day.
Maria Lai. Tenendo per mano il sole, 19 June 2019 – 12 January 2020, Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI) (Rome, Italy).