Fifty years have now passed since Linda Nochlin launched a feminist art history by asking, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971). Since then, several art historians have made cases for the greatness of certain women including Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), or Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). Griselda Pollock has argued that even if gender was a crucial point of inquiry among the avant-gardes, and women were active participants within all of these movements, they are still largely absent from conventional accounts and museums. This is certainly true of Italian Futurism, which is still regarded by many outside Italy to have been a misogynist man’s movement. Among the most infamous and offensive lines of the movement’s Founding and Manifesto (1909) was the statement, “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.” Yet the indisputably misogynist rhetoric of early Futurism notwithstanding, it opposed tradition, rejected many cultural stereotypes about women, criticized the delimiting institutions of marriage, and questioned bourgeois family values, making it appeal to a group of women who saw it as potentially liberating. Its founder, F.T. Marinetti, turned out to be someone who offered women opportunities, advocated on their behalf, and patronized their work.
One of these women Futurists, Marisa Mori (1900-1985), is the subject of my first monograph, which will be the first in English to analyze her contributions, contextualizing her career against the backdrop of history and offering an in-depth analysis of her art through the lens of feminist theory. She trained in Turin with one of Italy’s most significant modernists, Felice Casorati, between 1925-1931, executing enigmatic cityscapes, seascapes, and still lifes in the manner of Magic Realism and exhibiting with the Futurists during what is sometimes referred to as ‘Second Futurism.’ She became the only female contributor to The Futurist Cookbook (1932), had a solo show at Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Roman gallery in 1934, and in the same year, accepted Marinetti’s aviation challenge to fly in an early acrobatic biplane over the Italian capital, receiving his seal of approval as a bona fide aeropittrice, or female aeropainter.
Aeropainting was a sub-genre of Futurism inspired by the revolutionary new technology of the airplane. Aviation was still a very dangerous enterprise and Mori was one of four Futurist women known to have braved these early dangers in the name of artistic inspiration. Her work was included in four Venice Biennales and in 1937, she appeared in France’s landmark exhibition of contemporary women artists, ‘Les femmes artistes d’Europe,’ at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which then traveled to the Riverside Museum in New York City. Unlike many of her peers, she severed ties to Futurism because its leadership continued to support the regime, even after the passage of the 1938 Race Laws. During the Nazi occupation she gave shelter and aid to a family of Jewish intellectuals from Turin called the Levi-Montalcinis. This included her friend and fellow painter Paola Levi-Montalcini, her twin sister Rita Levi-Montalcini (who later won a Nobel Prize for her work as a neurobiologist), and their architect brother, Gino. After the war Mori abandoned the avant-garde.
The respective leaders of Futurism and Fascism had very different views on women. The peak years of Mori’s personal and professional life unfolded during Mussolini’s twenty-year premiership. Fascist policies promoted motherhood while increasing restrictions on women’s professional opportunities. Mussolini stated unequivocally, “A woman must obey… in politics she must not count.” Launching a demographic campaign in 1927, he asserted, “war is to man what maternity is to woman.” During these restrictive decades, Mori separated from her husband and left her only son in the care of her mother to devote herself to becoming a professional artist. She exhibited her work internationally, travelling to Rome, Venice, Paris, and London, and she did loops in an acrobatic biplane. She one of the women who illustrates how, in real terms, attempts by a right-wing government to stymie women’s personal and professional aspirations did not succeed fully.
Not a party member, and apparently derogatory of Mussolini in private, the artist nevertheless created a body of Fascist-themed Futurist works for regime-sponsored exhibitions. Yet she was also the only female Futurist to explore female body politics in pictures that seem to subvert prevailing Fascist propaganda about happy families, prolific mothers, and submissive women. In Possession (1932-35) she pictured the violent embrace of a man and woman. In Futurist Maternity (1932) she created a dark and unhappy image of a mother and child chained together. In Sleeping Aviatrix (1932) a sleeping female nude is at the helm of a celestial body and her unprecedented image of childbirth in Physical Ecstasy of Maternity (1936) merges the earthly and celestial in what I take to be a dramatic and ironic ode to female (pro)creativity. Mori’s importance lies not in her position above, ahead, or beyond the culture of her time, but in the ways that she was inextricably bound to it, shaped by it, and often limited by it. As democracy and women’s rights face renewed opposition and backlash, her story holds lessons for us in our own time.
Jennifer S. Griffiths is an art historian and Italianist living in Italy whose research focuses on issues of gender and technology in art, fashion, and film. Her first book Marisa Mori and the Futurists: A Woman Artist in an Age of Fascism is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic Press.
 Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Art News (January 1971). Republished in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 145-176.
 Pollock, “Moments and Temporalities of the Avant-Garde ‘in, of and from the feminine’,” New Literary History 41, no. 4 (Autumn 2010), 795-820.
 Research in Italy has long refuted this misconception. Lea Vergine broke this ground in a 1980 exhibition called L’altra metà dell’avanguardia 1910-1940 (Milan, Rome, and Stockholm), shining a light on one hundred avant-garde women. Claudia Salaris published the first systematic study Le futuriste: donne e letteratura d’avanguardia in Italia, 1909-1944 (Rome: Edizioni delle donne, 1982). She revisited the topic in Donne d’avanguardia (Rome: il Mulino, 2021).