Fifty years later, the message of the new model, unveiled Sunday for the 2019 Milan Furniture Fair, which takes place this week, isn’t sitting so well. One reason is that the symbolism of the beige sculpture is so unsubtle: the woman’s limbs are the chair’s armrests, while her breasts form the back support. It is scheduled to sit in front of Milan’s cathedral through the week-long festival.
Rather than challenging sexist tropes, critics claim, it stands as a monument to patriarchy and violence, representing women as helpless victims.
At the unveiling ceremony in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, an Italian feminist group, Non Una Di Meno, led a demonstration in front of the work, carrying signs that read, “Ceci n’est pas une femme,” or “This is not a woman.” The slogan refers to the guileful text, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” below a pipe in the famous surrealist painting, “The Treachery of Images,” by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte.
“The woman for the umpteenth time is represented as a helpless body and victim, without ever calling into question the agent of violence,” the activist group wrote on Facebook.
The protest against the sculpture escalated on Monday, when the artist Cristina Donati Meyer splattered it with red paint to evoke menstruation, arguing that her addition was an attempt to “challenge and beautify” the piece. As it stood, she said, the statue was an “affront to all women” by depicting them as furniture, while removing their male oppressors from view.
“The murderous man who kills and rapes is absent, innocent!” she observed.
Italy has been slow to transform legal codes that placed women in positions of subordination. It wasn’t until 1981 that it repealed a statute making it possible for men to elude charges of sex crimes by marrying their victims.
In a post on Tumblr, Cristina Tajani, Milan’s assessor for fashion and design, said she hoped that the debate over the statue would help shift attitudes in Italy. She acknowledged the criticism, noting two objections in particular — that the male perpetrator was absent and that the female victim lacked a head.
If the piece spurs discussion about the aims of art and representation, she said, the design week “will not be passed in vain.”