A sculpture has risen in central Milan — an armchair stylized as a female torso, pocked with arrows and under attack by wild animals. It sits inert, chained to a spherical ottoman.
Maestà Sofferente, or “Suffering Majesty,” is the work of Gaetano Pesce, an Italian architect and pioneer of 20th century design. Extending more than 25 feet into the air, it is an homage to his late-1960s “Up” armchair, shaped like a buxom woman. “It’s an image of a prisoner,” the artist said of the original work. “Women suffer because of the prejudice of men.”
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 protesters also highlighted the statistic that at least one woman is murdered in Italy every three days. They argued that the cruel spectacle was “further violence on women."
“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.
The uproar reflects broader concern about enduring patriarchy in Italian society, which has been rocked in recent years by a series of scandals involving sexual assault and the impunity of its perpetrators. Last month, Italy’s Justice Ministry ordered an inquiry into the decision by an appeals court to clear two men of rape because the woman they had allegedly attacked was too masculine to be a credible victim.
The former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has successfully climbed back into the good graces of many — and is running for a seat in the European Parliament — even as he faces charges of bribing a witness related to accusations, of which he has been acquitted, that he paid for sex with a minor.
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.”
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