Public art has yet to start a world war, but with the tempers it ignites, the possibility is real. At the moment, the Italians are fighting over a new piece of sculpture, with female politicians especially outraged by what ArtNet calls “a female figure with a rather prodigious and gratuitously defined rear end.”
At first glance, I find the reaction more insulting than the figure.
Who is to say that a plump bottom is “prodigious,” a word that makes the flesh itself sound wanton, intemperate, excessive? And since when is a sculpture of the human form “gratuitous”? We all have a bottom, and while it is usually encased, yoga pants are just as explicit as this statue.
Emanuele Stifano sculpted the figure to represent the Gleaner of Sapri, a young woman, gathering wheat, who watches with heartbroken innocence as soldiers her own age sail off to fight for their country and, in all likelihood, die. Many Italian women labored on farms, but this particular figure is an invention of the poet Luigi Mercantini, who placed her at the center of his poem “La Spigolatrice di Sapri” so we could witness war’s tragic heroism through her eyes.
Stifano says he wanted La Spigolatrice “to represent an ideal of a woman, evoke her pride, the awakening of a conscience, all in a moment of great pathos.” He cheerfully admits that he would have preferred to sculpt her nude but was not allowed. Knowing that his sculpture would stand on the coastline, he took advantage of the sea breeze. Windblown, her skirt molds itself to her body, and it must have been drenched in sea spray as well, to cling as it does.
I am trying hard to be indignant, but I just cannot get there. We are sexual beings, all of us, and I would far rather be sculpted in a windblown gown than a business suit. Are we afraid that the sight of a bottom instantly throws any straight man into a state of lust? Modern society can resemble a junior-high classroom, everybody tittering at a wrong word or a glimpse of what is usually concealed. Stifano has sculpted men, children, and the elderly without clothing and without criticism. Why should a young woman’s body be different?
Oh, but it is, and now that difference pulls me up short. Young women’s bodies have been used, punished, pressed into fantasy’s service, seized as property, legislated, leered at, and all-round objectified for centuries. Is Stifano one more offender, using his tricks to focus our eye on the curve of his subject’s backside instead of her face? He places her hand just above her breast, too, and it is that gesture, not her form, that troubles me. Too delicate to suggest shock, it is not the flat hand so many of us press to the base of our throat at moments of distress; instead, it is curved above the breast, and the gesture looks neither natural nor practical.
In my mind, it is gesture, posture, the way we move our bodies that sexualizes them—though I realize static images can fuel fantasy. In any event, a long and painful history has left women strained and defensive, and Stifano’s artistic choices feel a little…unenlightened. Tone-deaf? Trapped in an old aesthetic.
But back to the bottom, which is everyone else’s focal point. If the drape of fabric against a curve is sexualization because it is pleasing, and therefore the entire statue must be removed, how is that different from the Taliban insisting that women must cover themselves in public?
The perception problem might boil down to the frank pleasure in Stifano’s gaze. His subject works in the fields and no doubt has strong glutes, though he does not seize on that as an excuse for his emphasis. “I always tend to cover the human body as little as possible,” he says, explaining that he finds the physical form beautiful. Is that objectification? I hear the same frank pleasure in the poem itself, when the young woman sees a young, uniformed man “with blue eyes and golden hair” and asks, “Where are you going, handsome Captain?” His beauty helps us feel the tragedy of his imminent death.
(That pairing is also problematic: We pay more attention when youth and beauty (as measured by dominant cultural norms) are victimized. Hence the recent incessant coverage of the murder of a lovely young blond White woman and the relative disinterest in many other disappearances and murders.)
In the statement Italian politicians gave to The Independent, they pointed out that La Spigolatrice stands before us only as a female body, “without any connection with the social and political issues of the story.” She does, indeed, feel far removed from the horror of battle. The poet invented her as a device, so we could see bravery and loss through her eyes. As the poem unfolds, the narrative drives home that point. But for any viewer unfamiliar with the poem, a sculpture of a lovely young woman conveys little of its import. We are witnessing only the witness.
Curious how often someone has tried to sculpt a fictional character, I find that a list that is mainly pop, including Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Rocky, Rip Van Winkle, Eleanor Rigby, Paddington Bear (overcoated, not nude), and Popeye. Already caricatures, they are easy to monumentalize, graspable in a single glance. Poetry is the most visual and immediate of the literary forms, but it still unfolds over time, while sculpture, though it can be gazed upon for hours, does not give us a beginning, middle, and end.
“Poetry handles a lot of complex events or ideas,” points out a friend of mine, Tonya Crawford, who is an adroit cultural critic. “Trying to reduce that to a single figure feels like doing it a disservice.” Looking at La Spigolatrice gives you “only a snippet. A trailer. And if you’re not familiar with the whole thing, it doesn’t exactly tell you about that thing.”
Agreed, yet I would far rather see The Pietà than read a short story about it. What words could convey Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa or Rodin’s Lovers or Henry Moore’s generous female forms? When one art form takes up the other’s subject, the limits and strengths of each become more obvious.
Besides, monuments are always tricky. Stark and simple, the Vietnam Memorial cuts those lost lives into your heart. But as Tonya reminds me, we learn more from the Korean War monument, because in the detailed, realistic setting and the interaction of multiple figures, we glimpse “what the act of fighting might have felt like. It is still just a sliver of history, but it at least gives a little more substance. The figures show wariness, tension, weariness. They are wearing ponchos against inclement weather. They look like soldiers on the move. The day-to-day life of a Korean War soldier. Nothing special, nothing spectacular.”
Sculptures of famous historic figures, on the other hand, are often shallow, stripped of emotional impact because they are done only to praise and they praise only those already deemed praiseworthy. Here in the United States, of the fifty historical figures most frequently honored with a monument, only three are women: Joan of Arc, Sacagawea, and Harriet Tubman. Of the men, more are Confederate than abolitionist. Tonya is happy to see slaveholders carted away to a museum and contextualized; there is too little we can learn about their sins from their glorified presence astride a horse or in repose.
The one hundred and eighty figures in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, on the other hand, can be studied like a manuscript.
“I would love to see a sculpture of Othello, capturing jealousy’s torment,” I remark.
“But which moment do you pick?” asks Tonya. “Do you pick the moment Othello realizes he has been deceived? The moment before he murders Desdemona?”
You could show Othello’s face twisted in rage to conjure his jealousy, or you could show Othello bent in utter remorse, but you could never show both at once. Only a narrative can convey that much information. When a single moment is cast in three dimensions and set before us, we have to write our own story about it.
And we all have a different story.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.