Milan show depicts drama of modern motherhood

A 1896 film of a woman plucking babies from a cabbage patch marks a whimsical start to a Milan exhibition that examines artistic representations of motherhood, but the mood turns more sinister as the show moves into the 20th century.

“The Great Mother” recounts a turbulent period in the history of women through more than 400 paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures, short films, and artefacts, including a flyer advertising the first abortion clinic.

Also featured are a model of a full-body torture machine based on a description written by Franz Kafka in 1914, and Jeff Koons’s voluptuous red sculpture “Balloon Venus”.

In “Amazing Grace” by Jamaican artist Nari Ward, 280 empty prams found on the street are arranged around a pathway of flattened fire hoses in a gloomy room, accompanied by a gospel rendition of the eponymous hymn.

Curator Massimiliano Gioni, whose partner gave birth on Saturday, joked at a news conference that the show might have been “sweeter” if his son had arrived before the project was finished.

The exhibition, which opened on Wednesday at Milan’s Palazzo Reale, traces a period in which “darker and more irrational and instinctive facets” began to emerge, the venue’s director Domenico Piraina said.

A photograph of Sigmund Freud with his mother Amalia points to the role the father of psychoanalysis plays, with several of the artists presented offering critical interpretations of his theories about the human psyche.

A 1974 photograph of U.S. artist Lynda Benglis posing naked with a model of a phallus is described in the catalogue as a “candid taunt to Freudian theory” that “assigns women a fixed psychological identity based on anatomical distinction”.

The fight for women’s suffrage is commemorated with a brooch calling for “Votes for Our Mothers” and a newspaper photograph of a suffragette prisoner on hunger strike being force-fed.

“This exhibition is about the regenerative power of the mother, but also about the power denied women,” said Beatrice Trussardi, president of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, a non-profit cultural organization that co-produced the show.

The exhibition runs to Nov. 15 and is one of thousands of events coinciding with the 2015 Expo World Fair.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Michael Roddy and John Stonestreet)

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