MILAN — The most startling pairing in The Great Mother, an exhibition that tracks the iconography of motherhood in art and popular culture from 1900 to 2015, is a sculptural standoff between Sarah Lucas and Thomas Schütte. Occupying more or less the exhibition’s midpoint — room 16 of the 29 devoted to this vast and rich show at the Palazzo Reale, the former seat of Milan’s municipal government — Schütte’s über-masculine bronze statue “Vater Staat” (“Father State”) (2010) looms large near the center of the room, while Lucas’s cocoon-like sculpture of fluff-filled tights, “Mumum” (2012), hangs in a corner.
At first, Schütte’s sculpture seems like an arcane, overblown, and overly serious intruder in the exhibition, and all the more so alongside Lucas’s funny, floating, and vaguely futuristic piece. But, as curator Massimiliano Gioni writes in the show’s catalogue, any consideration of motherhood in the last 115 years has to reckon with the people (invariably male) who have sought to control women and curtail mothers’ rights. “Analyzing the representation of motherhood,” Gioni writes, “means asking first and foremost who has the right to make decisions regarding bodies and desires, and who has the right to represent them.” Amid all the exhibition’s alternately mournful and empowering icons of femininity and motherhood, Schütte’s bronze behemoth is a jarring and very apt representation of patriarchy’s enduring power. (Appropriate, too, that it should stand alongside a display of Italian pamphlets from the 1930s outlining the role of women under Fascism.)
Organized by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, the exhibition is full of dramatic installations and inspired groupings. One room is given over to knitted, bronze, and urethane sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, underlining the cheeky melding of feminine and masculine imagery, phallic and vaginal forms that she mastered. In another gallery, Ida Applebroog’s “Monalisa” (2009) — a freestanding wooden cubicle whose exterior is covered in ink drawings of her vagina — sits alongside a screen showing Nathalie Djurberg’s delightfully twisted claymation video “It’s the Mother” (2008), in which a woman gives birth to children who then climb back inside her vagina, causing her to sprout a dozen extra legs and arms. She ends up looking like the Yayoi Kusama sculpture in the opposite corner, “Phallic Girl” (1967), a golden mannequin covered in lumpy protrusions. Here motherhood is monstrous, mutated, and ravenous; elsewhere it is sorrowful. One narrow, double-height room is devoted to Nari Ward’s “Amazing Grace” (1993), which consists of 280 abandoned baby strollers the artist gathered on the streets of Harlem. In an adjacent vestibule, Käthe Kollwitz’s wrenching etching “Woman with Dead Child” (1903) visualizes the loss and heartbreak implicit in Ward’s moving installation.
Focused historical hangings showcasing the women of Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism are full of treasures, and are begging to serve as the basis for a follow-up exhibition. They include Argentinian Surrealist Leonor Fini’s reversal of the reclining nude’s gender dynamics in the supremely strange painting “Stryges Amaouri” (1947) and Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s whimsical Dadaist marionettes of shiny robots (1918). One small room features pieces by Marisa Mori, Regina, and Rosa Rosà that complicate the received wisdom about the Futurists’ machismo, technophilia, and their privileging of smooth steel over soft flesh.
The Great Mother does occasionally feel like it’s been padded out with extraneous pieces. Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Venus (Red)” (2008–12), a big, gleaming, magenta balloon animal rendition of an ancient fertility figure, is more illustrative than instructive. Granted, the Koons facilitates selfies, but an actual antiquity depicting Venus would have been a much more compelling and creative choice. Another unnecessary inclusion is Marcel Duchamp’s famous “Fountain” (1917/64), which seems to be here only to set up Sherrie Levine’s punchline 13 rooms later, where her bronze rendition of the urinal, “Fountain (Madonna)” (1991), awaits. An earlier room is dominated by a large contraption based on a torture device described in Franz Kafka’s 1914 short story “In the Penal Colony”; New Yorkers may recognize it from its 2012 appearance at the New Museum, where Gioni is the artistic director and where several pieces in The Great Mother have been shown recently. The imposing piece’s tangential relationship to another Duchamp work, “The Large Glass or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915–23), does little to explain its display here, which only serves to overshadow nearby works by Hannah Höch and suffragette movement artifacts.
The Great Mother is nevertheless fantastic and pregnant with important counter-narratives, alternate histories, and inspired thematic connections. The inclusion of remnants from political movements, excerpts from the popular press, and snippets from mainstream cinema — a cross-cultural, high/low sampling approach that has become a hallmark of Gioni’s curatorial practice — provides welcome context for the contemporaneous artworks. If anything, what’s most egregiously lacking are objects and images from the current battles over women’s rights (to be mothers, to not be mothers, or to simply be) that are being fought just as fiercely today as they were 100 years ago.