Greek mythology recounts how Medusa earned her distinctive appearance: after she was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, the goddess of war punished her with a head of snakes and the curse of petrifying any man who held her gaze. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Medusa was then hunted and beheaded by the epic hero Perseus, who brandished her bust as a trophy on his shield. While predating modernity by thousands of years, the story of a woman who was blamed, chastised, and shamed for her assault is unfortunately timeless.
A new public sculpture in New York City seeks to reimagine the myth amid the #MeToo era by shifting the power to women. In “Medusa With The Head of Perseus,” a seven-foot-tall nude bronze by artist Luciano Garbati, the serpent-coiffed protagonists stands tall and proud — holding the head of Perseus in her right hand.
The sculpture was installed today directly across from the New York County Criminal Court, where several high profile abuse cases have been tried, including that of former film producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein.
Garbati, who is Argentinian-Italian and based in Buenos Aires, had actually created the statue in his studio in 2008. According to a statement, he conceived of the sculpture as “speaking directly to” Benvenuto Cellini’s “Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” a 16th-century bronze considered one of the Florentine artist’s masterpieces. In 2018, Garbati posted a photo of the work on social media that quickly went viral.
Bek Andersen, a photographer based in New York City, came across the image on the day that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court after being accused of sexual assault. She was inspired to contact Garbati and bring the sculpture to New York, where it was exhibited at 263 Bowery that December.
Garbati and Andersen then worked together on a proposal to NYC Parks’s “Art in the Parks” program, which has displayed more than 2,000 works of outdoor public art across New York City since 1967. The work was approved and cast in bronze by Vanessa Solomon of Carbon Sculpt Studios in Red Hook and Laran Bronze Foundry in Philadelphia.
Andersen also founded the art collective MWTH (“Medusa With The Head,” pronounced “myth”) with the aim of rethinking classical narratives and their roles in present culture via sculptural works. Ten percent of sales from the editioned sculptures on the project’s website are donated to the National Women’s Law Center.
While images of the sculpture have been widely shared on social media, it has hardly been met with unanimous praise. Some have taken issue with the fact that a male artist was entrusted with the project and criticize the work as a co-optation of the #MeToo movement. Others have suggested that Medusa should be holding the head of her rapist (Poseidon), not the man who later slays her.
Many have also commented on the apparent lack of detail in Garbati’s modeling of Medusa’s genitalia as well as the absence of pubic hair, a feature sometimes associated with male-centric fantasies. (In a more comedic vein, the sculpture has sparked a lively discussion on Twitter about whether Medusa’s pubic hair would have, uh, matched the drapes.)
A close look at Garbati’s bust of Perseus reveals another odd detail: the beheaded hero bears an uncanny similarity to the artist himself. Indeed, a spokesperson for the project said Garbati was working alone in his studio and used his own head as a reference; Medusa’s likeness, however, was not modeled after a specific person, she added.
Garbati may have looked to Cellini, a master of the High Renaissance, for inspiration, but it’s worth noting that the contemporary artist’s Medusa differs vastly from representations of women in Cellini’s time. Her physique, slender with well-defined muscles and breasts may be more reminiscent of present-day idealizations of the female body.
“This is a hairless woman, thin with euro-centric features, made by a man,” said one Twitter user. “Do you know medusa’s story? This is just men continuing to use her for her body.”
If this is supposed to be so empowering for women, why is Medusa so skinny and pube-less? This seems more like some man’s fantasy than a statement a commentary on sexual assault.
— Laika the Space Dog (@MicaelaMendlow) October 11, 2020
“Medusa With The Head of Perseus” will be on view from October 13, 2020 through April 30, 2021 at Collect Pond Park, located on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan.