The United Nations’ cultural agency is under fire for covering the genitalia on a series of nude sculptures with underwear, according to CNN.
The work of French sculptor Stéphane Simon, 45, the sculptures were on display at the European Heritage Days event held in in Paris by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in September.
CNN reports that the classical-style figures were part of a series called “In Memory of Me,” in which they were depicted in poses meant as a commentary on the now-worldwide social phenomenon of taking selfies.
UNESCO officials made the decision to cover the genitalia with the addition of underwear during the event.
The two statues in question were covered with a thong and a baby’s diaper.
Simon told CNN the decison “humiliated him” and was “disgusting.”
“I felt ashamed,” said Simon, 45, “so deeply sad to see all these years of work and research broken.”
“For two days visitors came to meet, to ask me: ‘But why did you do that?’ But it was not my choice,” the artist added, saying that he should instead have spent those two days “explaining the fascinating link” between the practice of selfie-taking and Ancient Greek history.
To make matters worse, Simon says he had raised the issue of nudity with UNESCO during meetings to plan for the event, but that they had not asked him to cover up the works until a few days before it took place on September 21 and 22.
In an interview with the French news site CheckNews, he said, “The question of the nudity of the statues was raised… I understand that can be disturbing. So, I proposed to stay, during Heritage Days, nearby with a cloth and, if necessary, depending on the visitors, to hide the sex of the statues.”
In a report by UK’s Daily Mail, law professor Jacques Bouineau compared the situation to the case of Daniele da Volterra, an Italian painter who tried to cover the exposed backsides in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
“And it’s in Paris, the capital of a secular state, in 2019, that a similar censorship is imposed upon an artist,” Bouineau added. “Are we going to have to cover up Michelangelo’s David… or the nude women of Rubens and Ingres?’
For their part, UNESCO initially said the sculptor agreed to cover up the genitalia – which Simon denies – before the arrival of Muslim delegations, citing a confused chain of emails with agency staff over the placement of the underwear, which they said was proposed by the artist himself.
Nevertheless, the agency has apologized, blaming the incident on a “misunderstanding” and a mistake made by a “stressed” employee, and saying that they would have allowed the statues to be exhibited uncovered if they had fully understood the situation.
In a statement, UNESCO said, “We didn’t want to censor the artist, and understand that he felt hurt.”
Photos of the underwear-clad statues drew ridicule from online commentators, with some commenting that the coverage made the statues look like an underwear ad, and others wondering how the skimpy garments could even have been slipped over the base.
The predominant reaction, however, has been to level criticism at UNESCO for a decision many call “puritanical.”
In the words of one Twitter user, “That’s how the fall of the Roman Empire began.”