Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Maturity (Expecting)

One of the most basic of all female images is that of a woman as mother, but the various phases of pregnancy and birth are unevenly represented in art. the more boldly physical the representation, the more male artists have tended to shy away from it. Several slightly conflicting reasons can be suggested for this - that women's experience was not considered important enough to be worth representation; that there was an element of secrecy attached to certain female bodily functions; that women in the throes of giving birth were considered ritually unclean. For whatever reason, representations of heavily pregnant women and, still more so, of women in the process of giving birth are unusual in Western culture. In the Middle Ages, the Virgin is occasionally shown as pregnant, pointing to her swollen belly. the most famous example of this is Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto in the chapel of the cemetery of Monterchi near Arezzo, painted in the 1460s. The representation is always idealized. 

More recently, representations of pregnancy have been made by women artists as a way of stressing the central importance of women as life-givers and the guardieans of the future of the human race. Kathe kollwitz(1867-1945),with her deep concern for the struggles of the industrial working class- which she knew at first hand because her husband was a doctor who ran a clinic for the urban poor in Berlin - makes a weary, pregnant working-class woman into a symbol of endurance, but she also implies that the woman is the victim of all the accumulated social evils of her time. 

One of the most striking of all twentieth-century images of pregnant women is a portrait by the American artist Alice Neel(1900-84). Neel's career followed a pattern not uncommon in the case of gifted female artists- many years of neglect followed by a sudden burst of recognition when she reached old age. In her case,neglect was intensified by the fact that her painting remained stubbornly figurative throughout a period when abstraction had become the dominant mode in american art. A high proportion of her work is made up of portraits of friends, who are portrayed with an unflinching eye for character. Incapable of compromise and-despite her gift for friendship- a compulsive non-joiner of artistic groups or movements, Neel often took a mischievous delight in creating confrontational images. When, late in her career, she made a portrait of Andy Warhol, then a major celebrity whose interest in her work was partly responsible for the belated establishment of her reputation, Neel insisted on showing the terrible scares which were the result of the attack made on him in 1968 by Valerie Solanas. Warhol, with his taste for publicity, concurred, where any other sitter would probably have refused. At first sight, Neel's portrait of Margaret Evans Pregnant follows a similar pattern, but the confrontational element is softened by the artist's evident feeling of reverence for the new life which is so soon to begin.

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