Tuesday, July 7, 2009

At The Breast

Representations of infants at the breast did enjoy an established place in Christian iconography, as a standard way of representing the Virgin and her Son. They were especially popular towards the end of the Middle Ages. One of the best-known examples is Jean Fouquet's Virgin and Child. Fouquet (c.1420-c.1481) executed the painting for the Chancellor of Charles VII of France, Etienne Chevallier. The other panel of what was originally a diptych, though the two halves are now separated, is a portrait, an unmistakable likeness of the beautiful Agnes Sorel, mistress of the then-ageing King who had once been the patron of Joan of Arc. She is represented richly dressed, wearing a sumptuous crown over the shaven forehead fashionable at the time. 
  The signals that the image sends out are distinctly mixed. on the one hand it is a devotional image of a kind already familiar to its intended audience. on the other, it seems intent on emphasizing the erotic impact made by Agnes beauty, and perhaps also on asserting her aspirations to quasi-royal status. Perhaps for these reasons the exposed breast has a somewhat voyeuristic effect. 
  A painting of the same subject, a mother breast-feeding her child, by the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876 - 1907), has much greater directness and simplicity of feeling. Her image of a mother feeding her child is painted strictly for its own sake, which no religious, cultural or even social overtones, though critics have detected some similarities between Modersohn-Becker's work and that of her contemporary Kathe Kollwitz. Similar scene, encountered somewhat earlier in her career, Modersoh-Beckers noted in her diary:

      ' I sketched a young mother with her child at her breast, sitting in a smoky hut. If only i could someday paint what i felt then! A sweet woman, an image of charity. She was nursing her big, year-old bambino, when with defiant eyes her four-year-old daughter snatched for her breast until she was given it. And the woman gave her life and her youth and her power to the child in utter simplicity, unaware that she was a herione.'

Modersohn-Becker was herself to give her life for a child. She died of an embolism, shortly after giving birth to a daughter.
 Few comparisons between Modersohn-Becker and other artist are really fruitful, however, since she was an artist of great originality, who pursued an essential solitary path. Prolonged period of study in France, which brought her into contact with the work of the turn of he century Nabis and that of Gauguin, taught her chiefly to see painting not as literal representation but as a reflection of the emotion that the act of looking aroused in her. In this, she was a forerunner of German Expressionism, although not formally associated with it. Her early death deprived the twentieth century of what may well have been its greatest woman artist. 

The Moment of Birth

Images of women actually giving birth, though they do not commonly occur in Western culture, can be found in other contexts. Some of the most striking can be found in pre-Columbian art. The Sculptures and ceramics showing women in the throes of delivering children are clearly linked to complex fertility cults. The Aztecs of Central Mexico, for example, inherited a large pantheon of fertility gods and goddesses from the tribes who preceded them on the plateau. They included a number of earth goddesses, often imperfectly of both the soil and women. In This context it is not surprising to find a range of forthright birth images. 

" ... in almost all cultures, pregnancy, birth, and nursing are interpreted both both sexes as handicapping experiences; as a consequence women have been made to feel that by virtue of their biological functions they have been biologically, naturally, placed in an inferior position to men.' Ashley Montagu, 1952.

By contrast, similar images are most often lacking in traditional Western art- the nearest Christian art gets to this theme is probably in representations of the birth of the Virgin, and in these the baby is already safely delivered and is being washed or wrapped in its swaddling bands by the mother's attendants. 
 Recently, perhaps because of the increasing tendency for fathers to be present at the births of their children, the image has become less taboo. The English painter Jonathan Waller(b.1956), for example, has recently produced a long series of extremely realistic images showing women giving birth. Having produced them, he nevertheless encountered a good deal of difficulty in getting them exhibited. The continuing squeamishness of the contemporary audience when confronted with this range of imagery has something to tell us concerning modern society in general. We live in a world where images of the female nude are more and more freely distributed, and where the ban on representations of actual copulation is frequently disregarded. But the logical consequence of copulation, which is the creation of new life, is still a subject which museums tend not to exhibit and which some spectators find it difficult to look at. The societies we call 'primitive' are consistently franker in their representation of the whole sexual cycle. For them birth is an act whose sacredness cannot be denied, though they also frequently believe that the woman who is in the process of giving birth, or who has just given birth, is in some way ritually unclean. They also, to our eyes rather amusingly, in some cases evolve rituals where men take over the woman's pain. 

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fertility / Infertility

It is natural that representations of pregnant women or of women giving birth should concentrate on the notion of fertility. One can find other images as well. The Mexican photographer Marta Maria Perez Bravo (b.1959) offers a disturbing self-portrait-she is shown threatening her own pregnant belly with a knife. The inscription implies that she does not wish to be reduced to the level of an animal. 
Frida Kahlo (1907- 54), unique in this as in this as in this as in so many other respects, made paintings about her own inability to give birth. Kahol's failure to have children was intimately linked to her whole career as an artist. In 1925, still in her teens, kahlo was involved in a serious bus accident. The injuries she sustained affected her health for the rest of her career and meant that she had to undergo numerous painful operations. It was during her long convalescence from this accident that she first started to paint. Largely self-taught, kahlo based her style on Mexican folk paintings, notably on the retablos dedicated in churches, usually in thanksgiving for the dedicator's recovery from an illness or his or her escape from some other form of danger. Kahlo found in the naive, very direct style of these paintings a vehicle for describing the vicissitudes of her own life. Major themes were her self-identification with Mexican culture and the Mexican people, her stormy marriage to the leading Mexican muralist Diego Rivera( 1886- 1957) and, linked to this, her own inability to carry a child to full term - one of the long-term consequences of her terrible accident. Kahlo's anguish over her miscarriages reflected a sense of incompleteness as a woman which, in turn, was linked in her mind to Rivera's compulsive infidelity. A child would not only make her in her own eyes biologically complete but would also, she thought, make her husband less inclined to stray. 
 What is striking about Kahlo's art is its ability to deal with these especially painful and intimate concerns without the slightest circumlocution. No male artist of her time was able to speak about such matters. It is this ability to go straight to the point and to convey so clearly the extent of her suffering that has created her worldwide posthumous reputation. Diego Rivera, to his credit, always praised his wife's art, but even he might be astonished to see the extent to which her posthumous reputation has tended to surpass his own.