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. 

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