Tuesday, July 7, 2009

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. 

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