Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mother Love

The bond between a mother and her child has also been represented in a multitude of different ways that do not involve the image of an infant suckling at the breast. In the eighteenth century, Marguerite Gerard (1761 - 1837), sister-in-law of Jean Honore Fragonard ( 1732 - 1806), with whom she frequently collaborated, made it the pretext for painting a charming domestic scene. Gerard's work has recently been the subject of some controversy. Far from being perceived simply as a producer of slightly over sweet domestic scenes - The Child's First Steps is a typical example - she has been seen as someone who implicitly criticizes the fetishization of domesticity. Her sweetness and preciosity of touch are recontextualized in this new interpretation as the products of a concealed critical and satirical impulse. Appreciation of Gerard's art quality has been hampered by the link between her work and that of a more celebrated male artist. Art historians spend more time looking for Fragonard's contribution than they do examining what Gerard herself had to say.

    Very different facts of the same emotional nexus can be found in the work of two twentieth-century artist, the Canadian Emily Carr ( 1871 - 1945 ) and the Maori painter Robyn Kahukiwa (b.1940). Carr's Totem Mother, Kitwancool is inspired by Northwest Coast Native American art - specifically by a totem-pole figure found in a remote tribal village. Carr broadened the figure and exaggerated the massiveness of the head to make a greater contrast with the small infant. She was not trying to make a record of something she had seen , but instead of this to create something that would radiate a feeling of omnipotent power.
   Kahukiwa deals with material that is hers by direct inheritance, but tackles it in a new way. Of the paintings Papae / Threshold  1 & 2 and Whanau /Born, the artist says:

  ' They are about the actual time of birth and passing through the threshold into the world of light. The women refer to the carved ancestor figures of a [ Maori ] meeting house. They are shown in the squatting position taken by women in labour in traditional times. All three women are giving birth on papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, to symbolize the close relationship of the Maori with the land.' 

   Because she is a women, Kahukiwa is excluded from the traditional Maori way of making art, which is woodcarving. Like a number of other Maori women artists, she has therefore turned to oil painting - a European skill.
   The mother-and-child  theme is in fact subject to an almost infinite number of variations, and versions of it can be found throughout the history of European art. One of its roots is in the art of ancient Egypt, as can be seen from the elegant statuette of the goddess Isis and her infant son Horus illustrated here. This provides an obvious prototype for the seated Madonnas of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and still later periods. The potency of the image means that it can be stretched in any number of different directions, while still remaining immediately legible. There is a huge stylistic gulf, for example, between the mother and child by Berthe Morisot (1841 - 95 ) - a representation not only of maternal love but also of the bourgeois milieu in which French Impressionism flourished - and the abstracted forms of the Mother and Child sculpture by Barbara Hepworth (1903 - 75). But the message conveyed is very similar. In fact, we would not be able to construe the subject of the Hepworth as easily as we do, if we did not have this long heritage of mother-and-child images available to support our teaching of it. 
     The Christian religion endowed the image of the mother holding her infant with tragic overtones peculiar to itself. Standard Madonna compositions frequently include allusions to the Passion and the tragic fate that awaits the child who now rests  in his mother's arms. These implications are more fully worked out in another standard Christians image, that of the Pieta, in which the dead body of Christ, newly taken down from the Cross, is shown resting in his mother's lap. 
    The most famous version of the Pieta is undoubtedly the one created by Michel Angelo ( 1475 - 1564) for St. Peter's in Rome. Working to commission for a French cardinal then living in Rome, Michel Angelo took a poetic conception already rather awkwardly expressed in visual terms in northern Gothic art and tried to make it conform to the rational ideals of the Renaissance without losing any of its intrinsic emotional force. In order to do so he made many subtle adjustments. Few spectators notice, for example, that the Madonna, who has the face of a young girl, not a mature woman, is actually massive in proportion to the male body she holds in her lap. The mother and the force of love she represents thus triumph over the son's tragic fate, and an image of tragedy also becomes one of hope. 
      Like all great visual inventions, the formula Michel Angelo evolved for the Pieta has enjoyed a long subsequent career. Traces of its influence can even reasonably be found in a recent powerful image created by the African-American photographer Renee Cox ( b. 1958), though the figure of the mother is standing not seated, and though her child remains unequivocally a child. When Cox's photograph was shown as part of the 1996 'Sexual Politics' exhibition in Los Angeles, visitors to the show (as one of the attendants told me) immediately sensed the link with Michel Angelo's sculpture, despite the wide historical and cultured gap.
      Yo Mama is, despite some obvious parallels with the Pieta, primarily an image of an individual mother with an individual mother with an individual child. The mother's proud but slightly defensive stance and the child's expression suggest other possible meanings as well - for example, there may be a suggestion that we ought to remember the way in which slave mothers were often forcibly separated from their children. It is thus an extremely potent image for African-Americans.

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