Maternity In Art At The Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art

By Noelia Martinez | 14 May 2008
a painting of a man holding his baby son and both look very similar

Moyna Flannigan, Just like Daddy. © the artist

Exhibition Review - Maternity: Images of Motherhood At The Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

When I was a little girl people used to tell me: “When you grow up you have to find a husband and have children.” At that point in time, this seemed the main aim in a woman’s life: to look after her husband and bring up her kids. But time passes, things change and with it the concept of motherhood and, therefore, the family’s structure.

This topic is explored by the National Galleries of Scotland who have selected fourteen works from their collection to form the exhibition Maternity: Images of motherhood, which opened at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery before moving to Edinburgh where it will be shown at the Gallery of Modern Art until June 22.

The perception of maternity has been interpreted and re-interpreted throughout history. Reflecting this, the exhibition explores and analyses the concept from the early Renaissance to the present day. The Christian idea of the family has always been one of the pillars of Western society and the image of a mother and child the only way to interpret the image of motherhood.

Formerly, the bringing up of children was always related to women but perhaps surprisingly, as this exhibition proves, interpreted and analysed mostly by men.

Maternity: Images of motherhood is a show which can be subject to many interpretations and not just to the brief explanations in the leaflets and labels accompanying the exhibition that sometimes tend to limit rather than open up the range of ideas relating to the concept of maternity.

a photograph of a woman holding a baby on her arm

Ruth Stirling, White Whale, 1988. © the artist

On one hand, the exhibition can be interpreted as a group of high quality artworks. After all, we have here paintings by Botticelli, Dominechino, Dali and Picasso. These artists have produced works that have endured through history and are still vital and a source of influence for new generations of artists.

On the other hand, the show contains works that generate social debate in the way they analyse the different stages through which women have passed to gain equality with men. In this way, the work Just like Daddy (1998) by Moyna Flannigan, disobeys tradition by replacing the mother with the father.

In contrast to Moyna Flannigan’s work, Botticelli’s fifteenth-century masterpiece The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child – the earliest picture in the exhibition – shows a more traditional and classical rendition of maternity.

This image, full of symbolism, depicts the Virgin adoring her son, who lies in swaddling clothes on the ground – a metaphoric representation of the dead Christ wrapped in the burial shroud. To the left of her, the pink roses allude to the Virgin’s purity as the “rose without thorns”.

George Romney, for his part, shows an aristocratic conception of the maternal role with his portrait of Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon and her son, the Marquis of Huntly. Women’s importance in society can be seen here to move to another level, honouring the Duchess as a mother who has produced a male heir for her husband’s title and wealth.

a painting showing the Madonna parying over baby Jesus

Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, c.1485. © National Museums Scotland

Scottish painters, William Strang and Sir William Quiller Orchardson, show a more dramatic and rural conception of maternity in Despair (1889) and Through the Corn (1859).

Strang confronts us with a brutally realistic image of motherhood at the bottom end of the social scale while Orchardson portrays a tired mother struggling through a field at the end of the day with her child on her back.

Pablo Picasso is not far from Strang’s and Orchardson’s interpretation of maternity in his Mother and Child (1902). This is a work painted during what is commonly known as his ‘Blue Period’.

The figure of a woman turned away from the viewer, suggests her suffering and shame. This painting was influenced by the artist’s regular visits to a women's prison-hospital in Paris. The misery of those women, many of whom had babies or young children, is captured in this image.

Robert Sargent Austin’s engraving, Young Mother (1936), Eduardo Paolozzi’s collage, Ruth Stirling’s print photograph White Whale (1988), Damian Hirst’s sculpture Wretched War (2004), Christine Borland’s Twin, Hand-Made, Child Birth Demonstration Model (1997) complete this exhibition together with the Kerry Stewart sculpture, The only solution was…(1997).

a photo of a prone human figure made out of fabric

(Above) Christine Borland, Twin, Hand-Made, Child-Birth Demonstration Model, 1997. © the artist

The latter is a work that represents the most contemporary idea of maternity. By separating the baby from his mother, the artist brings up the panic and fears that are now associated with looking after children.

What Stewart’s work clearly demonstrates is that the image of mother and child, an important icon in European culture in earlier works, has nearly disappeared, and the concepts of motherhood and fatherhood now emerge together to create new forms of familial structure.

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