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Childlessness in art? It’s all around us, Paula Coston finds

July 20, 2014
The oldest known image of the Madonna and Child, Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome, c. 3rd century AD

We childless women are a messed-up lot at times. (I speak for myself here, really.) We can see our childlessness in everything around us.

Take art. I’m passionate about it, but when I study any piece from the long, rich line of Christian art featuring the Madonna and Babe like the one above, the first thing I see is what I have not, namely a child. The viewer can’t help but be at least a little self-referential. Truism, sorry, and one I’ve voiced here before: art, how we interpret it, is a social, cultural, emotional/spiritual construct.

The good thing about that, though, is that it makes art different every time, every moment, that we look. Looking at this fresco, first I see the absence of my own motherhood, then I see patriarchy and separation, man from woman, in the defined space between them and the male, authoritarian-looking raised finger. Then I feel empathy for a mother, not my own distance of experience from her. Unlike so many versions of this trope, the child seems to be wriggling, or certainly lively, in her lap. I sympathise with her as well. He’s going to be a handful.

Maybe all childless art-lovers none the less can’t help but feel cool air in the overhanging shadow of this sacred tradition of reminders of our state. From art galleries and picture books, when we’re feeling vulnerable, it gloats at us a bit. But although the Holy Duo persist into modern art, there are some interesting twists. Here’s Klimt:

Mother and child by Gustav Klimt, c 1905

Mother and child by Gustav Klimt, c. 1905

Yes, I get the same chill at first – I’ll never experience the intimacy of sleeping, naked and innocent, with someone small; but then I zoom back on this detail to Klimt’s wider, more inclusive visual statement:

Older woman, other part of the same painting: The Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt, 1905.

Older woman, other part of the same painting: The Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt, 1905.

Admittedly the older woman could be the mother to the girl. Despite her flab of stomach, interestingly my brain is keen to reject that possibility at once. Actually, initially I’m just pathetically gladdened that Klimt has given me, a mature female, a place – until, almost instantly, I absorb the details: how bony and shrunken and unhappy she looks; how squeezed she is to one side of the painting, back to a barren space, in an artistic marginalisation. She’s a husk of a woman, seemingly now useless (if she ever was of use): the visual equivalent of Shakespeare’s ‘sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything’.

Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife or betrothed, by Jan van Eyck, 1434.

Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife or betrothed, by Jan van Eyck, 1434.

More scenes than those of the Sacred Family stick the gallery goer inescapably, like a magnet, to their habit of elevating maternity: vaguely smock-like fashions captured in paint also invariably suggest pregnancy and childbirth. There was for years much eyebrow-raising and knowing winkage at the image above: an unwed mum! Viewers just assumed that this painting belonged to the ‘baby bump’ tradition – which continues today, drawing in so many female subjects from Eve to Picasso’s Pregnant Woman to Lucian Freud’s picture of a preggers Jerry Hall and Daniel Edwards’ sculpture of Britney Spears gripping an animal rug, pushing out a baby. (Turns out in the case of Arnolfini’s betrothed, the researchers now believe that her bulk of opulent fabric aforeships was merely a trendy fifteenth-century indicator of wealth and status.)

There are other child-laden artistic traditions that can be alienating at first.

Family group on a terrace in a garden, by Arthur Devis, 1749.

Family group on a terrace in a garden, by Arthur Devis, 1749.

Art commissions by wealthy patrons from the Renaissance onwards often meant depictions like the above, showing off not just splendid house, garden and estate but also wife and numerous children, their clothes, even their playthings, as equally elegant and desirable possessions. An unthinkable image without the perfectly presented mother and offspring.

But if those are the art lineages that can seem excluding, where, then, are ours? What does a pictorial lack of something, or the assertion of our positive attributes, look like?

Sadly in art the lack, or more commonly, the loss of children is often saccharin, over-sentimentalised.

The empty cradle, by W.B. Mcinnes, 1908.

The empty cradle, by W.B. Mcinnes, 1908.

Mcinnes’ effort above just about squeaks through, prompting in me a heartstring-tug, not a diabetic rush of wincing. Still, his empty cradle tells of an event, not the people caught up in it. Their bereavement is recent but past, and the gaping receptacle, hollow and now unoccupied, seems a negative symbol. Mothers in art are on the whole portrayed as people, in terms of themselves, not their landmark maternal events (being impregnated, popping a baby): heaven forbid. I want the equivalent for us childless: art that expresses not so much our losses, but who we are.

Even today, many artists – such as Samantha Bennett (‘PainterSam’) of Maryland, who herself lost a child, resort to the symbolism of hope in their statements about childlessness. PainterSam paints butterflies, in art and mythology known as emblems of transformation, for parents who have lost children – sometimes, in combination with portraits of the children lost. The digital artist Cunene introduces the dragonfly, another symbol of change, into her portrait of a Childless Mother holding a fragile egg delicately in a cat’s cradle between her fingers.

For me, Frida Kahlo says more about who we are, in both our sufferings and our strengths.

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital: The flying bed, 1932.

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital: The flying bed, 1932.

In the painting above, representing her second miscarriage and a dawning realisation that she might never carry a pregnancy to term, Kahlo shows herself prostrate like a martyr or an offering in some votive painting against a barren backdrop, including the ugly skyline of Detroit with its Henry Ford plant. It’s a horrific work, her body – badly damaged in a car accident years before, endangering her childbearing prospects for ever – tied to symbols of her maternal hopes, love for her husband (the orchid, which he gave her) and the lost foetus. Yet there’s something assertive about it: it’s a self-confronting, almost defiant reminder of her physicality and life force.

Frida Kahlo, Roots, 1943.

Frida Kahlo, Roots, 1943.

The message is graphic but more affirmative and accepting in Roots, above. Kahlo acknowledges all she’s been through as an aspiring mother but magically, finds a way here of reconciling herself with the biological world that has made her the way she is. However childless she may stay, it seems to me that the painting tells us, she’s capable of creating and flowering out of the visceral, out of pain, of giving something back.

Which brings me to Louise Ann Wilson, who’s also turning to nature (right now) for her Walking-Art Project in Cumbria, England. She’s busy mapping out a prototype interactive walk for the public ‘made with women for whom having a biological child is not possible’. As they clamber and stride these beautiful, seemingly desolate highlands, they’ll be asked to seek out emblems of their own backgrounds – an untaken path, a limestone cairn on a layer of scree, a nodding flower reflected in standing water – that might help ‘to effect positive transitions in the lives of participants’. The resultant geographical, biological and emotional/spiritual experience will open to the public as a self-guided walk from spring 2015.

The art of childlessness, like all art, must surely always allow for our individuality, for our personal interpretations in positive as well as negative ways.

Limestone cairn on the top of Farleton Knott, Cumbria.

Limestone cairn on the top of Farleton Knott, Cumbria.

For this post, a big thank you to Adele Armstrong, radio producer, who brought up the topic (I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered it already!). You can hear Sangita Myska interviewing me, and two other women childless by circumstance, on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 15 August 2014 at 11.00 am, in a major documentary entitled Family without a Child. Do listen, and let me know what you think!

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