A new exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark called “Modern Motherhood” is a fascinating look at the role of mothers in the 20th century. From a series of photographs by American artist and photographer Cindy Sherman depicting different versions of the artist herself as a mother, to a witty tableau vivant of a mother and her children by the French artist Sophie Calle, the exhibition features works that tell a story about an experience that is both universal and highly personal. The show (which runs though September 30) is divided into two sections. The first, “Mothers,” is full of works that depict mothers in a variety of roles.
Since the beginning of the history of writing, motherhood and art have gone together like milk and cookies. A typical example of literary art is Marcel Proust’s Souvenir du passé, made famous by the memory of waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight.
Visual art on the same subject came before we learned to write. One thinks of the 25,000-year-old image of Venus of Willendorf, the undisputed icon of motherhood with her swollen belly and breasts.
The Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art announces an exhibition titled Mama! The Origin of Life. is a fitting way to revive the exhibition halls that were closed for so long during the pandemic.
Like art history itself, the exhibition offers a wide variety of images of motherhood through the ages. Art Daily reports that the exhibition includes more than 140 works. Marie Lorberg, curator of the exhibition, writes in the museum catalogue: The mother of art and culture has many faces.
Lorberg refers to the great variety of faces in the depiction, from the idolised Madonna and Child to the despicable Medea who kills her children. And even if this last example recalls the famous words of Holden Caulfield in J.R.R. Baker’s novel. Д. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: The moms are all a little crazy, it’s always milk and cookies, even if the snack is toxic.
The curator unwittingly illustrates Salinger’s point by highlighting in the exhibition some of the unpleasant faces of motherhood, like the wicked stepmother in the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales.
And she sums up the theme of the mother in art this way: She’s frustrated, dead, attractive, or loving….. It’s an animal with breasts.
But as Mother’s Day approaches, consider this exhibit that fits the Proustian model. I think of a self-portrait of contemporary artist Chantal Joffe brushing Esme’s hair.
The title tells the story of the image. In any case, what the artist shows – intentionally or not – seems to be about more than brushing a child’s hair. Esme is depicted with wide eyes, almost as if she is afraid, while her mother is a confident, all-knowing figure who seems to be in control. It’s a strange, self-blaming image, like his mother painted in a painting.
Joffe’s painting recalls another painting with a similar theme, that of a mother caring for a child. This painting was created 100 years ago by Suzanne Valadon under the title Poupée abandonnée. But unlike Ioffe’s painting, the psychological drama here is clearly intentional, as the title suggests. You see a woman wipe her clearly immature daughter with a towel after her bath with obvious love and even condescension. The daughter turns away from her mother to look in the hand mirror, indicating a transition from childhood. The doll left on the ground underlines this.
Valadon, who is best known as a model for the Impressionists, had no artistic training. And yet she surpassed the artists for whom she posed by depicting women as people rather than subjects.
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