When I say I am writing a book about the maternal body I get responses that range from interest to incomprehension, from enthusiasm to disgust, and I feel myself getting embarrassed. I need to clear the ground: ‘It’s not about mothering or natural birth or celebrity pregnancy …’ I stammer, and stop. Do I sound sufficiently objective? I am too close, still feeling uncomfortable, and I change the subject. I want to think further about what produces this embarrassment and whether it can tell me anything about maternal bodies and their visibility, or lack of it. What kinds of attachment are involved in looking at maternal bodies in the visual arts? Why do they cause me (and others) to blush? Is it, as Louise Bourgeois suggests, that ‘to reveal oneself is always embarrassing’ (Bernadac and Obrist 2000: 313), or is this affect more specific, tied to what is unrepresented about maternal bodies in visual culture?

My own interest in the maternal was born with my pregnancy at the age of forty, which surprised, enchanted and terrified me in equal parts and led to a radical transformation in my own identity and embodiment. I begin with this personal account because this experience framed my writing and has led to a continuing preoccupation with maternal bodies in the visual arts. As an art historian, I am interested in the power of visual imagery to frame our understanding of maternal bodies and to affirm or to disrupt prevailing maternal ideals. Neither singular nor universal, the maternal body is a symbolic construct with enormous cultural resonance, systematically shaped and produced through competing discourses and practices, yet at the same time curiously unacknowledged in terms of its visual history. The maternal body has a paradoxical status as both natural and exceptional, a sanctioned yet highly circumscribed form of female embodiment; like the nude, it is ‘both a powerful cultural idea and a bodily state, but one which is unstable and open to multiple meanings’ (Barcan 2004: 8). Maternal bodies are lived and imagined in many ways, so what is their significance within the visual arts?

Cecile Walton Romance 1920, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland/ The Bridgeman Art Library
Cecile Walton Romance 1920, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland/ The Bridgeman Art Library

In 1920 the Scottish artist Cecile Walton painted Romance, a self-portrait set in a domestic interior that depicts her lying on a bed holding up her newborn son, while her elder son looks on and a midwife bathes her feet. She shows herself as a modern independent woman, hair caught up in a turban and naked apart from a towel round her hips, in an unadorned room with striped bed sheets and an angular table. But the painting also recalls an early Renaissance birth scene in its clarity and precise iconographical detail, making reference to Christian themes of the fall, redemption, immaculate birth and cleansing. These are represented symbolically by a single apple on a plate, a bunch of violets in a glass, oil in a bottle and a jug of clear water, the latter signifying virginal purity in fifteenth-century painting. An unnatural glow from the lower left illuminates Walton’s body and shines on the faces of the baby Edward, the anonymous uniformed nurse, and her older son Gavril, who stands in profile like an enraptured attendant angel on the right of the picture. Only the baby turns towards the viewer, while Walton’s face remains unlit as she inspects the doll-like infant in its robe, staring at it closely with an impersonal and faintly hostile gaze, seemingly curious about this new being. Behind her head in a dark doorway stands a shadowy masculine figure or perhaps it is his garments, cutting a sharp vertical line between mother and child. The whole scene is caught in an arrested moment in which time appears to stop still, while a translucent bubble and fallen rosebud and petals on the floorboards symbolise a fragile transience. Romance caused a great stir in the second Edinburgh Group exhibition in 1920, and a contemporary critic who reviewed it commented on the ‘frank treatment of an intimate subject’, noting its ‘quaintly primitive manner, suggestive of some earlier painter’s “Nativity”’ (quoted in Fowle 2002: 10). In depicting modern motherhood according to a familiar artistic tradition, Walton consciously alluded to earlier maternal imagery as well as to her own position as a woman, an artist and a mother. The combination of matter of fact modernity with traditional iconography manifests detachment from the prevailing cult of motherhood and, together with the picture’s ambiguous title, suggests that Walton has an ambivalent, even sceptical, attitude to maternity. A further jarring note to modern eyes is the black golliwog that the older child clasps casually in his arms against glowing skin and sheets, an image at the margins that marks this domestic idyll as white.3 In some respects Walton typified the ‘New Woman’, a figure who had emerged in literature and art and had assumed a progressive image and dress style in the new century that was associated with sex reform and gender equality. Walton enjoyed relative sexual and social freedom within the Edinburgh Group of avant-garde artists, which she joined in 1912, and together with fellow painters Eric Robertson and Dorothy Johnston formed ‘an almost inseparable trio’ (Cooper 1986: 178). She married Robertson and had two sons before separating from him in 1923 to bring up the children on her own. In this context the title Romance takes on an ironic twist; her husband’s presence lurks behind her head and his landscape painting hangs on the wall, but this ‘family romance’ is marked by the father’s physical absence. Nor is it evident that her ‘romance’ is with the new baby whom she scrutinises so intently. Walton later reflected on motherhood: ‘Maternal concern has a longer view than that of rumpling the hair of a lover; nor is it quite satisfied by the multiplication of the family, but demands a share in the exaltation of intelligence’ (quoted in Addison 2005). Her own sharp intelligence is evident in her bitter comment on the role assigned to women artists in her avant-garde circle: ‘A girl who married onto their stage so to speak was expected to take her place in the drama. The script was put into her hand, perhaps Joyce’s Exiles, perhaps Sons and Lovers. She was chosen. She was cast for a part. That she might have conceived of a play of her own was not considered’ (quoted in Addison 2005). In 1926 Walton wrote an essay ‘Atlanta in Caledonia’ on women’s role in the arts in Scotland, arguing that they should retain ‘certain qualities and values of their own which play a subtle and peculiar part in our social life’. Women, she argued, should not surrender these ‘in order to order to acquire those characteristics which are more peculiarly masculine’, but be aware of their own ‘intrinsic appeal of personality that has made women the equal of man’ (quoted in Fowle 2002: 13). Walton’s insistence on gender equality while recognising the ‘peculiar part’ played by women’s experience was a central strand in feminism of the time, but her visual exploration of these qualities in a birth scene was quite unique.

I am left with a puzzle. Romance represents the modern predicament of a woman as an artist and mother, and yet looks back to precedents in earlier art. It is a painting of an intimate experience of the maternal body that was rarely represented, but its very oddness provokes further enquiry. This is an iconic narrative scene: a Renaissance holy image is fused with a modern home birth set in a domestic space occupied by a mother, midwife and children and troubled by a masculine presence. Walton depicts the moment of recognition when a new sense of her own maternal subjectivity is born as the baby become other to herself, ‘an alterity, if you like, she can call her own’ (Baraitser 2009: 156). It represents the complex space-time of the maternal as a moment between time suspended and time passing, in which Lisa Baraitser suggests the experience of motherhood evokes, ‘a renewed temporal awareness where the present was elongated and past and future no longer felt so tangible’ (Baraitser 2009: 154). Walton’s Romance embodies the intertwining of maternal space and time, self and other, mother and artist, as well as of the secular and the religious, independence and confinement that characterise maternal imagery. It is this complex moment of the mother’s encounter with the maternal that I want to explore further.

Motherhood has been the recurrent theme in western art traditions, personified in the figure of the Virgin Mary, but my interest is both narrower and more encompassing: an investigation of maternal embodiment as the process of becoming a maternal subject. Baraitser suggests ‘the almost intractable difficulties with separating the maternal subject from the pregnant body’, but this is precisely my starting point (Baraitser 2009: 15). I want to explore a relationship between the maternal and pregnant body that treats them as neither identical nor discontinuous. It seems necessary therefore to begin by making a distinction, analytically at least, between the pregnant and the post-partum body, because not every pregnant body becomes a maternal one or leads to birth. The realities of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion require a separation to be made between the state of pregnancy and that of motherhood. Maternal bodies may also not only be those of birth mothers: women (and some men) take on maternal identities through many forms of kinship and social mothering, adoption and surrogacy. Assisted reproductive technologies and embryo implantation have opened up a different potential for maternity that, like paternity, has become legally and biologically uncertain. The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act defines a mother as: ‘The woman who is carrying or has carried a child as a result of placing in her of an embryo or of sperm and eggs, and no other woman, is to be treated as the mother of the child’ (HFEA 2008 Section 33). I use the term ‘maternal’ in a more inclusive way than this, but at times I want to distinguish between pregnancy as a voluntary or involuntary embodied process that may or may not result in a birth, and wider cultural representations of social and prosthetic mothers of different sexualities, genders, ethnicities, ages and capacities. What kinds of representational practices bring some maternal bodies into visibility and disallow others? Can our encounter with such bodies in the visual arts tell us anything about the condition of becoming maternal?

Simultaneously one and two, intimate and public, hidden and on display, the maternal body occupies a site of multiple attachments and investments for the individual and for her wider community. As a process that occurs within a woman’s body, pregnancy is structurally located in the personal and private sphere, but it is always also public property. Even total strangers feel able to comment on and touch her pregnant belly: ‘Suddenly my body’s not my own. Everyone’s got a say in it – not a bad thing, I quite like it’. The maternal body is constructed as a site for regulation and control through medical practices and reproductive technologies, the welfare system, maternity law and safety legislation. It is subject to medical and legal constraint and social surveillance as well as signified and signifying through cultural texts and discursive practices. The pregnant woman is also situated between various interests in her potential child by partners, family and friends. In European visual traditions the maternal body is conceptualised as a container for the unborn child, either as the sacred vessel of divinity enshrined in the Christian maternal ideal or in the biomedical construction of the pregnant body as a receptacle for embryonic life. As knowledge shifted from a model of generation to one of reproduction, a religious understanding of birth was supplanted by a scientific one, and imagery drawn from imagination or nature replaced by morbid anatomical illustration. The maternal body came to be seen as a mechanism and the figuration of the monstrous maternal emerged as its uncanny double. This imagery was in turn displaced as the maternal womb was rendered transparent by new imaging technologies in the twentieth century. Maternal bodies have been continuously visible in these various guises and were produced in various modes and sites: in Christian icons of the Virgin; anatomical illustrations in Renaissance and Enlightenment science; monstrous imagery from early popular culture, and in works by artists across the centuries. My aim is to demonstrate the power of the visual in shaping our cultural imaginary of maternal bodies, as well as to explore ways in which particular maternal paradigms have been disrupted and transformed. Tracking the historical interaction between maternal ideals and pregnant bodies offers a starting point from which to interrogate prevailing images of the maternal and its material and psychic embodiments. But however the maternal may be viewed, ‘we do not just blindly configure ourselves around our internal ideals, and nor are we purely held in the sway of external representations of idealized motherhood’ (Baraitser 2009: 94). Disjunctions occur within maternal representation that expose those ideals and produce fissures in them; these can, in Judith Butler’s terms, become ‘an enabling disruption’ to the norm. While Butler is uninterested in the maternal, her argument that norms both stabilise gendered identities and produce their opposites as ‘unthinkable, abject, unlivable bodies’, is useful here (Butler 1993: xi). I seek to show that, while maternal ideals are sanctified and legitimated, some pregnant bodies remain indisciplined and pathologised, seen in need of cultural sanction and social intervention. Maternal bodies continue to be reframed visually in early twenty-first-century culture. Once confined, pregnant women appear everywhere: flaunted in celebrity magazines, courted as consumers and consulted on the internet, but only some maternal bodies are accorded the privilege of representation in public space. It is young, white, able-bodied and heterosexual pregnant bodies that normally make it into visibility, except when marked as deviant in the form of teenage, addicted, disabled, multiple, post-menopausal or transgendered mothers. My interest in exploring the relationship between these framings and embodied maternal materialities is not to discover a hidden reality behind representation, but rather to investigate the practices by which the maternal becomes embodied in the visual. I look at images and concepts of maternal embodiment that are constituted in diverse historical, cultural and political formations: at flesh that is imbued with sociality.


About Rosemary Betterton

Rosemary Betterton is author of a major new study, Maternal Bodies in the Visual ArtsRead more

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