Maternity- Images Of Motherhood

13 Nov 2007 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, until 12 January 2008

Christine Borland’s “Twin, Hand-Made, Child-Birth Demonstration Model”, Mixed Media 1997. (photo - Cathy Shankland)

CURATED BY James Holloway, Maternity is the second major exhibition of visual art delivered in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland. Like “Venus Rising” in 2006 it sets an encouraging precedent for future touring from national collections to the Highland capital.

In light of discussion about possible sites for a new Art Gallery & Museum in the city the exhibition is timely, providing the opportunity to see a range of works spanning 500 years of the iconic image of mother and child in European art.

Eleven works by Sandro Botticelli, Domenichino, George Romney, Sir William Quiller Orchardson, William Strang, Pablo Picasso, Robert Sargent Austin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ruth Stirling, Christine Borland and Moyna Flannigan are featured together with video screenings “Mother and Child” and “Changing Faces” by Gavin Lockhart.

On opening night “Mother and Child” (2004), a sequence of video images filmed in collaboration with a young mothers group in Merkinch, was projected onto the IMAG entrance. Their struggle through a doorway with children and babies in buggies is an ironic piece, intensified on this occasion by projection onto the doors of the museum as an institution.

On the outside wall “Changing Faces”, a work filmed by the same young mum’s Escape group in collaboration with Lockhart, reflected not only the trust between mother and child but that generated by the whole creative process as part of the “Ossian: Fragments” outreach project.

“Changing Faces” is a particularly striking work that links beautifully to the main work in the show, Botticelli’s “The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child” (Tempera and gold on canvas-1485).

Projection within projection, the luminosity of mother’s faces merging with their children centres our attention on human expression and tenderness which is at the core of Botticelli’s depiction of the Madonna and Child. Within the social context of Merkinch and the context of a museum exhibition a fascinating dialogue emerges between these two works.

Though Botticelli’s work is infused with religious symbolism and foretells the passion of Christ in the sleeping figure of the child on the ground, it is perhaps the expression of the Madonna gazing at her child which has the most resonance to modern eyes, transcending issues of faith.

The painting exhibits the artist’s characteristic stylisation of the figure and naturalistic detail in the garden which encloses the two figures in an intimate psychological space. Golden flesh tones, pure blues and gentle rose pinks create a subdued atmosphere of contemplation.

A heavy golden frame crowns the one figure of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child and the universal figure of mother and child. Though this work is central to the exhibition there are other works on show that defy their scale as powerful explorations of the theme of motherhood.

Robert Sargent Austin’s “Young Mother” (Engraving on paper 1936) is an unexpectedly beautiful work, curtained from the audience. The lilies in the foreground as symbols of purity and innocence define the relationship between the mother and child. The cloak that surrounds the female figure and shields the child in the crib from our view envelopes the scene in a protective circle of warmth in spite of the absence of colour.

Austin’s treatment of his subject recalls the Pre-Raphaelites and their revival of medieval aesthetics through moral and religious symbolism. It is an image of perfection that contrasts strongly with William Strang’s 1889 etching, drypoint and sandpaper-tone on paper titled “Despair”.

This image of grinding poverty reads like a Madonna of the workhouse as she stares with uncompromising directness at the viewer, her pale figure and that of the child she is breastfeeding emerging ghostlike out of the darkness.

A starving child behind her skirt exists in shadow from which we suspect he will never emerge. This is a small but potent image with a texture of grit pervading the entire scene. The ingrained nature of both the subject and the technique combine perfectly in a work of 19th century social critique.

Ruth Stirling’s silver gelatin print photograph “White Whale” (1988) crops the image in a way that suggests the universal rather than the personal relationship between mother and child. The image of the Inuit mother and her baby are defined by the contrast of black and white in this beautifully composed photograph. The mother’s body camouflaged in winter dress is suggestive of the whole landscape, a symbol of woman as earth and life giver.

Eduardo Paolozzi’s collage on book illustration (1946) depicts this reproductive function as purely mechanical defined by the machine age. The mother can be seen here as an ironic “nurturing” force on a cultural rather than natural scale. The overlap of an image of an internal combustion engine over an image of Albert Toft’s sculptural monument to Queen Victoria subverts reverence towards both empire and the religious iconography of the Madonna and child.

Christine Borland’s work “Twin, Hand-Made, Child-Birth Demonstration Model” (Mixed Media 1997) was the work that for me evoked the most emotional response.The artist’s hand-sewn demonstration model removed from the teaching context of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh becomes a poignant figure, simply stitched, bereft of detail to indicate identity and utterly alone.

Separated from its twin the figure is infused with sadness, a comment on our state as human beings coming into life alone and leaving life in the same isolated state. Here the human connection with the twin or a mother figure is entirely absent. There is only the self, separated from the viewer by a glass case.

The clinical white of the gallery space only served to reinforce this sterile environment. Perhaps the whole exhibition would have been better presented with a warm coat of paint on the walls. The exhibition text sat coldly on the wall like gold on porcelain.

As a partnership project between the National Galleries of Scotland, Highland 2007 and the Highland Council coinciding with the Inverness Winter Festival and Christmas festivities, Maternity is a show that stakes a claim of access to art.

However the lack of promotion, advertising, educational programme or outreach connected with the exhibition at its time of opening feels frustratingly like Gavin Lockhart’s video of mothers trying to navigate their way through an awkward doorway.

I would suggest that it is not enough to simply loan works, they must have lead in and be publicised in order for that work to reach a wider audience. This is particularly important as plans for a new gallery take shape.

Promotion of Visual Art within the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery has always been unequally weighted in relation to the museum function and under-resourced, and the recent refurbishment has done little to address this.

Whilst loans from the national collections are a hugely positive step forward they will not reach the public without the best promotional and educational practice, and this has yet to emerge.

The future IMAG in whatever form it takes must address this if it is to develop its audience and really address issues of access to art and culture. Access can also be that of Highlands and Islands curators having access to national collections and a greater more open exchange between the central belt and our region.

© Georgina Coburn, 2007