Imagery of the mother and child is commonplace in Western Art. However artist Alice Neel noted a striking inequality in the experiences represented. As a significant period in a woman’s life, she was amazed that pregnancy had been overlooked. In reaction to this she became one of several female artists who have more recently begun to create work inspired by their own experiences of being pregnant.
Gustave Klimt was one of the first artists to portray a nude pregnant woman in 1903. The work was not pre-planned but the result of one of his models, Herma, who failed to show up for one of their sessions. Klimt was concerned that she may be ill but received news that it was in fact because she was pregnant. He demanded that she model for him anyway, and upon seeing her decided to make her his model for the piece ‘Hope I’.
Although ‘Hope I’ may immediately appear to be an idealised image of a young pregnant woman wearing flowers in her hair, a closer look reveals otherwise. The background is made up of Klimt’s characteristic art nouveau shapes – or figures, which bear the faces of disease, old age and madness, as well as a skull positioned directly above the head of the young woman. These morbid undertones may have a biographical significance to the artist. One year previously, Kilmt’s son Otto had died in infancy. His original sketch for the painting featured a male companion comforting the woman. It has been suggested that the death of Klimt’s son caused him to alter the mood of the painting, turning it into a memento mori or expression of hope for new life in the face of death.
It could be said that Klimt eroticised his models, as is conventional for nude women in Western art. Alice Neel plays with the perceived incompatibility between the erotic and the pregnant body, which she sees as an important but neglected fact of life. She painted several of her pregnant friends in traditionally erotic poses found in mass media photography and rooted in art history. Her work challenges the historical tendency of male artists to shy away from pregnant women due to false modesty or for want of a more sexually available subject. She says “A pregnant woman has a claim staked out; she is not for sale.” Her paintings defy the polarisation of women into the chaste ideal or the dangerous whore. They are a reminder that an ordinary “good” woman can also be a sexual being. If they appear unusual, this is only evidence of the degree to which society still glosses over the basic truths of a woman’s sexuality.
The focus given to the pregnant belly as container may seem to objectify and diminish the individual identity of the sitter. Nancy, Neel’s daughter-in-law, recalled a conversation in which Neel shared her opinion on late pregnancy, “Your body ceases to be your own. You become a vessel. At a certain point you lose your self-image.” In this way she subjects her sitters to particular form of objectification, in a sympathetic reflection of her own experiences. Despite this she does not generalise or romanticise them, acknowledging the unique experiences of each woman.
Jenny Saville is another female artist who produced a group of large-scale works that intimately portray pregnancy and motherhood. After giving birth to her son in 2007, followed by a daughter in 2008, her work naturally turned to the expression of her personal experience as a mother. She explained ‘I’ve spent most of my life trying to paint flesh; and when I was pregnant, the experience of growing flesh and giving birth felt very profound to me. I felt like I gained a different level of understanding in terms of painting and drawing bodies, so I had to do something with that.”
Saville recorded her own pregnancies in paintings and drawings, as well as inviting other expectant mothers to model for her. She observed that women were often more open to the idea of posing nude whilst pregnant, as it is the one time that it’s socially acceptable to be ‘rotund’. Drawing upon this, she was keen to avoid sentimentalising her subject. Whilst she was compositionally inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child, its serenity is replaced by an intense dose of reality. A tangle of body parts, large and small, are depicted in a pattern of chaotic brushstrokes. The mother appears exhausted, a wriggling child under each arm, one of whom is doing his best to escape. Far from a sentimentalised Madonna, this is woman ‘at human capacity’. As well as truthfully representing her subject, Saville manages to successfully convey the feeling of trying to paint whilst bringing up young children.