Throughout time, the portrayal of motherhood has always held a profound significance in art. From the classical Pietas of the Virgin Mary cradling her fallen son off the cross, to the modern take of photography displaying the first moments of a newborn’s life with its mother, motherhood has always held up a human importance within the world of art.
Although the echoing pains of what a mother must do for her child isn’t as stressed as it was back in the days of Caravaggio, there still are a few images today that hearken back to the sacrifice and love only brought out by a mother. If you take a look at Käthe Kollwitz’s sketch, Frau mit Totem Kind (Woman with Dead Child) one can clearly see the callback to Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pieta where the pain of loss is so intimately and at the same time darkly, shown. As both women attempt to come to terms and mourn over such an event, it’s important to note that this work by Kollwitz is not as old as it may seem. Todays’ media would save topics like these for art films when such a topic is so harrowing and moreover so human and real, that it deserves to be displayed more often and understood as a solemn reminder of the lasting love a mother maintains.
Not all of today’s mother imagery represents the painful side of the life as we see in Alice Neel’s Nancy and Olivia, 1967. Here, an accurate representation of a woman coming to terms with becoming a mother and carer becomes the subject. We can see how with just a look, the mother begins accepting all the realities, situations and responsibilities with becoming a mother be it from the uncomfortable moments when her child ceases to cry or to her placing her never ending attention to this new and fragile life in her arms.
Motherhood doesn’t begin from when the seed is born however. From the moment of fertilization does the young naive woman enter the new phase of life which becomes the rest of her life and in this phase, there is much change. Taking a second to ignore the mental and chemical change in a woman’s body during her gestation period, Senga Nengudi’s R.S.V.P., 1975-present is an eccentric reminder of the physical transformation of a woman during her pregnancy. As the mother’s body pushes and pulls and morphs into the suitable carrier for a new life, so does each pantyhose filled with sand stretch and change shape with every passing moment. R.S.V.P. shows the unpredictability of every curve and form that will present itself both physically and mentally to a mother. Although the resilience of the human body is a grand topic in of itself, the resilience of a mother’s body throughout those nine months is something engulfing enough that the simplicity of a mundane object being stretched to limits that were previously unknown is an oversimplification of the biology taking place. However as much of a oversimplification as it is, R.S.V.P. manages to craft and convey its message along to the viewer and remind them that motherhood is no easy feat.
Straight from the minds of strong women who have gone through motherhood themselves, the female portrayal of motherhood in art is something so vivid, emotional and at times surreal that the only way to appreciate such pieces are by understanding what it takes to be a mother in the first place.