A national touring art exhibition is to celebrate the artist as Mother
inspired, as Carmel Fitzsimons discovers, by the age-old theme of
the Madonna and Child
ST CATHERINE of Sienna should be a serious contender for patron saint of mothers and childminders. Forget those schlock horror films about murderous baby-sitters: the highest authority says if you want your infant cared for, pick a saint,
satisfaction guaranteed. .
The story goes that while St Catherine was busy about her saintly duties, as she recorded in her Vita, the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision, the 15 century version of the desperate phone call. She told Catherine she wanted to have a break.
So Catherine volunteered a spot of celestial babysitting, bathing and cuddling the baby Jesus, while the Queen of Heaven took a quick nap.
It's a tale which should amuse most exhausted
parents. Even the divinely maternal need some support. Renaissance painter Jacopo del Casentino recorded the scene and his Holy Baby-sit could well become a familiar image, being in part the inspiration for a national touring art exhibition which is currently being assembled under the working title Artists as Mothers. The racier name, which may finally grace the show is "Babysitting Jesus."
The image of the tired Madonna has been chosen to set the spirit for the show, not its content. When the show goes out this year the public will thankfully be spared the awesome spectacle of a string of East Sheen mums and babies enthroned on their sofas, attended by social workers with halos and wings.
INSTEAD there will be works from established women artists such as Eileen Cooper, Julie Held, Letitia Yhap as well as many new names, with the connecting thread that the artists are mothers who do not hide the effect motherhood has had on their lives and work.
Importantly the show calls for a reappraisal of Madonna and Child paintings of the Renaissance, such as the aforementioned Baby-sit by Casentino or the Birth of the Virgin by the 16th century woman artist Lavinia Fontana. This sends Artists as Mothers into the heart of deeply unfashionable territory. showing respect for art which is now dismissed as primitive and male dominated. as well as emphasising those old-fashioned things, paintings, rather than trendy "installations".
One of the advisers to the show, which is being put together at the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, is an art historian from New Zealand, Mary Kisler, who has been living in Florence and with the help of an Italian Government scholarship has been researching the real women and the ordinary lives behind the religious images of Renaissance art.
Her ground-breaking research is important to the show because it emphasises how Renaissance painters drew on their own families, and their domestic lives to create images which are much more human and emotional than the art establishment has previously accepted. Madonnas are not simply symbolic and in a religion-fearing age we may be in danger of being unable to see the woman for the halo.
KISLER believes that modern women artists, who often are working at home and trying to understand the proper balance between work and family, can find inspiration in Renaissance Madonna paintings, which although they were mostly by men, drew on home life and the important moments of birth and death, presenting these as suitable subjects for art.
She says: "There are so many scenes of the birth of the Virgin Mary, which do not take place in a stable like the Nativity, but in a recognisable Florentine house. Lavinia Fontana shows the happy home after a birth as she would have observed it in her own life. The little girl by the fire warms the nappy, the midwife sits on an identifiable seat to wash the baby and St Anne is in bed about to have her after birth snack".
In the 1505 Virgin and Child
painting by Conegliano the baby is holding a goldfinch, regarded as a symbol of the Passion. But as Kisler points
o, u t ,
Renaissance Italians didn't go to Mothercare for their kiddies' playthings they just caught them a bird and kept it on a string.
The painter is not just putting in symbolism, he is putting in everyday life. Painters were presenting the Madonna as a contemporary woman, in fashionable dress, looking after her child as an educated woman of the Renaissance.
Artists as Mothers takes up the Renaissance respect for home,
showing paintings by women artists who have not been frightened by the art establishment into keeping their domestic lives out of the picture frame.
THE initial selection shows the subtle difference between painting mothers and children and actually being a mother who paints. Rather than
sentimentally celebrating motherhood, or miserably documenting the hardship of combining both types of creativity — nursing a baby or nursing an artistic project — the exhibition shows that women do not have to throw the baby out with the watercolours. They can keep both.
The show's co-curator is artist Sue Wilson, visiting tutor in painting at Chelsea College of Art and Wolverhampton University, and mother of two children who often appear in her own figurative paintings. It was Wilson's statement about the ease with which male artists paint from their lives — their loiters, their work even their operations whereas women feel discouraged from painting their work in the domestic sphere and their relation to their children — that led to funding for the show.
WILSON says the paintings selected share a spirit but are not necessarily anecdotal pictures of modern motherhood. In a subtle way she hopes to bring confidence to the many women artists, often on part-time art courses. who are trying to combine a domestic life with a professional one, often with little encouragement.
According to Wilson, female art students on courses she has attended are warned off looking at the Madonna and Child paintings in the National Gallery: "A problem is that a lot of current thinking about women artists is that painting observation, making a gestural mark is innately masculine. Women should avoid these works because they were not painted by women."
While Artists as Mothers may not feature urban Madonnas it will continue a notable tradition of allowing home life to become part of a public expression in art.
Artist as Mothers will begin ,touring later in the summer.