There is a fascinating if obvious juxtaposition in Phaidon’s new book Body of Art. Cindy Sherman’s untitled work of 1989, in which she poses as the Virgin and Child of Jean Fouquet’s 1450 diptych, faces the original. Sherman’s version is deliberately, comically haphazard: Fouquet’s solemn cherubim in demonic colours have been replaced by a charity-shop net curtain, the elegant gown rendered as a jacquard frock from a dressing-up box and – most noticeably – Fouquet’s improbably round breast, offered to an uninterested, rather stern baby, becomes in Sherman’s version a prosthetic that, if it didn’t come from a seaside joke shop, should have done.
There is wit and sadness in Sherman’s photograph, which is part of her often-imitated History Portrait series; motherhood in Fouquet’s painting belongs in an entirely different emotional frame. From the parodied super-roundness of the Virgin Mary’s breast to the creepily alabaster skin of both Mary and the Christ child, all the imagery is of power. Her breasts echo the roundness of the jewels in her crown: she is unfamiliarly, outrageously wealthy, the Queen of Heaven with the pomp and finery to match, her mother status the source of her power.
There’s not very much tenderness in the dyad; rather, the eerie perfection of mother and child expresses a kind of shock. If she can produce that with her vagina, the composition seems to say, what on earth is she going to do next? The Virgin Mary as the (not necessarily trustworthy) holder of superpowers is still a concern in Alonso Cano’sSaint Bernard and the Virgin, circa 1650, in which a doleful-looking mother removes a disapproving Christ from her breast so she can squirt milk directly into the mouth of Saint Bernard. This is more than a feat of breast-dexterity; the milk itself had curative properties. (In another version of the story, she squirts it into his eye and cures him of blindness … or astygmatism. History doesn’t relate.)
These mothers are depicted with equal parts suspicion and awe, as they unleash a power with which no one else can compete. The portraits of mothers ceded to a more dynastic ideal – less Virgin and Child, more matriarch and six children, all unmistakably resembling some father just out of frame. The soppy, idealised portraits of motherhood as a state – the mother fulfilled by, tethered to, her baby – was driven by later, female painters such as Marguerite Gérard in the 18th century. It was not the mainstream of maternal identity through history, even though it is this idealisation that contemporary depictions of motherhood are often reacting to and against.
Before the rush of 20th-century reality – the ectopic pregnancies and caesarian scars – that dynastic purpose of procreation ceded to the impressionists, who found profundity in the everyday motherhood of the bourgeoisie. Again, this had to wait for a female painter to find its expression; there being fewer of those, the topic is and has always been underrepresented. Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath, painted in 1893 by the only American to exhibit with the impressionists, takes the most quotidian act (washing a child’s feet) and invests it with poignancy merely through the direction of their gaze; the mother and child communicate on a level so instinctive that their eyes appear to be moved by the same nervous system.
Gustav Klimt’s Three Ages of Women, painted 12 years later, puts a downer on things with a memento mori; the post-menopausal age, a woman holding her head in despair that she is no longer able to procreate or, worse, adorn her hair with daisies like all the rest of her Klimtian stable. Nevertheless, the two other ages of woman – infancy and motherhood – are sacred states, the child’s splayed hand and the mother’s tilted head shimmering with the simplicity of their physical love for one another.
That is visible, too, in the 90s series of mothers with newborns by the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, but there is much more in these besides. The physical toll of the whole messy business is there in a single track of blood down the model’s leg; visible and shocking, after centuries of an aesthetic norm in which the tribulations of Christ were fair game but the trials of childbirth mainly taboo. (In fairness, Bill Viola’s Nantes Trytich, two years earlier, begins with a young woman giving birth, and it’s no walk in the park.) Dijkstra’s subject is also visibly frightened, which is perhaps the greater taboo – that while the role might be genetically predetermined, that doesn’t mean you know how to do it or that you take naturally to the erasure of your former self. The tenderness is there, but is the source of her terror; even as she stands naked, it is her tiny baby that is her undefended flank.
Tierney Gearon’s I Am Camera project, from 2000, upturns not the role of mother but that of child – her son and daughter on a beach, naked, wearing masks of rubber doll faces, the language of their bodies deliberately unsettling without the reassurance of their faces. The popular press responded with outrage at the time, finding the images plainly paedophilic, since why else would you photograph your own child naked unless you wanted to engage the world in lascivious imaginings? The News of the World described them openly as “perversion under the guise of art”, unflustered by how perverse it was of them to jump to such a conclusion. The police considered shutting the exhibition down.
Even while it is a modern and hopefully passing prurience to be unable to see a naked child without assuming an abusive subtext, these images do convey something that is habitually unsayable about motherhood: that the vulnerability of the child is the burden of ages, and the urge to adult-ify one’s children, putting them in adult poses, in adult masks, wars constantly with the desire to infantilise them, or keep them infants (ideally, of course, put them back in, where you can be sure that nothing will happen to them). And it is this that makes motherhood the vexed state that it is, not so much for the mother but for the child, who cannot possibly fulfil this requirement that they simultaneously grow up and return to the womb. About 1,500 years ago, mothers held superpowers. Now we are merely ordinary women who ask impossible things. It’s progress of sorts.