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motherhood and its complexities explored in two UK surveys

There’s no shortage of mothers and children in western art, but depictions of real, lived motherhood are more of a rarity. Whether in the many Madonnas cradling their baby Jesuses; the dynastic portraits of aristocratic mothers and their offspring, or moralising 19th century scenes of households gone awry, mothers have traditionally been idealised, marginalised or demonised. They feature as abstract concepts, invariably painted by men.

For women artists struggling to gain recognition in this male-centred territory, motherhood has tended to be treated as a burden to overcome, not a worthwhile subject to depict. Hence the enduring currency given to Cyril Connolly’s grim remark that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. Even feminism has been divided on the subject of maternity, with motherhood frequently viewed with ambivalence and suspicion as a patriarchal trap rather than a source of creativity.

Of course there have been notable exceptions. Frida Kahlo’s excruciating paintings of her miscarriage; Mary Kelly’s post-partem document that viscerally charts the first seven years of her son’s life; Susan Hiller’s chronicling of her swelling belly and philosophical musings during pregnancy and Louise Bourgeois’s fiercely love-hate grapplings with maternal attachment all spring to mind.

But in recent months there has been a significant shift with two important institutional exhibitions touring the UK which are placing a spotlight on the experiences of artist mothers past and present, and enabling the complexity of motherhood to be treated with the seriousness and respect that this crucial subject deserves.

Maureen Scott’s Mother and Child at Breaking Point (1970)

Maureen Scott’s Mother and Child at Breaking Point (1970) is the first image to greet visitors to Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 in its current incarnation at The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, just as it was when the show first opened at Tate Britain at the end of last year. This arresting painting of a dead-eyed mother gripping a writhing, screaming toddler will also be positioned at the entrance when Women in Revolt travels to Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery in 2025. Opening with a very real—if rarely depicted—infant tantrum was a deliberate curatorial move, establishing motherhood and care in the home as a key theme to integrated throughout this landmark survey of British feminist art.

Together with the inevitable inclusion of Mary Kelly and Susan Hiller, other expressions of the needs and concerns of motherhood in Women in Revolt include Su Richardson’s textile sculpture of dungarees bedecked with all the paraphernalia—a watch, cooking implements, endless lists—used by mothers throughout the day and an installation by the Hackney Flashers collective called Who’s Holding the Baby?, which offers a coruscating critique of inadequate childcare provision. At Tate Britain last year, and next year in Manchester, Bobby Baker will be recreating her unforgettable 1976 classic An Edible Family in a Mobile Home, featuring a life-sized father and offspring made from cake and biscuits with a comfort-dispensing mother figure taking the form of a dummy with teapot head and refillable body compartments bursting with nutritional snacks.

Baker, Hiller and Kelly are also among the 60-plus artists included in another groundbreaking show, this time devoted entirely to motherhood and its many facets. Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood is curated by the writer Hettie Judah and brings together a boggling span of works from both modern and contemporary artists. Ranging from classic 1960’s agitprop feminism to works to made by contemporary artists worldwide and encompassing conception, birth and childcare as well as loss and childlessness, this is a show that runs the gamut of human emotions from joy, trauma, sorrow, celebration and much more.

Chantal Joffe’s Self-Portrait with Esme in a Striped Nightie (2017)

© Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Wangechi Mutu summons fertility with a fiercely spiked ritualistic object fashioned from a pair of cow horns fused with spiked heels and embalmed in Kenyan mud; Chantal Joffe offers a raw, intimate first painting of her newborn daughter, Esme, while Lea Cetera has created an hourglass in the form of a double uterus and fallopian tubes in which the sands of time have run out, a fact underlined by its stark title You Can’t Have it All. More happily Marlene Dumas pays loving to tribute childhood creativity in a collaboration with her six year old daughter daughter Helena, who makes colourful painted additions to her mother’s famous fluid portrait heads; while Nancy Spero encourages all of us women to channel some primal female magic by interspersing our underwear with cut-out images of ancient genital bearing Sheela na gigs when hanging out our washing to dry.

Taboos around depicting breast milk, menstrual blood, shit and stretchmarks are gleefuly flouted by artists of all generations as they unflinchingly show bodily fluids and the physical actuality of reproduction and care. In a magnificent pastel self portrait of 1990, Claudette Johnson pays tribute to her naked post-natal body; while in Shit Mom, a painting made earlier this year Tala Madani gives stickily abject expression to the work’s title. Back in 1984, Caroline Elwes’s film of her lactating breast was deemed unfit for broadcast by a TV director at Channel 4; and now over three decades later, it finds a contemporary companions in Caroline Walker’s exquisite painted 2022 still life of feeding bottles and breast pumps and Camille Henrot’s 2019 series Wet Job—juicy watercolours featuring breast pumping, infant-devouring mothers who also gush unashamedly in all directions.

Acts of Creation opened at the Arnolfini in Bristol in May and it is currently at MAC Birmingham before traveling on to Sheffield and Dundee. In every location the exhibition is divided into three sections dedicated to creation, maintenance and loss, each of which covers an enormous spectrum of experiences around motherhood, as well as engaging with contemporary concerns around gender, caregiving and reproductive rights.

At the heart of every version of this show is The Temple, a specially designated chamber devoted to the artist mother in all her glory. Here, hanging on walls painted ultramarine blue, an array of self portraits both reinterpret and subvert the demure Madonnas of the past. A tattooed topless Catherine Opie suckles her infant; Chantal Joffe sits in her pants next to a now teenage Esme; and in a giant photograph THE YO MAMA, Renee Cox stands naked, powerful and proud, brandishing her strapping child like a weapon, while wearing nothing but high heels and a defiant stare.

Sorry Cyril, that pram was never art’s enemy, it was an inspiration and now it’s unstoppable.

• Women in Revolt, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, until 26 January; The Whitworth, University of Manchester, 7 March-24 August 2025

• Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood, Midlands Art Centre MAC Birmingham, 22 June-29 September; Millennium Gallery Sheffield, 24 October- 19 January 2025; Dundee Contemporary Arts, Spring 2025, dates to be confirmed

• The illustrated book Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood by Hettie Judah is published by Thames & Hudson.


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