Updated: Sep 4, 2020
A pregnant pause ... but the wait is worth it for this groundbreaking, unmissable exhibition.
The Foundling Museum doesn’t do indifference (the gallery of tokens given to children abandoned by their mothers is heartbreaking), and its current exhibition, Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media has the same emotional punch.
An exhibition devoted to women, picturing women, and with a unusually high number of artworks by women. Any one of these three is remarkable, yet the topic itself, the depiction of pregnancy in art (and principally British art) is highly original. Human pregnancy is the most commonplace thing in the world, and at the same time has often been neglected by artists and art historians. The Foundling Museum has filled this void by putting in the spotlight artworks depicting pregnancy from the 15th century to the present day.
Arranged chronologically, the exhibition shows how the representation of pregnancy in art has constantly evolved. Sometimes it has been prominent, sometimes hidden, on occasion met by awe or outrage, but never leaving the audiences unmoved.
Portraying Pregnancy surprises on many levels. Alongside Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Cecily More (the daughter of Sir Thomas More), there is an Instagram photo of Beyoncé displayed on a tablet, medieval images of the Visitation, the Vanity Fair covers of Demi Moore and Serena Williams by Annie Leibovitz, and the haunting yet beautiful sculpture of Alison Lapper (8 months) by Marc Quinn. The exhibition is extraordinarily moving. A portrait of Princess Charlotte, copied from one made a few months before she died in childbirth in 1817, is shown next to the very same dress she was wearing in the painting. A tiny book contains a letter by Elizabeth Joscelin, written to her unborn child in case she died in giving birth, and which sadly happened. There is a shocking, copperplate image of a woman from her vulva to her distorted stomach, together with the anatomical book it illustrates.
I particularly liked the self-portrait of Mary Beale, a very successful female painter in the 17th century and the main financial provider for her family through her professional work, but whose name, like so many of her sisters, has been airbrushed from history. Here, she depicts herself with her husband and son, and what is remarkable is that she occupies the left-hand side of the painting (as seen by the viewer), traditionally the male position.
It would perhaps have been better to take the artworks lost among the Foundling Museum's permanent collection on the other floors and to display them in the main exhibition space, especially in preference to the many reproductions of works that hadn’t been loaned (it seemed in this repect that the museum was trying to be too comprehensive). But aside from this small gripe, Portraying Pregnancy is a terrific exhibition about womanhood, diversity and empowerment. Especial mention should be made of Karen Hearn, who has curated such a thought-provoking show.
The Foundling Museum until 23 August 2020
Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels