Skip to main content
ExhibitionFeaturedFront Page

Leading women in photography turn the lens on Motherhood

By 3rd February 2022No Comments

Cindy Sherman, Elina Brotherus, Rineke Dijkstra and VALIE EXPORT are exhibiting in ‘Mutter!’ at Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany on view until Feb 6 2022

The work of Contemporary Heroines and leading women in photography Cindy Sherman, Elina Brotherus, Rineke Dijkstra and VALIE EXPORT is currently showing in the Kunsthalle Mannheim as part of the ‘Mutter!’ group exhibition. 

The exhibition is an ambitious exploration into how art has looked at the social, cultural, philosophical and psychological changes in motherhood over time.

Although beginning with the ancient Egyptians, the focus is on twentieth century art and the moment when revolutionary feminists began to seriously challenge the stereotypical role of the mother. 

The variety of disciplines represented gives equal space to the visual arts, literature, film, and historical artefacts, culminating in a commission by Laure Prouvost. Her installation is an eery octopus-like dystopian mother with breasts hanging from each of its limbs, and the sound of a voice calling out “mother,” filling the space.

The exhibition is split into six themes: the Madonna, Memory – Mother of the Artist, Mother’s Voice, Mothering, Fertility and the History of Motherhood: ten highlights. Included in the section on the Madonna, each of the Heroines asks – in her own way – how and why do we cling to an outdated ideal of the mother and child?

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1990 © Cindy Sherman, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

At first glance, Cindy’s luscious portrait seems to mirror the medieval images of Madonna and child. Draped in coloured fabric, the mother holds her child carefully and lovingly to her breast. But look a little closer and the ideal begins to unravel. The makeup is applied thickly, the baby stiff and doll-like, and the breast is made of plastic. This woman is role-playing the archetypal mother and through the artifice we can see the social conditioning behind this ideal.

Rineke’s portrait of new mother Julie takes us closer to the reality of childbirth. Photographed just an hour after birth in a nondescript space, there is none of the luxury of the traditional icon. Julie holds her tiny baby close, protectively shielding its face. Her eyes show tiredness, joy and apprehension—staring straight out at us. Clothed only in her postnatal bandages there is a strength and challenge to her pose.

VALIE EXPORT (1940-) 21 Ohne Titel, 1976 Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 60 × 43,5 cm Courtesy VALIE EXPORT

VALIE shows a more traditional look of the loving mother, gazing into the camera while undermining the sentiment with humour—the object of her love and protection is a vacuum cleaner. Perhaps a satirical nod to the idea of a woman’s place and women’s work, today it seems to speak of the unsung and unpaid labour of mothers.

Why should the objects of our greatest affection be human? Elina challenges the accepted norm of the family in her ‘My dog is cuter than your ugly baby’. Part of a greater body of work that considers how to make sense of life when it is not possible to conform to society’s idea of normal—to be a woman without children—Elina’s gesture and title are deliberately direct and confrontational. 

Elina Brotherus: Mein Hund Ist Süßer Als Dein Hässliches Baby, 2013, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Erworben aus Mitteln der Augustinus Fonden © Elina Brotherus/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

She challenges the societal pressure placed on women in an ever-increasing crisis of infertility in the Western world. Her image only begins to express the constant anger and grief of an undesired, childless life to a social media wall of endless baby pictures.

“I don’t have children so I don’t need to adopt any preconceived role of an adult. I can give normality the finger.”

The Madonna and child pervade European imagery throughout history; they are an archetype that is part of our psyche. But the twenty-first century seems to have brought its own wave of change to the concept of normality. ‘Mutter!’ seems to be a timely reminder of how far we have come and what is left still to redefine about the mother.

By Emma Godfrey Pigott


You might be interested in…

Last Chance to See – Maria Lassnig & Cindy Sherman in Switzerland

Two influential women artists, Maria Lassnig & Cindy Sherman, exhibit at Hauser & Wirth St Moritz until Feb 5, 2022

Four Contemporary Heroines explore motherhood in Cleveland exhibition

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Catherine Opie, Wendy Red Star, and Carrie Mae Weems feature in latest exhibition held at Cleveland Museum of Art until March 13, 2022