Few truths apply to everyone throughout all times – but we all have a mother. Within art history, the trope of the mother is among the most iconic. The exhibition Stories About Mothers examines the role of the mother within art and cultural history, placing particular focus on the Renaissance and the early 20th while looking also at contemporary art. Despite being centuries apart, artists all throughout the ages have been captivated by the image of the mother as a subject in art. Experience works by artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jens Juel, Berthe Morisot, Christian Krohg, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Michael Kvium and Alexander Tovborg together with excerpts from new Danish literature that compliments the works.
Perhaps the most well known mother of all time is the Virgin Mary, loved and worshiped by many, and depicted by countless artists over the centuries. Despite our protestant and secularised culture here in Northern Europe, artistic depictions of the Madonna have played a considerable role in shaping our concept of the ideal mother – images of motherhood begin with religious representations of her. Mary is thus the embodiment of the ideal transcended into earthly representations of mothers. Art history is full of wonderful, heartfelt, loving depictions of mothers and their children in which we can see ourselves reflected and allow ourselves to be moved. But does art always match up with reality?
In today’s modern vernacular we use terms like mama bear, soccer mom, career mum and tiger mum. We have all sorts of different names and words relating to motherhood, which tells us something about the focus we place on the subject. Although women now occupy many roles in our society, motherhood still holds a cherished place in our collective consciousness – on social media, in literature, in art and in popular culture. Expectations are huge, and around one in four new mothers experience a postpartum reaction; one in ten experience postpartum depression. We believe we are free to create our own selves, but in reality the individual is strongly influenced by external ideals and norms. Our notions of what it means to be a mother are largely influenced by artistic depictions from across the centuries. The visual history of motherhood is long and its influence is not at all easy to escape.
Alongside art, new contemporary literature also plays a central role in the exhibition. Placed in juxtaposition with the older paintings, the literature in the exhibition articulates a discrepancy between the ideal depiction of motherhood and the reality of our daily lives. Controversial, vulnerable and imperfect mothers and the conflicting emotions that often go hand in hand with motherhood are not immediately presently in the art. Contemporary literature gives voice to an inner world which is much more tumultuous than the idealised images that are so prolific in art history before the 1900s.
Like a magic mirror for the ever giving and loving mother, this excerpt from author Hanne Højgaard Viemose (b. 1977) is placed side by side with the painting collection’s own Caritas by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). Caritas is a representation of charity, depicted as a mother who is always ready to breastfeed.
Danish artist Gudrun Hasle’s (b.1979) photo of her pregnant belly with I have to be perfect tattooed on one arm, which she uses to cradle to her tummy, is a strong yet vulnerable depiction of the mother’s loving ambition to do the best for her child – a reminder that the ideal lives on.
“Mange mener, at det at føde børn og derefter være mor er det mest naturlige man kan foretage sig som kvinde. Men på Nivaagaards nye udstilling står det hurtigt klart, at måden, man er mor på, har mere med kultur end natur at gøre. Og det udgangspunkt lægger op til så mange diskussioner og interessante tankerækker, at det er en sand fornøjelse.”
"Det er en berigende visuel rejse i denne helt fundamentale relation, som gennemtrænger kulturen fra den tidlige kristendoms Jomfru Maria-dyrkelse til vore dages perfektionskrav til nybagte mødre.”
“Endnu engang viser Nivaagaard en udstilling som på smukkeste vis binder fortiden og nutiden sammen. Med den let omskrevne H.C. Andersen titel ”Historier om mødre” rammer udstillingen ned i den aktuelle opkvalificering af alt, som er kvindeligt. Men museet gør det med ynde og ikke i en krampagtig eller kampberedt feminisme.”