Recently, Audrey Gelman, co-founder of the women’s workspace The Wing, became the first recognizably pregnant CEO to grace the cover of a major magazine. “It’s 2019, and we’re still having a year of firsts,” USA Today noted, in something of an understatement. Pregnancy and childbirth are the most natural things imaginable, a reminder of our shared beginnings as human beings — a universal truth that Gustave Courbet nodded to in his 1866 painting “L’Origine du monde” (a work that, incidentally, caused a 21st-century legal dust-up when it was blocked by Facebook). No matter how we think society has evolved, these timeless biological truths somehow still tend to make people uncommonly squeamish and uncomfortable.
When the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Massachusetts acquired and exhibited “The Pregnant Woman,” a 1931 painting by German artist Otto Dix, reactions from visitors weren’t always enthusiastic. As the title suggests, the work simply shows a very pregnant model, her face turned away from the viewer, the lower half of her nude body obscured by blankets. “The responses were all over the map,” recalls Marcia Lagerway, a guest curator at the museum and the institution’s former director of education. “[They ranged] from ‘beautiful’ to ‘disgusting’ to ‘I looked just like that!’”
Interestingly, Lagerway notes that those who seemed most taken aback by the work were older women. Perhaps, she surmises, they brought with them difficult experiences of their own regarding childbirth; or perhaps they simply “have a level of internalized misogyny, and also a problem with liking or accepting their own bodies.” Regardless, the mixed sentiments surrounding Dix’s portrait inspired Lagerway to craft an entirely different exhibition that might further explore those intense reactions. The result is “With Child,” a unique show that brings together “The Pregnant Woman,” and other related Dix works, with a new commission by Cleveland-based photographer and mixed-media artist Carmen Winant.
New York audiences may know Winant from her acclaimed contribution to “New Photography 2018” at the Museum of Modern Art. There, for a piece entitled “My Birth,” the artist collected and hung hundreds of found images relating to childbirth, creating a collage of imagery that was by turns romantic and visceral. When Lagerway asked Winant if she’d like to work together on a new commission, in conversation with the work of Otto Dix, she was intrigued. The composition of Dix’s “The Pregnant Woman” reminded her of another painting that had affected her greatly when she first saw it: Dana Schutz’s “How We Would Give Birth” (2007), which depicts a mother, in the midst of labor, staring at a mountain landscape that hangs on the wall behind her. Also on her mind was Frida Kahlo’s stunning and symbolic 1932 painting, also titled “My Birth.”
These influences and inspirations came together in the work that Winant would conjure for WAM. Titled “Ha Hoo Ha Hoo… Hoo Ha Ha, Ha Hoo” (a reference to breathing exercises used in labor) it incorporates six slide projectors that rotate through 480 images related to childbirth. These images are personally sourced by Winant — who gently chides herself as being somewhat of a hoarder and points to a certain fascination with material from the late 1960s and ‘70s, during the heady days of the women’s liberation movement. When I spoke to the artist in late September, she was in the midst of clearing out some of the materials in her Ohio studio, sorting through a “sea of images all over the floor” that have “a kind of wild chaos to them.” Indeed, it’s the sheer volume of photographs that Winant collects — the sensation of overload when a single, simple act is repeated — that gives her installations their evocative power.
As for the old-school technology used to display the new work at WAM, that merely adds its own layer of nuance. “My hope is that the projectors trigger memories — particularly [for] folks of a particular generation — of being with their family in this intimate space, in a kind of togethering,” Winant explains. “Something that feels celebratory and familial. I wanted to put birth in that frame, and sort of swap out your cousin’s bat mitzvah photos, or your trip to Greece, and register a different kind of image on the same device.”
Intriguingly, considering that “With Child” is meant to challenge taboos surrounding childbirth and pregnancy, WAM has decided to install cautionary signage outside the exhibition itself. Winant and Lagerway seem conflicted about the decision, though ultimately supportive; the artist notes, for instance, that certain women visiting the show might have their own emotional or painful experiences related to pregnancy. But both note that there’s a certain hypocrisy involved with a culture that finds something explicit and warning-worthy about childbirth, while having no issue with material that is graphic in other ways. “I find it ironic that there’s a perceived need for warnings about pregnant bodies and birth, when there are idealized, sexualized female nudes in other galleries that require no signage,” the curator notes. “Personally, I also am much more troubled by exposing children to images of violence than I am to sharing with them images of a pregnant woman or a birth scene.”
Lagerway adds that, in the lead-up to this show, she discovered marked differences in attitudes toward depictions of pregnancy and childbirth among Americans and Europeans. “Germans, and Europeans in general, seemed more comfortable” with such images. “I didn’t encounter older German or Dutch women who found [Otto Dix’s] ‘The Pregnant Woman’ disturbing or disgusting in the same ways as some American women did,” she adds. “This is why I believe this exhibition is so important: it reveals what is often hidden….Sometimes, we need to face our own shock and dive into it, live it, experience it, and then try to understand it.”
For her part, Winant has been heartened by the responses to her own work. Before exhibiting “My Birth” at MoMA, she was nervous about how audiences would react. “I really had to work hard to get over the feelings of shame around taking on birth as a subject, and thinking that it would be taken seriously,” she notes. The artist feared that viewers of that earlier installation would, she says, be disturbed or embarrassed by the subject matter; instead, she “was surprised by people’s curiosity, by the amount of time they were willing to spend.”
Indeed, early responses to “With Child” at WAM have been encouraging and enlightening. Lagerway points to one in particular, a response left by a female fertility doctor visiting from Dubai. “It’s time the world got used to seeing a stark reality of the blood and gore of childbirth as the slide show depicts,” the woman wrote. “Not the picture-perfect cherubs wrapped in pink [or] blue fluffy blankets with soft benevolent content mums looking down at them. Some laypersons may be in for a shock initially, but what the heck!”
Top Image: Found image included in "With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant." Photo: Worcester Art Museum.