Mother Figure: Modernist Maternities from the Leeds Sculpture Collections
21 September – 5 December 2004
Exhibition in the Upper Sculpture Study Gallery, Leeds Art Gallery
The mother and child motif in art is potent and enduring. It permeates most aspects of cultural history, maintaining a complex psychological bearing on our consciousness even today.
By focusing on the formal arrangement of hands and arms joining these two figures, sculpture has always offered a symbolic means for conveying the intense physical relationship that exists between the mother and her baby. Traditionally this has led to an emphasis on the unit, with the figures often so tightly bound as to render them one.
Regular identification with the Virgin and the infant Christ only served to bolster the iconic nature of such renderings. As a result, a semi-miraculous subtext may be said to reside in all maternity sculptures, even those purporting to challenge the idealism of the traditional totem.
Numerous challenges to this notion were made by the sculptures in this exhibition, such as Henry Moore’s ‘Rocking Chair No. 2’ and works by Edward Onslow Ford and William Hamo Thornycroft which portray everyday life.
A similar recognition of ordinary experience prompts the acknowledgement, in sculptures by Maurice Lambert and Leon Underwood, of the father’s place within a standard family setting, contrasting rather with the peripheral figure traditionally cut by Joseph in relation to Madonna and Child compositions of the more distant past.
It is a willingness to address the distressing possibilities of real motherhood that lies behind the works by Albert Toft and Austin Wright, both of which deal with the loss of children in terms that are starker, say, than a classical sculpture like Michael Rysbrack’s ‘Allegory of Charity’ for the Corum Foundling Hospital in London.
The works in this exhibition by Eric Gill, Leon Underwood, Ralph Brown, Franta Belsky, Peter Peri and Betty Rea appeared to illustrate a gradual return to something approaching idealism, though one that was based more on a belief in the primacy of the wider community than the fundamental relationship between the mother and her child.