The Power of Representation
If you search “image of a pregnant woman” on Google, what you will get is an infinite supply of pictures of women in profile, looking down at their bellies as they caress their big bulge. Whether these are stock photos, greeting cards, pregnancy photo-shoots, paintings, movie stills, or whatever, this is the dominant representation of pregnancy in our society. Have you ever wondered where it originated and what effect this one-note representation has on our communal consciousness? This way of representing pregnancy originated in the Christian art of the middle ages, yet it has remained the main way to portray pregnancy in contemporary culture.
Figure 1 Madonna Del Parto, Bernardo Daddi E Bottega, 1330-35
Figure 2 The Visitation, Raphael, c. 1517
The pregnant and fertile female body was always a prominent subject in art and culture. From the earliest known sculptures, such as the Venus of Willendorf, to generations of representations depicting the Virgin Mary pregnant with Jesus, female fertility, pregnancy, and reproduction have held a notable place in artistic expression. Whether archaic and primitive or religious and holy, these traditional female fertility figures are intrinsically powerful. However, the difference between eastern and pre-Christian imagery versus monotheistic representations of fertility, pregnancy and birth, is jarring.
Figure 3 The Venus of Willendorf, Created c. 25,000 BP
Figure 4 Birth scene from al-Hariri’s Maqamat, Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, 13th century
Figure 5 Tlazolteotl (Birthing Figure), Aztec Art, c.900-1580
Figure 6 Woman Giving Birth Supported by Four women, Ancient Greece, Year Unknown
Figure 7 Squatting Woman Giving Birth Supported by Two Women, South India, 18th century CE
From naked, voluptuous bodies, who face front and birth squatting or standing up, alone or supported by other women, the dominant representation of the pregnant and birthing woman turned into the Virgin Mary. Mary is always fully dressed, in profile, looking down at her stomach, a hand caressing the holy unborn babe. Likewise, images of Mary's birth to Jesus display the young women either laying down covered by a blanket or kneeling in prayer, surrounded by Joseph, a midwife or two holding the already born baby, all kinds of livestock, and numerous angels lending their support from above. Often these images of birth include the three Magi (or three kings), present to validate Mary's birth as a truly sacred event. Because without three rich men telling us it is true, how could we ever believe it, right?
Figure 8 The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, Duccio, 1308 – 1311
Figure 9 Adoration of the Magi, Giotto, 1303
Representations of other pregnant women, aside from Mary herself, began to adopt these same attributes. Thus, the dominant model of acceptable imagery of pregnancy became one in which the woman herself is portrayed as docile, chaste, and virginal. The act of birth became something that happens to the woman and is a successful and holy event due to midwives, angels, kings, sheep, and a male god. Rather than birth being an action that a woman does while being supported by other women.
The women in these paintings are the perfect, fertile women whom the men that painted them desired. They represent the patriarchal ideas of femininity, desire, fertility, birth, and the continuation of the human race. The Monotheistic pregnant ideal is the Virgin, the holy, disconnected from the sexual intercourse inherent in the act of conceiving. She is fully dressed, with her hand resting on her stomach, innocent and dedicated entirely to her godly child alone. She isn't a complicated woman with her own needs and wants, and she is never sexual. She never has agency. Isn’t it inconceivable that this is still the main imagery of pregnancy in the 21st century?
What’s more, the antithesis of these images in Christian-inspired art were images of the monstrous feminine, the woman as a vessel for the antichrist, a prostitute, a sinner. Her sexuality is portrayed as the devil's work and her pregnancy as an abomination. There is no in-between.
Figure 10 Birth of the Antichrist, Anonymous, 1475
Most mainstream modern images still possess the same transcendent, holy quality about them; women in repose, with their hands on their fully clothed belly, these images still recall Christian iconography. These representations still go along with society's well-versed trope of modesty, purity, and virginity, thus remaining inherently patriarchal. Thankfully, in modern and contemporary art, we again encounter a wide variety of representations of birth, pregnancy, and female fertility.
Unique artistic representations, created mainly by women, show a different pregnant and fertile woman or person. These images are immediately more complex, controversial, and inverted. They are less modest; they are unchaste, with nudity or exposed body parts, sexuality, and no allusions to virginity. These women impregnated themselves through sexual intercourse; they weren't inseminated by God or the holy ghost. They are not virgins, nor monstrous whores, but rather heterotopic vessels of life, charged with ambivalence. They erupt with multiple emotions: exaltation, power, euphoria, inspiration, trauma, turmoil, anxiety, confusion, and fear. According to Rachel Epp Buller and Charles Reeve, in modern art, "maternity is both a cultural ideal and a cultural taboo, both appropriate and inappropriate. Maternity appropriates two contradictory states at once."
Figure 11 Margaret Evans Pregnant, Alice Neel, 1978
Figure 12 Self-portrait on the 6th wedding anniversary, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
Figure 13 Pregnant, Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2017
These contemporary paintings and photographs of pregnancy are far deeper, far more genuine, and infinitely more empowering than their predecessors. However, many of these images are also terrifying, as they often portray a darker side of motherhood, pregnancy, and birth as well. It's not always a picnic. Some of these artworks seem defiant, others ambivalent and unsure, some show exhaustion, and others show pain and even loss. Likewise, some portray creation, power, euphoria, strength, agency, and pure unadulterated joy.
Figure 14 Pregnant Woman, Louise Bourgeois, 2008
Figure 15 The Widow I, Käthe Kollwitz, 1921-2
Figure 16 The Mothers, Jenny Saville, 2011
I love these modern and contemporary images of pregnancy. Each one tells a story. And when looked at together, they create a new narrative. We carry life inside us and know how to birth this life into the world. Whether we do so alone, in the embrace of our loved ones, or with the help of a doula, a midwife, or the medical staff of a hospital, it is we - the women - who give birth. No matter how we look, who we are, or what we've done, we are mothers, we are creators, and we are bearers of life.
Figure 17 Henry Ford Hospital, Frida Kahlo, 1932
Figure 18 God Giving Birth, Monica Sjöö, 1968
This power and strength can be frightening and overwhelming. The way our bodies change, morph, and do what they are built to, is often strange for us in our modern world of technology. We are so far removed from our natural primal side, so connected to technology and industrialization, that we get anxious when our bodies do their job without our conscious command. We often forget that our bodies hold inherent biological intelligence that doesn't need to be learned. We forget that our bodies connect to our minds and our spirits, and when all three parts of ourselves work together in harmony, everything falls into place.
Figure 19 Jenny and Leslie, 8 Months Pregnant, Sally Mann, 1983-85
Figure 20 Waiting, Josely Carvalho, 1982
Figure 21 Mama Goma, Gemena, Dr. Congo, Deana Lawson, 2014
That is why representation matters. We as a society need to see the array of experiences that pregnancy and birth are and can be. Being exposed to these many beautiful and frightening works of art is necessary for our culture and society to release the timid, virginal idea of pregnancy. Art can empower us and lead to changes in our perception.
Figure 22 Nana Pregnant (Last Night I had a Dream), Niki de Saint Phalle, 1968
Figure 23 Birth Power (from the series Birth Project), Judy Chicago (needlework by Sandie Abel) , 1984
Let us continue to create life and to create art, and to share it with the world. If we do so, hopefully one day when we search “image of pregnant woman” on google we will get a more real picture of pregnancy and birth.