Imagine a culture so centred on wealth, property and power that it becomes scared of sex and frets endlessly about what it sees as the misuses of sex. A culture that identifies breeding so closely with with money, wealth and status, and women so closely with breeding and therefore with sex that, when looking to replace traditional symbols of birth and regeneration it rejects sex and even nature and, in the end makes the embodiment of motherhood a virgin and the embodiment of rebirth a dead man. Unhealthy, you might think; misanthropic even – and yet here we are.
But when that culture loses its religious imperative, what should be waiting? Those old symbols of fertility; rabbits and eggs. But whereas Christianity in its pure form found it hard to assimilate these symbols, preferring instead to just impose its own festival of rebirth on top of the pagan one, capitalism, despite being in so many ways compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition, is essentially uninterested in spiritual matters. So even though it’s mostly pretty okay with Christianity, which creates its own consumer-friendly occasions, it proves to be equally okay with paganism too, as long as it can sell us the pagan symbols back in a lucrative way.
Easter is, after all, a mess to begin with; its name is pagan (Ēostre or Ôstara, Goddess of the spring) and its Christian traditions, even when embodied in the tragic idea of a man being killed by being nailed to a cross was never entrenched enough to suppress the essentially celebratory, even frivolous feeling that spring traditionally brings. Okay, so Christ ascending to heaven is pretty celebratory without being frivolous; but as, in the UK at least, represented by a hot cross bun, with its cross on the top to represent the crucifix and even – to play up the morbid factor that is so central to Christianity – its spices that are supposed allude to the embalming of Christ’s dead body, it’s hardly solemn: it’s a bun.
On the other hand, birth, since the dawn of time and to the present day, is not just a simple cause for rejoicing and in that the Christian tradition, though it tries to remove the aspects that seem most central to birth to us: women, labour (the word presumably wasn’t chosen accidentally) and procreation, probably tells us more about the seriousness and jeopardy of childbirth than the Easter bunny does.
The patron (matron?) saint of childbirth is no help; St Margaret in herself has nothing to do with birth (although she was presumably born), but becomes its saint through the symbolic act of bursting out of the dragon who ate her – a strange analogy but one that reflects the hazardous nature of childbirth in medieval times, when mortality rates were high, not just for babies but for their mothers. Rabbits may represent – in ancient cultures across the world, from Europe to Mexico and beyond – fecundity, but it’s an animal idea of fertility for its own sake that has nothing to do with the practical or emotional aspects of producing new human beings.
Pregnancy in Western art was a rarity until fairly recently; and even now, the puritanical ideas inherited from Victorian Christianity mean that the apparently pregnant Eve of Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (completed in 1432) is a subject of debate: Eve pregnant with humankind makes sense, and the 15th century was certainly more in touch with the realities of human life than the 19th and early 20th century men who codified the canon of Western art history – but maybe she is simply the medieval/gothic ideal of femininity as seen in illuminated manuscripts and carvings; small shoulders, small breasts, big hips and stomach – given an unusually realistic treatment.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the 20th, Gustav Klimt was able to bring the beauty and wonder of pregnancy and birth to art with Hope I, his beautiful female figure of hope and renewal glowing against a background of death and peril, but it’s only really when women begin painting that that the symbolic and magical aspects of motherhood are reconciled with the more sombre, earthly spirituality that Christianity preferred to represent in a dying man and with the fundamental animal nature of humankind, without that being a negative thing. A painting like Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Reclining Mother and Child II (1907) shows all of the human aspects that were embodied in the contorted Christian images of the Virgin Mary, crucifixion and Christ’s rebirth: human beings that are fragile, loving, vulnerable and dependent on each other, but also the things that were missing; biology and the bonds it creates. The magic of Klimt, but not represented in a titillating way, and depicted in concrete rather than symbolic terms.
For the generation after Paula Modersohn-Becker, everything was seen through the fragmenting prism of World War One, and so Otto Dix, more cynical, less intimately involved, shows us the physical discomfort of pregnancy minus its magic. Dix, despite his famous claim, “I’m not that obsessed with making representations of ugliness. Everything I’ve seen is beautiful.” took a definite pride in shocking viewers with his art; as he also said; “All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.” By the time Dix painted these pictures he was a father himself, but although his paintings of his family reveal a more tender, if just as incisive, aspect to his art, here he paints as a pitiless observer, knowing that his work was challenging and confrontational to the generally conservative audience of his time; a time when, like ours, forces of intolerance and conservatism were closing in on the freedom embodied in art this truthful.
But despite his clinical eye and devotion to the ‘new objectivity’ (“The Neue Sachlichkeit – I invented it“) Dix’s truth is a dramatic, heightened kind, designed to penetrate the complacency of his era. Meanwhile, his pupil, Gussy Hippold-Ahnert tackled the same subject and almost certainly even the same model with a realism that is at first less striking but also far less dramatizing. Gussy was of course a woman and is not showing us, as Dix seems to be, a faceless being representing the eternal, but rarely remarked on hardship involved in the joyous business of continuing the species. Instead, Hippold-Ahnert shows us a woman who happens to be pregnant; both paintings are realistic, both are objective and, as with the symbolic sacrifice of Christ and the eternally recurring bunny, both display different aspects of the truth.
But anyway; enjoy your chocolate.