I recently received a catalogue in the mail for an art exhibition “Through A Mother’s Eye: The Lifeline Work of Feminist Artist, Helen Redman.” I was so intrigued that I read it cover to cover. When this show opened at the Women’s Museum of California at San Diego’s Liberty Station at Point Loma, I decided to take a drive down to see the work in person.
Helen Redman’s series of images on the subject of motherhood is very personal and spans several decades dating back to 1962. Her oeuvre is not limited to this subject, however the concept of lifelines stays central as she traces personal and universal cycles of womanhood from mother to grandmother, from menopause to the birthing of the crone to the acceptance of the beauty of aging.
What is seen in Redman’s exhibit is mostly colorful imagery along with some ink drawings featuring nude pregnant self-portraits with her baby in-utero, clothed pregnant self-portraits, Mother and child scenes, portraits of her children, her daughter pregnant, and her grandchildren at various points in their lives. In other words, very personal imagery. Some artworks by family members are included here as well. There is a communal feeling here at the Women’s Museum so it is well-suited for such a generational display.
Most of us are familiar with the nurturing and healing aspects of art making and this is something that is extremely important to Redman. In 1964, when Redman was 5 months pregnant with her 2nd daughter, her 20-month old daughter Paula died suddenly from a virus. This is where art became an important healing tool as she concentrated on depicting her pregnancy, her new daughter, then a son, and so on. All of this helped keep her centered at a time when mourning could have truly derailed her. There were only a few ink drawings and a tender collage of the baby Paula. These drawings had been put away for a long time. It took nearly 52 years for Redman to bring them out and that is part of the healing as well. The loss and absence of Paula had a profound effect on the entire family, and this exhibition in fact is dedicated to her.
The image of the pregnant woman is not a common subject in Western art. However, there are two female artists of the 20th c. that come to mind who have embraced the subject quite successfully. First is the work of the Early German Modernist Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) whose nude pregnant self-portraits and nude mother and child scenes of the Worpswede artist’s community in Northern Germany are considered to be the ultimate representation of the “Earth Mother.” She even boldly depicted the mother breastfeeding her baby. Then there is the shockingly forthright series by Alice Neel (1900-1984) who painted the pregnant female nude because she felt the subject had been neglected in art. Interestingly, Modersohn-Becker and Neel did not hold back in any way with their representations and neither did Redman.
The subject matter of mother and child plays an interesting role in the history of Western art, which is predominantly found in Christian imagery of Mary with the baby Jesus, a subject painted and sculpted by male artists. By the 17th century, we begin to see royal family portraiture with the requisite Mother and children. In the 19th c. the theme is more popularized by artists such as the American Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) who created warm portraits of her family members, with a special focus on the mother and child in the Impressionist style.
In Redman’s work we see a tender and very personal glimpse into a family’s history, with the themes of maternity and motherhood, identity and acceptance, all in one exhibition. This is executed with Redman’s signature figurative style with flat areas of color. Her style and palette seem very well-suited to the fecund self-portraits and attentive portrayals of loved ones. With Mother’s Day just around the corner we are reminded by this artist that “the art world undervalues the maternal eye.” It was my privilege to view Redman’s maternal eye through my maternal eye as a mother and art historian.
Happy Mother’s Day
More about Helen Redman can be found on her website: www.birthingthecrone.com
More about the Women’s Museum of California: www.WomensMuseumCa.org