Lilla’s Birthing: Re-appropriating the subjective experience of birthing in visual art

This paper was first presented at the conference

Mothering and Motherhood in the 21st Century: Research and Activism
February 18-19, 2010, Lisbon, Portugal

 organised by

Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI)
And Centre for Research in Anthropology, Portugal (CRIA)

For many years I have investigated visual representations of the mother and birthing within both a Western Fine Art discourse and more generally within contemporary society. Subjected to political, historical, cultural and financial imposition the under-and mis-representation of birthing itself undermines the agency of mothers in their process of so-becoming, and informs attitudes towards and roles ascribed to women who mother.

A woman’s first experience of birthing is likely to be her own labour, a situation leaving her ill equipped and ignorant of this process. Ignorance here is not bliss: it is dangerous, disempowering and results in an over-dependence on others.

Nearly New Nathaniel photographed by Nicky Bird 1998

The language used to describe this activity focuses attention on the event of the birth of the child, rather than the activity of the woman involved. The phrase ‘childbirth’ undermines the agency of the woman, and visual representations I have found (including my own early work) reinforce this, emphasising the visual spectacle of the ermergence of the baby over the process of birthing.

There is a very real need to challenge the assumptions implicit in the way birthing women are represented. Depictions of women in labour tend to concentrate attention on her genital area, to assume a spectator’s point of view, to foreground the crowning head, the emerging child. Neither myself nor the two photographers who shot my own birthings had an real experience of birth, nor (to my knowledge) were conscious of any prior exposure to birthing imagery, and yet we all three followed conventions I have subsequently found repeated again and again.

Elinor Emerging  photographed by Ellinda Siu 2002

The Crowning 2001

Water Birth 2006

Brand New Mother 2001

Having observed the similarity between our framing, composition and point of view and that of other depictions of birthing women, my investigation led me to research the history of midwifery, the medicalisation of childbirth and feminist sexual politics of the representation of women’s bodies.

Engraving from Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi 
plate VI William Hunter 1774

Looking at William Hunter’s Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrata, more commonly known as Hunter’s Atlas published in 1774, it is remarkable how many of the conventions I had noticed are embedded in this work, and others of its era. Hunter’s Atlas consists of a series of life sized engravings of several stages of the dissection of a woman who had died in childbirth. The portrayal of her corpse and that of her child concretised a visual literacy which continues today. The body of the woman in labour is routinely dissected in visual representations while the body of the foetus is portrayed whole, intact. This, along with the foot of the bed perspective, the supine position of the body with the legs (where there are any) spread wide, the foregrounding of the genital area and the cropping out of the woman’s non-reproductive body parts continue to be pervasive conventions right up to today, both in medical illustration and in art.

Engraving from Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi 
plate VI William Hunter (1851 edn.)

Self Portrait with Dead Mother 2010

Illustration from Myles Textbook for Midwives p. 392 1999

Mother No.58 Jonathan Waller 1998

Looking at early and non-western imagery of women giving birth, I was struck by the very different perspective used, and the concentration on and emphasis of the woman herself. These represent the women as active rather than passive, generally upright, empowered and doing rather than having done to them.

Stone relief from Isolda Dell’ Sacra, Ostia,
1st Century CE

They may or may not be shown as having helpers, or birth attendants, but the whole woman is clearly depicted.

From the Temple of Hathor at Dendera  circa 30BC

The viewer generally encounters her before the emerging baby, and by representing the face and expression of the woman rather than concentrating attention on the baby, which is often much less clearly (if at all) depicted, her subjectivity is paramount and her process more important than the event of the birth.

Childbirth: Peruvian idol found in burial places
(Wellcome Library, London)

Detail from The Makomad Hairiri Neshki 1237. A copy of a work done in the year 635 of the Hegira by Mahmud ibn Yahyn Aul Hasan ibn Kuvarriha al Wasidi

These early or ‘primitive’ images may represent birthing mothers as goddesses or fertility icons, but their status, agency and physical activity as women is clearly expressed.

There have been a number of attempt by artists to make work dealing with this subject.

Monica Englund’s photobook En Fӧdelse  (A Birth) 1982 succeeds in revealing the actuality of contemporary hospitalised birth, but almost loses sight of the woman involved;

Monica Englund’s En Fӧdelse  (A Birth) 1982

Stan Brakhage’s film Window Water Baby Moving 1959 exemplifies exactly how I would not wish to represent birthing, succeeding in eliminating the woman’s subjectivity, agency, and in fact most of her body.

Stan Brakhage Window Water Baby Moving 1959 (composited film stills)

Filmed during his wife's first labour, the overriding sensation when watching this film was for me the possessive objectifying spectatorial voyeurism of an overly intrusive lens. 

Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1999 and shown in Tate Modern between 2000 and 2002 consists of three large video panels depicting footage of a birthing, a man plunged into darkened water and the dying or near-death of the artist’s mother.

Nantes Triptych Bill Viola 1999 Publicity Still
Compared with Brakhage, Viola’s is the more sensitive of the two film works. However, it again follows many of the conventions I already find problematic and although Viola maintains a full body shot of the woman for most of the labour, as soon as the baby crowns, the camera hones in on the genital area, and for the rest of the film she barely figures. Although the labouring occupies twenty two of the films’ twenty nine minutes duration, it is interesting that the publicity still for the Triptych shows the baby not the birthing.

Many of Jessica Clements' 2007 series of paintings made from photographs (Clements was not present at these births) crop the identity -and therefore the agency- of the woman out of the frame.

Joni and Nova Jessica Clements 2007

Clements 2009 series has developed to include the whole woman, but as in my own early work, the point of view remains firmly that of the spectator. These images are fundamentally OF women birthing, rather than with women birthing. Their identity and at times their agency are clear, but the experience of seeing the images remains that of the witness, the spectator, even the voyeur.

Eileen and Liam Jessica Clements 2009

Ghislaine Howard’s 1993 series of paintings also followed many of conventions I have already identified,

Birth Painting Ghislaine Howard 1993

Birth Painting no 2 Ghislaine Howard 1993

However this one Birth Painting number 2, did not.

Having undertaken a residency on a maternity ward, Howard had subsequently exhibited the paintings at Manchester Art Gallery. During a visit to Howard’s studio I enquired how this particular painting had been received but was told it had not been included in the exhibition at the end of the residency as it had not been made at that point. Howard described it to me as a later painting ‘from memory’ and said that although it had been informed by her residency on the maternity ward, it was ‘somewhat nearer to self-portraiture’, and a reaction to her realisation that she had no visual representation of her own experiences -many years previously- birthing her own children. This image seems to me to be a singular example of an expression of a re-imagined memory of a woman’s own subjective experience of birthing, and explains why I found it so unusual and intriguing.

I feel there has so far been a failure to represent birthing adequately, and in fact work by artists whilst seeking to reveal the actuality of giving birth, has frequently inadvertently served to reinforce the persistent objectification of a birthing woman’s body and experience.

 Lilla’s Birthing seeks to redress this, re-establishing the birthing woman as empowered within her own labouring, not victim of it. Through a normalised woman centred portrayal of birthing, the widespread misrepresentation of labouring women and their bodies is undermined. The camera remains as closely as possible with the woman, the edit favours the process over the event (the birth itself occupies seconds out of the 60 minutes of the film’s length), the humour, mundanity, excitement, joy, boredom and the pain intermingle, the cyclical rhythm of the contractions setting the pace of the film. Lilla’s Birthing is far less explicit than my earlier work in it’s representation of the event of the birth, concentrating rather on the process of birthing.

Portrait of a Labour Artist’s Book 2010

Portrait of a Labour is a book work which works with and against  Lilla’s Birthing. The intimacy of the book format allows the viewer to examine that which the film denies, the expression, the identity, the representations of her which the film references (you see these shots being taken) but refuses.

Presented in a format which echos traditional family albums, the work also draws attention to the underrepresentation of birthing within art, culture and wider society.

Somewhere between documentary and art, as interrelated moving image and book, these works focus attention on the constructed nature of the visual representation of the birthing woman. These self-reflexive works force the audience to confront their own voyeurism, to witness the potentially intrusive presence of the artist in this scene, and to experience the process as closely as possible from the birthing woman’s perspective, to understand and empathise with her embeddedness in her own activity.

SIX Exhibition Installation shot 2010

All images copyright Claire Harbottle except where credited elsewhere. No reproduction permitted without express permission of the original copyright holders. Original text copyright Claire Harbottle and protected by creative commons licence.

Huge thanks to the artists who gave their permission for images to be reproduced in this format. All efforts have been made to contact and obtain permission from copyright holders.

For further information on artists credited please see links below:

Lilla's Birthing by Claire Harbottle

Ghislaine Howard's A Shared Experience

Jessica Clements

Bill Viola's Nantes Triptych

Jonathan Waller