Rineke Dijkstra, Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29, 1994, C-print, 46 × 37". From the series “New Mothers,” 1994. From “La Grande Madre” (The Great Mother), 2015.

Rineke Dijkstra, Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29, 1994, C-print, 46 × 37". From the series “New Mothers,” 1994. From “La Grande Madre” (The Great Mother), 2015.

“La Grande Madre”

Rineke Dijkstra, Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29, 1994, C-print, 46 × 37". From the series “New Mothers,” 1994. From “La Grande Madre” (The Great Mother), 2015.

In 1994 the Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra began taking starkly minimal photographs of mothers, nude or barely clothed, cradling their newborns, some just a few hours old. The pictures, which constitute the series “New Mothers,” are illustrative of the extent to which Dijkstra limits the contextual information provided by her portraits to foreground her meticulous rendering of her subjects. And yet each of the snapshots in the series begs for an empathic response from the viewer. These women visibly bear the physical and emotional scars of the biological explosion that produces a new human being; their bodies are presented in these images as maps tracing the painful process of emancipation in which each of our bodies once participated. In this way, the “New Mothers” photographs were representative of the spirit of curator Massimiliano Gioni’s sprawling exhibition “La Grande Madre” (The Great Mother)—three works from Dijkstra’s series were on view—in which the theme of maternity was elaborated via a narrative that emphasized the conception of woman, mother, and human body as a single entity. This unity, which was approached as a generative, dramatic, and revolutionary notion, was the propulsive force behind this expansive analysis of the iconography of motherhood over the past 120 years.

The exhibition, which brought together the work of more than 130 artists and an extensive collection of ephemera, aimed to do far more than simply present a chronological series of depictions of the feminine or of motherhood. Rather, the show thematically explored both the reappropriations and the subversions of such images over the past century, and the myriad and fraught ways in which women artists relate to the responsibilities and traditions of motherhood. To accomplish this, Gioni drew from a broad spectrum of sources ranging from psychoanalysis to scientific studies, from politics to poetry, and from news reports to esoteric doctrines.

The conceptual starting point for “La Grande Madre” was to be found in the social and scientific literature of the first half of the twentieth century, notably the work of the psychologist Erich Neumann, who authored the 1955 study that inspired the exhibition’s title: The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. In this volume, Neumann surveys hundreds of images tied to representations of the creator goddesses of various cultures, many of which were collected by spiritualist and scholar Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn, whose personal archive began as the result of a dialogue with Carl Gustav Jung. Some three hundred items from Fröbe-Kapteyn’s collection were included in Gioni’s show. Sigmund Freud was present, too, in a historical photo, taken in 1925, of the psychoanalyst with his mother, Amalia. This document was cleverly exhibited in the same room as David Hammons’s punning work Freudian Slip, 1995.

Within this overall psychological framework, several galleries investigated specific themes. Some works—including Meret Oppenheim’s Votivbild (Würgeengel) (Votive Image [Strangling Angel], 1931), and Constantin Brancusi’s Newborn, 1920—explored the voluntary nature of motherhood. These displays were followed by a presentation offering reflections on the symbolic power of the maternal, the expression of the mother figure in social revolution, and the woman in Futurism. The research of such feminist Futurists as Valentine de Saint-Point, Mina Loy, Marisa Mori, and Rosa Rosà coalesced with artworks by later artists, including Louise Bourgeois and Ida Applebroog, whose efforts here considered the complexities of being, in motherhood, at once a daughter, a woman, and a mother.

Gioni acknowledges historical precedents for his exhibition, citing both Harald Szeemann’s never-realized “La Mamma,” conceived in the mid-1970s, and Lea Vergine’s “L’altra metà dell’avanguardia, 1910–1940” (The Other Half of the Avant-Garde, 1910–1940), mounted in 1980 in these very rooms at the Palazzo Reale. While Vergine’s show recounted modern art history via the efforts of still underrecognized women artists, “La Grande Madre” encouraged consideration of shifts in the landscape of feminism over the twentieth century, specifically, since these historical sister presentations.

The exhibition concluded with a range of works exploring the connection between mothers and sons, including pieces by Catherine Opie, Andy Warhol, Gillian Wearing, and Ragnar Kjartansson, among others. This component perhaps nodded to Gioni’s own relationship to the exhibition’s conceptual core, and it homed in on a theme that was evident throughout the exhibition: the dynamics between the self and the other. So much can be made, as Roman Ondák’s 2002 performance Teaching to Walk reminds us, of the inexorable severance that occurs when a mother teaches her child to set out on his or her own two feet.

Paola Nicolin

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.