Mothers. Perhaps one of the most universal and yet one of the most personal concepts in the world. We all have different views of what a mother is or should be because we all have different experiences with ‘mother’. Even though not everyone has a mother in their life, everyone somehow relates to ‘mother’.
Over the years, the concept we all have of a mother, or of motherhood, has changed dramatically as a result of feminism, psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, and various philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others. Whereas the archetypical mother is a nurturing, loving woman, the perception has broadened considerably, and ‘mother’ can be defined in countless ways. This changing image is reflected in the representation of mothers in art. Just look at the difference between contemporaries Gustav Klimt and Charley Toorop.
The image we have of mothers is strongly related to the image we have of women. For a long time, being a woman was equivalent to being a mother. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, believed that women were inescapably mothers and caretakers. The very essence of womanhood was to become a mother. Rousseau wrote that women “ought to make herself pleasing to man.”
Artist Larissa Esvelt is concerned with the image of women, particularly their physical side. In contrast to Rousseau, who looked at things from a male perspective, which was heavily influenced by the spirit of his time, Esvelt looks at women from a childlike perspective. In her work, she combines the beauty but also the bestiality of the female body. This combination also reflects her image of the maternal being: caring and wild, pure and beastly. The mother is often for many years the only example we have of a fully grown female body. As a girl, you can mirror your own body to this, especially when the body itself is also subject to changes due to puberty, a period in which the body takes on a more central role in our own lives.
THE ROLE OF THE MOTHER
Bieke Purnelle, journalist and director of RoSa, a knowledge center for gender, feminism, and equal opportunities, stated in an interview on Radio 1: “Until the mid-18th century, people looked at motherhood in a fairly objective and arid way. You got children and you made sure they stayed alive. You were not supposed to cuddle your child. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, the ideas of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, people started to perceive this differently; the notion of motherly love became more central.” In Rousseau’s time, in the upper echelons of society, it was common to have children raised by a “nurse” for women to occupy themselves with other obligations such as social affairs. However, Rousseau wrote, “the child needs a mother’s care as much as her milk.” He believed that the duty of the mother was to bring up her child herself.
CHANGE THROUGH FEMINISM AND PHILOSOPHY
Many early modern political philosophers argued in favor of patriarchy, in which fathers ruled the home and mothers merely carried out their wishes. “Sigmund Freud, for example, portrayed the mother as the primary caregiver, but other than that totally unimportant,” explains Bieke Purnelle in the same interview with Radio 1. John Locke broke with this tradition: “Parental power,” he says in the Second Treatise on Government “was not plac’d in one, but two Persons jointly.” So, he pursues equality between men and women, at least within the education of the child. A century later Rousseau also described equality between men and women (at least relatively, given the fact we are still describing society in the 18th century). However, he again attributed the care of the child entirely to the mother.
Simone de Beauvoir is considered the mother of all feminists – ironic, given her aversion to motherhood. She equated a woman’s decision to marry and have children with selling oneself into slavery. For a long time, becoming a mother and being a mother was an expectation of society that a woman could not escape. With both her fictional texts, her autobiographies, and the book ‘The Second Sex’ Beauvoir wanted to make her readers aware that motherhood will always be a conscious choice rather than a passive yielding to tradition.
MOTHERS IN THE MODERN AGE
Throughout the centuries, the role of the mother was framed, it was clear what was expected of her. In our contemporary society, however, these frameworks are questioned, stretched, and rejected. The interpretation of what a ‘mother’ is, is no longer as self-evident as it was in previous centuries.
In her work Replika Pleun van Dijk takes over one of the most basic roles of the mother: the production of offspring. The work implies several questions about the role of the mother. Besides giving birth, what other roles does the mother play? Can we ultimately make the mother superfluous through new technology?
THE MOTHER’S INFLUENCE ON THE CHILD
As described above, the expectation and roles of the women or mothers are highly dependent on the time spirit she was subjected to. Every woman is a product of her time but also distinctly unique. Artist Lennart Creutzburg shows the conditioned mother. She is conditioned by her culture, religion, her own parents. And in time she transfers this to the child. Being a child is like a simulation: moral standards and values are imposed on you from all sides, forming the child. ‘The environmental mother’ is the first object that the young child mirrors. This mirror ensures the first steps in the development of the child’s personality. Creutzburg researches and questions the external influences on human formation.
The exhibition My Mother’s Daughter presents an ideal image of the mother-child relationship. This relationship is not always just loving, easy or fun. Within the exhibition, the role of the mother is questioned, and, in some cases, the mother is even made redundant. We love our mother, despise her or long for a mother when we do not have one. Everyone has probably said something they regret later. In an angry mood, we shout ‘I hate you!’ to our mother and because of the destructive effect this has on the other, we regret it afterward.
Maria Pasks drawings explore the duality of words because words can have an enormous effect on us. They can be both poisonous and conciliatory.
Despite all that, the exhibition traces an idealistic life cycle in the mother-child relationship: in its normal order and from the birth of the child to the death of the mother. The viewer can relate to it, compare to it and differentiate themselves from it. Mother-child relationships are complex and never the same. Therefore, in the exhibition My Mother’s Daughter we do not focus on the general concept of ‘mother’ or ‘motherhood’ but, on the mother through the eyes of the child.
CHANGE THROUGH LIFE PHASES
The moment we are born the relationship with our mother changes, all of a sudden, we are no longer physically connected. Jane Flax describes in her essay ‘Mother-Daughter Relationships: Psychodynamics, Politics, and Philosophy’ how the first body we escape from, first physically and later emotionally, is our mother’s. She then refers to Dorothy Dinnerstein, an American academic and activist, who argues that the relationship we have with our own body is marked by the continuing ambivalence we feel towards separation and distinction from our mother. Descartes describes that the child under two years of age originally thinks that they and the mother are one. Eventually, the child starts to recognize the mother as a separate person. This discovery is accompanied by panic because the child still experiences dependency on the mother.
This change continues throughout the rest of our relationship and is characterized by several milestones such as birth, childhood, puberty, adulthood, becoming a mother ourselves, and death. ‘Ella’ is a photo series that shows the slow deterioration of Margriet Luytens mother due to a debilitating illness. In this late phase of the mother-child relationship, another drastic shift takes place: the child takes care of the mother and ultimately remains alone. This care and love from Luyten for her mother can be drawn from the photos.
In some mother-child relationships, the phases are not passed through in the usual way or sequence, for example, due to the premature death of the mother or child. For me, this is the case. I can only imagine some of the stages in the mother-child relationship because of the untimely passing of my mother; I will never experience those stages myself. The absence of my mother leaves me only desire, loss, and fantasy to imagine for what could have been.
Because this exhibition was born out of my own experience of the loss of my mother, its perspective is close to my own. My Mother’s Daughter highlights the theme from a Western, feminine perspective. All participating artists are Western and therefore have a Western experience and perception of ‘mother’, which is reflected in their work. There is a difference between men and women and the relationship with their mother. For example, Jane Flax writes about the mother-daughter relationship: “Differentiation is a central issue for women because of the special character of the mother-daughter relationship. (…) the development of women’s core identity is threatened and impeded by an inability to differentiate from the mother.” This problem only distinguishes Flax in mother-daughter relationships and not in mother-son relationships.
A man also misses one of the milestones in the mother-child relationship: becoming a mother himself and carrying a child. During her pregnancy, Tanja Ritterbex started the project “a different story takes place every day in my uterus,” drawing a daily picture of her uterus and the scenes currently taking place within it. From the mother’s perspective, this work shows the relationship that Ritterbex has with her child even before birth. From the perspective of the daughter, the work symbolizes the drastic change in the relationship with your mother when you become a mother yourself.
The relationship between mother-son and mother-daughter is different, just as the relationship between father-child and mother-child is different. Jane Flax writes about this: “Precisely because human experience begins with and through a relationship with a woman or women (and not men), it has different consequences for women and men. Under patriarchy, primary differentiation occurs according to and through engendering, but the two socially produced genders have very different qualities.” Although Flax starts from the binary position of man and woman in this argument, it does show that the relationship between mother and daughter is different from the relationship between mother and son.
With a predominantly feminine perspective, the masculine perspective will occasionally come into play in this exhibition. As a counterpart or as a mirror to create a broader image of ‘the mother through the eyes of the child’.
Beauvoir, S. d. (1949). Le Deuxième Sexe.
Flax, J. (1985). Mother-Daughter Relationships: Psychodynamics, Politics, and Philosophy. The Future of Difference .
Patterson, Y. A. (1986). Simone de Beauvoir and the Demystification of Motherhood. Yale French Studies , 87-105.
Penaluna, R. (2010). The Power of Motherhood. Opgeroepen op january 4th, 2021, van Philosophy Now: https://philosophynow.org/issues/79/The_Power_of_Motherhood
Purnelle, B. (sd). De wereld van Sofie. (S. Lemaire, Interviewer) Radio 1.
Rousseau, J.-J. (1762). Émile, ou De l’éducation. Genève.
This article originally appeared on the SEA Foundation website.
Read more in the essay 'I am my mother's daughter'.