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Portrait of the Artist as a Woman, as a Mother

The Archibald portrait exhibition and the problem of being a woman and an artist, including discussion of artist Del Kathryn Barton and her painting of Cate Blanchett, Mother (a portrait of cate).

The recent Archibald Prize exhibition revealed a theme of interest to Some Notes From A Broad. Woman as artist and woman as mother. 

If you’re not familiar with it, the Archibald Prize is an annual award for the best portrait of a man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia. 

This year in 2019 there were quite a few portraits of women pregnant or with children that referenced the difficult tug of war women find themselves in as mothers and artists. 

Trying to find the space — physical and psychological — and the time, not to mention the energy to be an artist and a mother can be a challenging and difficult experience. The dilemma is how do you allow the creative demands and pleasures of that occupation to fully inhabit your life, while being devoted and attentive to children whose needs can’t be simply put on hold or contained in a nice neat package.

It’s one of those experiences of competing demands that male artists don’t seem to grapple with in the same way. Why? For forever, with male artists it’s been assumed that their talents and work will take primacy in their lives. Perhaps women who are both artist and mother, like most other professional women, are also suffering from the ‘wife drought’ (thank you Annabel Crabb)? Basically women artists need a home helper to handle all the life stuff that typically fell on women while men went about their work.

The portrait of painter Sally Anderson, titled ‘Sally. And her boys’ by Jonathan Dalton attempts to capture these competing roles. Dalton says he wanted to “acknowledge that there’s so much pressure to be a mother first and an artist second”. The male, with her young son, is the shadowy figure in the background and Sally is front and centre.

Sally And her boys by Jonathan Dalton
Sally. And her boys by Jonathan Dalton

There were two other portraits related to the theme. Katherine Edney’s ‘Self-portrait with Ariel’ captures the artist a week before the birth of her daughter before her world was “about to change forever” as she says. It was an “ethereal state of tranquility”.

Self-portrait Ariel by Katherine Edney
Katherine Edney’s Self-portrait with Ariel

By contrast, ‘Waiting for Arden’ by Natasha Bieniek, another self-portrait of an artists in the final weeks of her pregnancy, captures her feeling apprehensive and uncomfortable about what she soon to face.

Natasha bieniek
Waiting for Arden by Natasha Bieniek

“There’s an incredible amount of pressure for modern women to “do it all”” Bieniek said in the painting notes.

On a positive note, Bieniek reports that “although the frantic juggle is still omnipresent” her baby has enriched her life in all its “chaotic glory”.

The last one I wanted to include in this topic is Charge of the Star Goddess, the portrait of the artist Del Kathryn Barton by Carla Fletcher. The portrait, according to the artist, shows Barton bringing her creativity earth and the psychedelic wings symbolise Barton’s mother. Barton has won the Archibald twice herself, the first time in 2008, for a self-portrait with her two children.

charge of the star goddess by Carla fletcher
Charge of the Star Goddess by Carla Fletcher

Her Archibald-winning portrait ‘You are what is most beautiful about me’ is her self-portrait with her children Kell and Arella. It beautifully shows her power as artist and mother through her devotion for her children and how it’s radically transformed and informed her understanding of herself. Baron says she is passionate about images of motherhood and this is evident in her painting Mother (a portrait of Cate) which depicts the famous actor with her three sons.

“There is the utterly profound synergy and interconnection that a mother and her children have on one level; and on another, four autonomous energies and lives.”

Del Kathryn Barton on her portrait of Cate Blanchet with her three sons
mother (a portrait of cate)

More on portrait of mother-artist

If you’re interested in reading more on this theme and seeing how other artists are navigating these roles, I’ve found some interesting contributions.

Here’s a cute cartoon from The New Yorker about an artist-mother coming across a painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker Reclining Mother and Child from 1906 and discovering the artist while living through her struggles to balance her sometimes competing roles of artist and mother.

Reclining Mother and Child

A local take on the tug of war is ‘Motherhood’ & Creativity: the divided heart’ with essays from Australian singers, writers and artists including Del Kathryn Barton.

Motherhood & Creativity by Rachel Power

Another essay collection is Reconciling Art and Mothering edited by Rachel App Buller which takes a broader look at motherhood and types of maternity with essays by art historians and artists themselves on the intersection of artistic practice and motherhood.

A couple of others: the ‘Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds’ is a collection of artists telling their own stories about being mothers in the creative life.

And ‘A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood’ is a similar one from the 90s.

Artist and Mother is a documentary in KCET’s Artbound series that gets up close and personal with four women/mother/artists. It examines the experiences of artists as mothers and whether galleries and critics even support the concept of motherhood in the art world. 

Artist and Mother by KCET Artbound
KCET Artist and Mother documentary.

This New York Times article examines the work of Ree Morton and her brief nine-year artistic career in the 1970s, who came late to art after marrying and having children. When she embraced art, it was said she “left her children” and suburban life for the creative pursuits. Back when women had to ‘choose’ and if they pursued their own interests with a singleminded focus like men, were seen as ‘abandoning’ their families.

The Re-Production exhibition, part of Mothers in Arts, showcases the work of three artists, Cecilia Bengtsson, Cecilia Cavalieri, Aurora Rosales and Csilla Klenyanszki from their residency around the theme of motherhood in art. 

This is what a mother looks like
Image from Cecilia Cavalieri’s series ‘This is what a mother looks like’

And the Artist/Mother podcast, created by painter and mother of three Kaylan Buteyn, brings honest interviews with female artists who are mothers to discuss how they attempt to balance both identities.

Artist/Mother by Kaylan Buteyn

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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