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Theme of Motherhood in 20th Century Art

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Postpartum depression (PPD) is a serious disorder which even the mildest form occurs in 40-85% of new mothers following birth. Nowadays many resources are available in order to help treat it- however in the 1950’s, this disorder was not yet recognised.

Sarah Anne Johnson first painted ‘House on fire’ in 2009 which was also dedicated to her grandmother and represented her sufferings. Years later, through a different media, she created and developed a performance art piece entitled ‘Hospital Hallway’. In the 50’s, Johnson’s grandmother suffered from PPD and during that time there was no diagnosis for said disorder. Therefore she checked herself into a mental hospital, and although she assumed she was being treated for depression, she in fact unknowingly became a test subject for a brainwashing experiment funded by the CIA. These tests included the prescription of LSD, medically-induced sleep, and shock treatments. After some time she was released, and was in an even worse condition than when she entered.

Johnson was aware that PPD is not easy to visualise, and therefore difficult to comprehend. For that reason, she decided she wanted to create this piece in order to help the audience to understand what it feels like to put your complete trust ‘in an institution whose hidden objective is to break your body, mind, and spirit’. She performs this solo piece which depicts the struggle her grandmother experienced, through the use of movement, space, costume, and voice.

The costume and mask were used to incorporate the personalisation of her grandmother. The space was an enclosure which was painted to represent the hallway of a hospital with no doors, hence the title of the artwork. The 30-minute performance consisted of a looping sequence of jarring and cathartic movements such as curling into a foetal position and spinning around on the floor. By doing this, Sarah evoked an instinctual reaction which humans adopt when they experience trauma or distress. Sarah also would throw herself up against the wall in visually uncomfortable or awkward positions and violently shake her body, representing the electric shocks her grandmother would receive as a part of her ‘treatments’ for PPD. This exhibition was ongoing for a month, where the public would be able to watch the performance from above, as though they were doctors in a surgical theatre.

After the exhibition, her performance was replaced by 13 screens placed on the walls in the enclosure, which showed different movements looped. The audience were able to walk around and and hear each movement before they saw them, adding to the sense of anxiety and fear that mothers suffering from PPD too would feel. Overall, Johnson chose to represent one of the less spoken of topics in motherhood that is the issue of mental illness as a potential consequence of new motherhood.

This abstract artwork is a sculpture, which was created using white travertine marble. It stands at 4 metres tall, and with a depth of 183 centimetres. It is formed with a round short cylindrical base with a large curved pieced placed vertically on it, and another smaller piece on top of it.

The sculpture portrays the image of a mother (being the larger piece), holding her child (the smaller piece). Smooth curved forms present a sense of care and love, adding to the view that motherhood is a beautiful part of life. The child piece contours the mother piece, which curves around at the top to ‘look down’ at the child figure, and they appear too connect as though they are one entity. This shaping once again suggests the nurturing and caring feelings that the mother has towards the child. The child figure seems to be looking up towards the mother, illustrating the trust it has in her.

Moore previously had created a few versions of the mother and child, all inspired by his mother who he was greatly influenced by. These works were all in bronze and/or wood, and using this material is what he is best known for.

In 1983, Moore fell ill, and in his hospital bed is where he thought of the idea for a piece for St. Paul’s Cathedral. He was concerned about his illness and was determined to create another piece before he died. This piece was commissioned by the church, and this led him to decide to use travertine marble as opposed to bronze which he was used to. He wanted to ‘give it the feel of having a religious connotation’ (atceramicsima,n.d.). This justifies his decisions in terms of choice of material, size of the sculpture, and the subject matter. The idea of the mother and child is clearly influenced by the ‘Madonna and Child’ by Duccio, adding to the religious feel of the artwork.

The composition comprises of two 10 year-old children stood back to back next to a wall, who have a plastic bag over their top half of their bodies. The colours used are dull, muted tones and center around a grey palette. This medium-sized painting was painted by Gofton in a realistic style, and this allows her to achieve her aim of evoking a sense of empathy from the viewer. The subject matter is Gofton’s response to the constant anxiety and fear that mothers carry throughout their lives of something bad happening to their kids. This is executed through the attempt to evoke the common worry mothers feel when their kids play around with plastic bags. The pale colour of their skin suggests that it may be too late, and they have already suffocated. Their poses are very relaxed, with no sense of struggling to free themselves, and this adds to the idea of it being ‘too late’.

The subject along with the colour palette and style, combine to evoke a cathartic anxious experience for the viewer. This artwork depicts a common fear all mothers share, and the fact that the subjects are young children, combines to make this painting very controversial. Also adding to the controversy is the title of the artwork itself. Liminal is defined as “between two different places” (, n.d.). This is possibly referring to the notion that the children are in a limbo between reality and the after-life, after suffocation.

The term ‘suffocation’ has a few layers within this piece. Firstly on a literal level, the idea of the kids covered in a plastic bag. Secondly there may be a deeper layer which plays on the idea that mothers feel suffocated when their kids start to grow older as they want them to explore the world, but also want to keep them safe- this brings mothers an internal conflict. Lastly, there is potentially an underlying sense of suffocation on the mother’s part, in her role in motherhood, which Gofton is “not going to deny”.

This artwork is the first of a series entitled ‘Liminal’, which deals with the theme of motherhood, and empathy. Gofton with this artwork, and the series in its entirety, wanted the viewers to appreciate it but also be “hit in the guts first because that’s what it feels like” (Nelson, n.d.). Gofton in this particular artwork wanted to Gofton herself is a mother and her way of ‘counselling’ (Nelson, n.d.) herself was through this series. It is important to understand that despite the shocking subject, at the heart of the image is actually love. This is due to the fact that her role as a mother has given her this instinct which means a constant fear in the back of her mind.

Motherhood is a part of life which many women have the joy of experiencing. It involves the art of raising a child, and developing both as mothers and as people. Often in 20th century art, motherhood was depicted in a positive light, mostly with undertones of love, nurture, and general happiness. Although there is no denying it is an incredible experience, there are also consequences that may come with being a mother that are not so wonderful and perhaps less discussed, particularly in art. Therefore this essay aims to discuss the theme of motherhood in a wider frame. Sarah Anne Johnsons’ ‘Hospital Hallway’ performance will bring light to the suffering of postpartum depression, which many mothers will experience when entering motherhood. ‘Mother and Child: Hood’ by Henry Moore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, will explore the love between a mother and child in its purest sense, through a marble sculpture. Lastly, Erika Gofton’s ‘Liminal’ painting will look into the instinctual aspects of motherhood, and how it may cause internal conflicts. All artworks provide contrasting views which are not intended to probe a change of heart or opinion, but rather to educate on the theme as a whole.

After the examination of these three artworks and an investigation into their messages and purposes, it is clearly evident that there are diverse views and opinions on the theme of motherhood. This experience for every mother is completely different, and it is important in today’s society to recognise that mental health issues or personal conflicts do not make a woman less of a mother.

Sarah Anne Johnson used a cathartic performance to express the turmoil and trauma her mother experienced- with the hopes of educating the viewers on the harsh reality of motherhood in the 1950’s.

Henry Moore’s sculpture inspired by Duccio’s ‘Madonna and Child’ payed attention to the more divine aspect of being a mother- ultimate love and the power through it.

Like Johnson’s performance, Erika Gofton’s painting was cathartic, through the subject matter, use of colour, and particularly the context.

In terms of context, it is also obvious that these three works become more than something to appreciate for their aesthetic. Each of these artworks has a story to tell, and it is through research and genuine interest that someone would able to appreciate any of them to their fullest potential.             

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Theme of Motherhood In 20th Century Art. (2022, April 08). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
“Theme of Motherhood In 20th Century Art.” GradesFixer, 08 Apr. 2022,
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