Anxiety, fear, joy and hope are all possible emotions women experience when anticipating the birth of a child. In the not too distant past, fear of dying was also mingled in mix and is still a possibility. The current “With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant” exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum brings all these joys and fears into focus. Brilliantly researched by guest curator Marcia Lagerwey, the three-part exhibit is a must-see, with the possible exception of children and teens.
A bonus exhibit, “Reflections on Pregnancy and Birth,” is alone worth the trip to WAM. Featuring superb paintings, prints and poetry by local artists, the subjects run the gamut from screaming babies to dreamy mothers-to-be floating in the sea under starry skies. All three exhibits are timely, bringing the Dix and Winant works to public attention at precisely the moment when the civic discussion of women’s body rights, reproductive rights and right of refusal are center placed.
Otto Dix (1891-1969), a German expressionist painter, is better known in his home country than in the United States. His powerful painting, “The Pregnant Woman,” 1931, depicts a fulsome woman days before giving birth. Installed next to the painting is a similar image of the pregnant nude painted by Dix’s female student, Gussy Hippold-Ahnert. The contrast between the two works is telling.
Hippold-Ahnert’s portrait is of a soft, attractive young woman. Clutching the arm of a chair to support her distended belly, her pendulant breasts rest on her rounded tummy. Skin rendered with pale pinks and ochres, her eyes cast down in a dreamy state, she looks serene and desirable. Dix paints the same model, probably at the same time, but she looks very different. Her head turns away from the viewer; her head and neck protrude from the body in an awkward, deformed way. Her hand grasps the chair, perhaps in desperation. The colors are harsher. Her bobbed, black hair parts in two curving scimitars cutting toward her chin. Is the difference between the two merely one of style? Or is it a profound difference between a positive feminine view and a harsher masculine examination of womanhood?
In my past, as a pregnant woman and artist, I created a number of charcoal self-portraits. So, I recognize the Dix/ Hippold-Ahnert accuracy of the body depicted in their paintings: the full breasts and distended belly above which the small human head looks like an afterthought. It’s all about body, not mind! The perfect darling baby to whom I gave birth had an undetected heart malformation and died at four months. Grief knows no bounds like that of a mother grieving her first-born child. Thus, the Dix exhibition is heart-tearing for me and all exhibition viewer/mothers with lost pregnancies, failures to conceive and deaths of children.
Two small prints by Dix depict pregnant woman suffering from unwanted pregnancies, starvation and war. Dix lived and survived in amazingly difficult times. He was a German machine gunner during World War I. Post-war, he worked as an art instructor until he was fired by the Nazi National Socialists because his paintings showed the horror of war and starving German people. In World War II, he was drafted into the Volkssturm, Hitler’s “people’s army.” Later, he was interred in a prison camp but postwar was able to resume his art career. Dix’s print, “Pregnancy,” reflects these hardships. An older woman endures another pregnancy, her head sagging, jaw emaciated, she hovers above a dead soldier. War weapons point toward her, guns menacing. Of his work, Dix said, “I need the connection to the sensuous world, the courage to embrace ugliness, undiluted life.”
In an adjacent gallery, artist and educator Carmen Winant creates an installation of 480 found slide images about the birthing process. Curator Lagerwey stated that the installation “makes us uncomfortable … in the process of labor and childbirth, making their (women’s) experiences unambiguously real to the viewer.” Winant’s reproduced birth-process photographs are uncensored, untouched and extremely graphic.
For a lighter take on birthing, WAM visitors must find their way to the second floor to see the diverse “Reflections on Pregnancy and Birth” exhibit, curated by Elizabeth Buck. My favorite oil is a bawling newborn baby by father Tom Grady. An icon, the oversized baby’s head is a perfect circle-in-a-square. The baby is a parental “STOP” sign, mouth wide open in a howl. “Welcome to the cruel, cruel world!” In Carrie Nixon’s “Newborn,” another larger-than-life baby sucks at an enormous breast. The exquisitely detailed silverpoint etching with pastel tint is perfectly rendered.