Paintings, Publications

Capturing Motherhood, In 50 Words or Less

<em>Young Bourgeois Mother, Cologne</em>, August Sander, 1926. © J. Paul Getty Trust

Young Bourgeois Mother, Cologne, August Sander, 1926. © J. Paul Getty Trust

How do you sum up motherhood in a picture or a phrase? There are over 400 elegant attempts in The Art of Motherhood, a new book from Getty Publications that pairs paintings and sculptures with words from authors as diverse as Dante Alighieri and Dorothy Parker.

Mothers, writers and artists can all agree, are about love. “A mother’s love triumphs over all difficulties, and perceives no impossibilities,” says novelist Cornelia Paddock.

Mothers are about power, too—to shape a child’s view of her world and herself. “The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face,” asserts English physician D. W. Winnicott. “It is at our mother’s knee,” writes Mark Twain, “that we acquire our noblest and truest and highest ideals.” (Although he can’t resist adding: “but there is seldom any money in them.”)

Many of the artworks in the book present children at their most tranquil, mothers at their most doting and angelic. Witness a 17th-century portrait of a mother with her nine—yes nine—perfectly behaved children (plus a dog and a bird), or Mary Cassatt’s tender portrait of a mother lovingly bathing a squirming toddler.

But make no mistake, moms put up with a lot. “A child will never know all the troubles he has caused his mother,” a Chinese proverb reminds us. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson quips: “There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him asleep.”

Abundant putting-up is on display in this portrait of an impromptu family concert around the dinner table, complete with recorder-blowing toddlers and a singing grandma. The mother smiles bravely, eyes drifting off to her happy place. (Noise? What noise?) Patience worn thin, by contrast, is captured in Nicholas Maes’s lively portrait of a naughty drummer, whose mother, exasperated, can take the pounding no more.

So moms aren’t perfect. But whether the duchess of Florence or a young immigrant in New York, they make the best of it. And of you. “A mother is not a person to lean on,” sums up Dorothy Canfield Fisher, “but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” If you’ve learned to lean on yourself, you likely have a mom to thank this Mother’s Day.

The Art of Motherhood - New from Getty Publications

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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