Study for birth painting
1992 Ghislaine Howard was commissioned
by Manchester City Art Galleries to spend four months as
at St Mary's Hospital maternity unit in Manchester, England.
resulting exhibition, A
Shared Experience, was shown at Manchester City Art
1993 and at the Wellcome Foundation in London in 1994.
you can read Ghislaine Howard's foreword
to the exhibition catalogue, the catalogue
by David Peters Corbett, and extracts from Ghislaine Howard's journal
of the residency which were published in art review
in March 1994.
of the exhibition by Robert Clark
in the Guardian and Joan Crossley in Women's
Art are reproduced
in the critical
A Shared Experience
foreword by Ghislaine Howard
Maternity Unit is an extraordinary institution:
it is here that the experience takes place that we have all shared -
naked entry into the world. Focused here are so many emotions and so
human situations. The routine of waiting in the ante-natal clinic; the
drama, pain and anxiety of the birth itself, and later, on the wards,
sense of fellowship between mothers and staff and the developing
between mothers, their partners and the new- born child.
hospital is a place where the fragility as
well as the the urgency of life can be keenly felt, where for some the
struggle for life may be hard. Nowhere is this more apparent than in
highly technological atmosphere of the Special Baby Unit where the
and devotion of the staff are at their most visible.
I have concentrated on the
sense of human drama that I have experienced in the hospital during my
four month residency, focusing on the expressive potential of the human
body, finding emotional power not only in the faces of the protagonists
but also in their hands, backs or arms.
am aware that depictions of the events
shown in these paintings and drawings are rare in western art. It is a
salutary thought that an experience that all humans have shared is so
seen in art galleries.
after the births of my own two children
I realised the irony that I, the mother, was the only one of those
not to have witnessed the event. As an artist my work is centred on my
own experiences and it was natural that I should chart the development
of my family. This residency has allowed me to recapture something of
has occurred to me on more than one occasion
that, above all, it has been my gender that has allowed me access to
scenes interpreted here and I feel privileged that, as a woman, I have
been able to make visible what previously has been, to some degree,
comparatively short time I have spent in the
hospital has meant, of necessity, that I have had to work quickly, at
very pace of the activities I have depicted and I have kept that sense
of urgency and immediacy in the way that I approached the work. I hope
that this exhibition will convey something of our vulnerability, our
but above all of our common humanity.
would like to thank the medical and administrative
staff at St Mary's Hospital, those at Manchester City Art Galleries and
Hospital Arts who have all helped me bring this project to fruition. I
would like to dedicate the exhibition to the staff, mothers, partners
children whose wholehearted participation has made this event possible.
examination 2 1993
28" x 24"
David Peters Corbett
of four months from October 1992
to January 1993 Ghislaine Howard was artist in residence at St Mary's
Manchester. The residency, which was the first of its kind, gave her a
unique opportunity to observe and record the work of a busy Maternity
The result is a powerful series of works in several media which
the experience of hospital birth with an illuminating visual
and an unsentimental compassion that includes the medical teams and the
partners as well as the mothers and babies.
who has spent
any time at all in hospital
knows that it is a world at one remove from our normal lives. Only in
do our bodies become so public. They are probed, examined and exposed
pain and distress; they are revealed and gazed at, not with the gaze of
intimacy but as a job of work to be done. In hospital we must surrender
the benefits of our normal selves and everything that they bring by way
of status or personality or accustomed behaviour.
the body is
concerned these things are of
little use as models of conduct, and for the duration of our stay the
is what we are. For the mother-to-be this situation is particularly
She means to be active, but she must be passive; she is not ill, but
must submit to treatment; she is not a patient, everybody tells her so,
but in practice she is indistinguishable from one.
sees this disconcerting aspect of
the experience clearly and she powerfully describes it and the
stages of giving birth. This is where her achievement lies. The artist
who attempts to describe the experience of birth, like the prospective
mother, has no model to follow. Art has not attended to this universal
event. In the work exhibited here Howard has achieved an understanding
and description of birth that compels our attention through its
Dressing the new child
these paintings and
drawings the women who are
mothers-to-be live through the consequences of becoming, temporarily,
their bodies and of expecting a new role, that of mother, which is
them only after the pregnancy and birth are over. It is not for nothing
that the pregnant are said to be "expecting", they are in a limbo until
their gravid potential is realised.
they wait. They lie or sit,
expecting the event that will transform them from potential to
and usefulness, for the presence of the other life that they long for
sometimes, that they fear or do not want. Then they are inspected,
full bellies are felt or listened to to check on the life within.
describe this experience contrast
the limbo of "expecting" with the continuing activities of others. A
gazes partly stoically, partly dreamily at the ceiling as her stomach
palpated, another turns her head away as if to signal the irrelevance
the visitors who hover above her bed. The world continues to turn but
secret of its revolution, the separate but identical pairing of the
who has not yet arrived and the mother who carries her, are still
time, still waiting.
period eventually comes to an
end. It gives way to a rush of activity, but for the mother this stage,
like the last, is something to be borne. The body closes in on itself:
a drawing shows a woman in convulsive movement, her legs raised and
grimacing with pain; a painting describes a woman doubled over in tense
exhaustion as she waits for the epidural anaesthetic; others are shown
as they inhale a mixture of gas and air or are lifted onto the theatre
trolley, unconscious and wrapped in sheeting or the surgical gown.
burden of these
things seems to pass finally
with delivery when the waiting blossoms, as in the big canvas which is
the centrepiece of the exhibition, into the birth of a child. This
moment is treated with a deliberate forthrightness that acknowledges
centrality. At this moment the emphasis on the body is concentrated
one event of meaningfulness and pain.
here nor in
the painting of the breech
birth which accompanies it is the emergence of the new life presented
straightforwardly liberating. The woman still has to suffer and still
to be tended, as she has been up till then, by the professional lives
are focused around hers. The climactic moment is still a moment of the
body, first the mother's, then the child's, as the baby is raised up to
be checked, its limbs and organs probed for abnormalities and its air
cleared. The child is then shown to its mother, or, in another set of
given air or taken to be placed in the incubator.
woman who looks away from
her visitors seems,
in the process of transferal from the drawing which is also shown here,
to have lost the emphatic roundness of her belly which is now dissolved
into the nightdress. Her unwillingness to confront her friends may have
a tragic meaning.
Mother and child on the ward 1993
|The final section
of the series examines the aftermath of the birth, the first minutes
the mother and baby of the rest of their lives. In several paintings
mother holds her child, initiating that process called bonding. In
a couple comfort each other in an embrace, hinting at a tragedy, the
of a child and of what was expected from this pregnancy.
the canvas which
depicts the moment of birth
the woman, accompanied by her partner at top left, is surrounded by a
of medical staff. Elsewhere the bodies of the mothers-to-be are
as they undergo the medical procedures which attend birth; bodies are
and lowered, are supported by stirrups for a breech delivery, lie in
boots as the surgeon delicately swabs antispetic in a shallow arc onto
the deeper arc of the belly of a woman about to undergo a Caesarean
are not conducted by automata.
Howard shows us the medical staff embedded in the circumstances of the
delivery. The faces we can read are intent, the hands that figure
in the pictures are competent, professional, steady, but also, as in
painting of the midwife palpating the mother or the doctor caring for a
baby in the incubator, they are gentle. The hands that reach into the
from all sides in the central birth scene are entirely confident in the
job they are doing, but also tender, sympathetic. They are enabling,
forcing, the birth.
one painting where there
might be a direct
meeting of glances between the spectator and the subject, the woman
entirely separate within the privacy of her experience and her face is
obscured by the oxygen mask strapped over nose and mouth.
and paintings in the exhibition there is a theme of faces and the
or concealment of faces. On the one hand Howard compels us to recognise
and respond to expressions which communicate strongly; on the other,
of the faces in the work we cannot see.
interplay between the expressions that
can be read out of the smudged, apparently rapid notation, and the
of all those faces turned away or shielded for us: faces concealed by
surgical mask, by an embrace or by the medical personnel who cluster
obscured by a preoccupation which seems to exclude us (with a job of
to be done, with the baby in the mother's arms), or cut off by the
frame or by unconsciousness.
Newly delivered mother 1993
work exhibited here is about
a subject that art has not dealt with before, the nature of hospital
It is a powerful and compelling achievement.
is in attendance, like a figure from Giotto,
arms outstretched, waiting to receive the child into a green cloth'
was artist-in-residence at
St Mary's Hospital maternity unit for four months in 1992. Extracts
the journal she kept follow.
Couple during labour
daughter was born
here five years ago, so I
arrive for my first day as artist-in-residence with mixed feelings of
and displacement. There is the same walk to the doors of the ante-natal
clinic, the same queue of women waiting. The maternity unit is an
institution: it is here the experience takes place that we have all
- our naked entry into the world.
of comments from the visitors' book at Manchester City Art Gallery
talk to some women
in the corridor waiting to
be seen by doctors, but these initial approaches are very difficult. If
I am to work with any patient she must sign a consent form, which
formalises everything but is a necessary legal precaution. Most women
anticipate an invasion of their privacy and look away.
approach a young
woman and her partner. She smiles,
so I sit down and explain who I am. It is her first visit and she
to allow me through with her. She is nervous and her English is not
good. The doctor is pleasant but brisk - not an easy atmosphere; I must
learn to make relationships with both sides. A few rapid drawings of
examination result. This first contact reveals in a very clear way the
scale of the task ahead.
right and fitting that women's experience of birth - right or wrong -
or bad - should be recorded in this way. Wonderful, wonderful pictures!
to the hospital
shop I meet E - she has had
her baby and I go up to the ward with her. She is easy with me and her
child, a beautiful, smooth, brown baby, is sleepy with jaundice. We
and I make drawings as she feeds her child. I am finding that the
of fitting into this huge institution resolve themselves through
know now what my mother went through. It looks painful and although you
have empathised well through your paintings you have put me off
JE, who is a little uneasy
at first. Very dark skin, hair drawn back, heavily laden body, she
a mint-green dressing gown of thin material which falls and enfolds her
huge body eloquently. Her pose is archetypal. She has three weeks to
here and constantly worries about her family back home.
wish you'd been there with me at my Caesarian 17 year ago.
Study for birth painting no 1
start to look at the
drawings and photographs
I've taken and begin to focus on the hands and the atmosphere of
concentration and professionalism that pervades the hospital - hands,
and backs are as expressive as faces.
have been working on
some small paintings of
E and her baby from the sketches I made earlier. They are tender and
Mothers and children do fall into the clichéd poses of art
as much as they do unusual ones. Still focussing closely on hands and
How immersed one can become in contemplation of these tiny creatures.
be interested to know how you produced these extremely powerful
in the midst of such (often) fraught activiity
normality, caring and compassion - a rare combination in paintings.
for the woman's point of view. Courageous!
|I arrive in the
room of the delivery unit where D is having twins by caesarian section.
The doctors and patient have consented to my presence and I feel
and also scared stiff that I might faint. As soon as the anaesthetist,
who is slightly suspicious of me, starts to work, I begin to draw and
photographs, which is the only way I can cope with and make sense of
is happening. I make quick, instinctive decisions: to get as near as
to the table, to try to get behind D's head to see something of her
point. What I need to recreate is the experience as it is for the woman
and her partner, what she sees when her baby is held up for the first
Birth painting no 2
provoking, alarming, emotional and of-putting all at once. However, a
moving portrayal of an everyday event that social taboos prevent us
knowing the reality of.
things commence my
rapid drawings become ever
more notational and in between jotting I take shots - the camera is
A nurse is in attendance, like a figure from Giotto, arms outstretched,
waiting to receive the child into a green cloth. Despite the bright
my own sense of the colours is formed by the tones of the flesh and the
green robes of the medical staff.
truly uplifting experience. I won't forget these drawings in a hurry.
Birth painting no 3
work in the studio
is beginning to take off.
I've worked on some large drawings of the caesarian preliminaries. My
is buzzing with images, so I'm working fast at first on large rapid,
watercolours whilst the experience is fresh. I am painting with a
sense of urgency; I have to keep reminding myself that I don't have to
do everything immediately.
realistic, very moving. A far cry from the cosy picture of motherhood
so often conned into accepting. This should be a permanent exhibition.
|Working on a birth painting
in the studio, I have sheaves of rapid drawings with strong lines and
shapes. The sensations and memories are still immediate. The central
of the woman dominates, the hands of the attendants reach inwards
the centre of the painting. I draw in the major lines with scene
charcoal, making decisions as I work and changing things intuitively.
me, this initial onslaught on the canvas is a furious and concentrated
affair - some areas of focus are intensely worked, in others the paint
emotional pictures - reminds me of when my mother had given birth to my
sisters. These pictures make me all the more determined to become an
am trying to
concentrate on the sense of human
drama that I am experiencing in the hospital and focus on the
potential of the human body.
is extraordinary to
be working on an image for
which I can think of no artistic precedent and I feel a weight of
together with a strong sense of privilege.
an artist my work
is concentrated on my own
experiences and it was natural that I should chart the development of
own family. Immediately after the birth of my own two children I
the irony that I, the mother, was the only one of those present not to
have witnessed the event. The residency has allowed me to recapture
of my own history.
returned for a 2nd visit to confirm the impressions of the 1st: still a
very powerful and positive affirmation. Students of mine who have also
visited were also moved.
of the exhibition, by Robert
Clark in the Guardian and Joan
Crossley in Women's
Art, are reproduced in the critical