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Frida Kahlo

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, Oil on metal, 31 x 38.5 cm, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico, © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ; Photo: Schalkwijk / Art Resource, NY

Master Heinrich of Constance

The Visitation, c.1310–20, Walnut, paint, gilding, rock-crystal cabochons inset in gilt-silver mounts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.724, www.metmuseum.org

Marc Quinn

Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, Marble, 3.55 x 1.81 x 2.60 m, © Marc Quinn; Photo: Nic Hamilton / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Surely, from now on’

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

The Magnificat provides a moment to pause in the story of Christ’s birth. It invites us to contemplate the weight and significance of the unfolding events of Luke's opening chapters against the backdrop of the history of Israel and of humanity in general.

The artworks in this exhibition in differing ways invite contemplation. As images of humanity abstracted from a physical or historical setting, Marc Quinn’s and Master Heinrich of Constance’s works speak to universal themes. The pregnant body draws together past and future in an intensified present moment, providing a powerful site for meditation on reproduction, change, hope, love, and strength.

Building on ancient songs of joyful mothers, victorious warriors (Winter 1954), and liberated slaves, it is striking that Mary probably utters these words in the early weeks of pregnancy. Her joy is invested in a hope for the future felt so tangibly in the present that it is expressed as if already accomplished. Mary takes the long view, pointing to God’s eternal attributes and historical faithfulness to Israel as a sign of the wonders to come. Curiously, the promised child is never mentioned, yet the song is all about the hope of the coming generation who will transform the world not just for his own time, but for all time. The child in each of Quinn’s and Heinrich’s works is similarly both on display and hidden, in the process of being revealed.

There is strength in Mary’s hope, expressed through an almost militaristic confidence in God’s almighty saving arm. The female figures in this exhibition provide contrasting images of feminine strength, born out of pain and nurtured by faith. Mary’s curved posture and inclined head in Heinrich’s sculpture is stereotypical of feminine humility, in strong contrast to the upright pose of Quinn’s subject, Alison Lapper. Heinrich’s Mary nevertheless demonstrates authority as she offers a loving blessing, and Frida Kahlo’s naked vulnerability is just as courageous as Quinn’s luminous nude.

Kahlo’s painting provides a counterpoint to the other artworks and to the text. It is the only image where the foetus is visible, reduced in its loss from the hidden dynamism of possibility to something concrete. Tied to the objects that surround her by red strings like umbilical cords, labelled as the property of Henry Ford Hospital, set against the backdrop of a masculine industrial landscape, this painting represents much of that from which Mary pronounces liberation.

As a reminder of the pain, grief, and trauma that still surround processes of reproduction, Kahlo’s painting lends poignancy to the famous declaration, ‘behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed’ (KJV). The NRSV translates this phrase as the more prosaic, ‘surely, from now on’. The English word ‘surely’ carries overtones of insistence, even impatience, feelings which emerge when the Magnificat is set alongside the works by Quinn and Kahlo.

The Magnificat is a song of joy for all who have suffered, yet many of the oppressive realities that shaped the life of a first-century middle-eastern woman are still at work today. Such is the current contention surrounding reproductive issues in Kahlo’s country of Mexico that a woman who has suffered a miscarriage can risk being convicted of abortion—a modern form of an ancient prejudice.

Conceived for a new millennium, Quinn’s work pronounces a movement towards a society free from discrimination that decades on has not been smooth or swift. While the work became a totem for the 2012 Paralympic Games, the son that Lapper bore struggled with others’ negative responses to his mother’s disability. He suffered from mental health issues that contributed to his death at a young age.

That the promised victory remains incomplete does not mean that there is no reason to hope. Quinn’s smooth white marble is formed out of a long process: the intense heat and pressure of metamorphosis, the rough violence of the mine, the mess of turning the human form into a plaster cast. The statue shines just as brightly for the pain that precedes and follows it.

Just so, the work of liberation is not lost. Read against the background of these modern works, Luke1:46–55 can be heard not just as an expression of joy and hope but of challenge to the status quo, and of appeal to the mighty God whom we look to in hope for the transformation of society.

 

References

Quinn, Mark. 2015. ‘The making of “Alison Lapper Pregnant”, 15 December 2015’, http://marcquinn.com/studio/studio-diaries/the-making-of-alison-lapper-pregnant [accessed 10/4/2020]

Winter, Paul. 1954. ‘Magnificat and Benedictus—Maccabaean Psalms?’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 37.1: 328–51

 

Next exhibition: Luke 2:8–20