Sunday 25 September 2016

What lies beneath: Maternite

Maternite by Mary Cassatt, pastel

Niall MacMonagle

Published 07/03/2016 | 02:30

Maternite by Mary Cassatt.
Maternite by Mary Cassatt.

As a courtesy, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Rome's Capitoline Museum last January, the nude statues were boxed in and covered by order of the office of Matteo Renzi the Italian prime minister.

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President Rouhani did not get to see beautifully toned, sculpted, marble bodies from an ancient and glorious civilisation. Italians complained but perhaps a fully-clothed President Rouhani, aged 68, was spared the contrast between the ageing body and vigorous men and women in their prime.

But should we be shy, embarrassed, uneasy about nudity? Should the Italian government have covered up nude works of art lest the Iranian president be offended?

But then, down in Ballybunion, the shop called Monica's Hair Salon was covered over and renamed the President's Shop when Clinton came to town in 1998 for a round of golf. We wouldn't want to put Bill off his stroke.

On Mother's Day here's a woman fully dressed, just a breast exposed, doing what comes naturally. Could anyone find this offensive?

Everyone knows that breast is best for babies. It's the most natural and the most beautiful sight in the whole world. This pastel, dated 1890, captures quintessential motherhood.

The mother is calm and caring and, boy, is that kid content? So happy that he doesn't want to be interrupted. Just look at that look: it's a "This is all mine, get lost!" look.

Mary Cassatt, born Pennsylvania 1844, worked mainly in France and she exhibited with the Impressionists. Though Renoir considered "women writers, lawyers and politicians as monsters and nothing but five-legged calves" and women artists as "merely ridiculous" he did say that "I am in favour of the female singer and dancer." Obviously, for Monsieur Renoir, women were there to entertain men. Charmant. Cassatt thought otherwise; she declared "I am independent! I can live and I love to work!" Cassatt's work celebrates women and motherhood. Would the Iranian President avert his eyes before this pastel, Maternite, from 1890? You couldn't. You shouldn't. It brings us back to where most of us were lucky enough to be once. The ultimate comfort zone.

 

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