Louisiana Museum of Modern Art reopens with new exhibition: Mother! Origin of Life

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Louisiana Museum of Modern Art reopens with new exhibition: Mother! Origin of Life
Chantal Joffe, Self-portrait Combing Esme's Hair, 2009. Oil on canvas, 40,7 × 51 cm. Photo: Courtesy Victoria Miro, London / Venice. © Chantal Joffe.

HUMLEBÆK.- Louisiana Museum of Modern Art reopened with this year’s big spring and summer exhibition Mother! Origin of Life. A story of motherhood as portrayed and investigated in modern Western art and culture. Richly unfolded and illuminated in interaction with art, literature, music, film, religion and cultural history. The artworks in the exhibition range from prehistoric fertility goddesses and the Madonnas in Christian iconography to modern images of mother and child and the contemporary reinvention of the role of the mother.

Cold or warm, present or absent – everyone has a mother. The archetypal mother, embodied in the female figure as a symbol of life and fertility, exists across all times and cultures. The mother ushers us into the world. She is our physical and cultural origin. Even if she is lost or absent, we are children of our mother.

The mother of art and culture has many faces

MOTHER! addresses a vast, inexhaustible theme. Like Marie Laurberg, curator of the exhibition, writes in her essay in the catalogue: “The mother of art is the Madonna of Christian iconography. She is the Medea of tragedy who, abandoned by Jason, kills her own children. She is the Oedipal heart of horror films. She is fertility and caregiver or a clingy and hurtful administrator of her child’s mental life. She is an intimate family relation, who harbours her own secrets. Mother is legs for children to cling to, or a woman who gives her child away. She is the wicked stepmother of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. She is disappointed, dead, seductive or loving. She is the motherland and the body that bore us. She is the transgendered mother of the ballroom scene. She is an animal with breasts, or a pregnant pop star who still performs with a big belly.”

Through more than 140 works and objects, the exhibition unfolds a series of existential themes associated with motherhood.

Today, a new generation of artists and writers are making motherhood the centrepiece of their work. This trend can be viewed within the broader context of autobiography and intimate relationships. The theme is also linked to debates on queer identities and changing gender roles in culture in general. A new generation of artists are becoming mothers and letting the subject flow back into their work. But as this exhibition shows, mothers and motherhood have been represented in art and culture since time immemorial.

Thematic and interdisciplinary

MOTHER! is a thematic exploration of motherhood and the mother figure in 20th- and 21st-century art and culture. The exhibition presents works of art interacting with cultural history, religion, literature, music, film, medical history and design. It shows how images of modern art often draw on a long pictorial tradition.

The exhibition’s thematic focus makes it possible to narrate a history of art that, independent of isms and style categories, focuses on art as a mediator of existential questions and life events – big issues like birth, attachment and death. The narrative of the exhibition is not chronological but thematic and interdisciplinary, clustering around the themes of “The Divine Mother”, “Memory, Mother of the Artist”, “Mother’s Voice”, “Mothering, “Fertility” and “History of Motherhood”. The themes have grown out of the curatorial research and in dialogue with the contributing artists.

The artists Laure Prouvost (b. 1978) and Frida Orupabo (b. 1986) both have created new works specifically for this exhibition and the present two very different ideas of a new mother figure.

Frida Orupabo: Love at First Site, 2020

Frida Orupabo’s Love at First Site is a collage composed from different image sources, including historical baby portraits, ethnographic photos of African women, Kristian Zahrtmann’s painting of the death of Danish Countess Leonora Christina and an Italian Renaissance Madonna and Child. The images have been cut out and pasted together into a new, porous mother figure, a globalized Madonna and Child sprawled naked like an exotic odalisque on a bed of white lace. Both mother and child look out at the viewer – the woman with diffident wonder, the child with sceptical curiosity.

Laure Prouvost: MOOOTHERRR, 2020

Laure Prouvost made her immersive installation MOOOTHERRR especially for this exhibition. In the centre of a mirrored room hangs a glass-breasted octopus breathing and leaking ink into a pool of seaweed and electronic waste. The sound of the artist conversing with her son periodically fills the room. Nature fantasies, ecological crisis and autobiography are braided together into a contemporary embodiment of a prehistoric fertility goddess. Mother is Mother Nature. She has multiple breasts and eight arms, one holding a cigarette. Nature is filthy. Who is going to clean up this mess? Mother?

The exhibition is organized into six sections:


The mother of all mothers, the immaculate and holy Virgin Mary is the ur-image of mother and child in Western art – the all-sacrificing, all-forgiving, ever-loving, exalted mother with her child at her breast embodying the miracle of new life. This powerful image constitutes a cultural legacy that modern artists have been reinterpreting and developing in many directions. The first gallery displays 15th-century Madonnas alongside modern images of mother and child – from Alice Neel’s (1900-1984) sensitive everyday realism to Catherine Opie’s (b. 1961) queer mother figure and pop star Beyoncé’s (b. 1981) self-representation as a modern maternal saint after the birth of her twins, in a photograph by Mason Poole (b. 1981).

Memory: Mother of the Artist

Many artists associate Mother with memories of childhood. The French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is a key figure in this tradition. His magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past, opens with an early memory of waiting for his mother’s goodnight kiss. Proust’s fine descriptions of sensory impressions are the fulcrum of a gallery dedicated to artists’ portraits of their mothers, often employing a telling detail. Kosovo-born Petrit Halilaj (b. 1986) has made a sculpture based on earrings his mother buried by his childhood home before they fled the Balkan War. His mother is bound up with his lost motherland. The American artist Kaari Upson (b. 1972) has created a full room installation surrounding the viewer with dangling legs the size of tree trunks, placing us at the level of a child prepared to clutch her mother’s legs.

Mother’s Voice

Having a mother is one thing. Being, or not being, a mother is another – an explosive theme in art. Artists throughout the 20th century described actively opting out of motherhood to pursue art. Strangling Angel, a watercolour by a very young Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), shows a woman strangling a baby. The picture was to remind her to reject the traditional roles of wife and mother in favour of life as an artist. From the 1970s on, however, several artists made motherhood the subject of autobiographical works. A recent example is the painter Chantal Joffe’s (b. 1969) touching self-portraits with her daughter Esme doing everyday activities like hair brushing, bedtime and going to town.


Cold or warm, good or bad. The mother figure is intimately connected with nurture, or the lack thereof. Unlike the Biblical Madonna, cultural history features several failing or outright dangerous mothers. The title character of the classical tragedy Medea murders her children to exact revenge on their father who abandons her. The hero of another famous tragedy, Oedipus Rex, unwittingly has sexual relations with his mother. The Brothers Grimm fairy tales feature a host of wicked stepmothers who mistreat or even attempt to kill children. Mothers often play terrifying roles in horror films. In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, a serial killer murders young women while dressed as his dead mother. The exhibition couples these cultural references with artworks representing equally ambiguous mother figures.


Mother is the giver of life, the body that bore us. For thousands of years, people have associated the mother figure with fertility, as seen in the countless fertility goddesses and magic objects linked to the mysterious reproductive processes of the body. With modern science came the mapping of organs and cells related to fertility, and fertility became the object of medical intervention. Religion, medical history and art come together in a tableau dedicated to fertility as expressed in mother goddesses and mother bodies.

History of Motherhood: Nine Highlights

Motherhood is eternal, but the cultural role of the mother changes over time. In nine historical highlights, this section of the exhibition shows how motherhood in the 20th and 21st centuries has been affected by legislation, social advances and debate – from Danish women winning the right to vote in 1915 to the birth-control pill and legal abortion, and on to today’s discussions of the rights of the rainbow family and queer parenthood. On display are a number of distinctive design objects related to motherhood, including a baby alarm by the designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) and a spectacular maternity dress (1979) worn by the fashion model and pop star Grace Jones (b. 1948), and created by her partner, the designer Jean-Paul Goude (b. 1940).

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