Rebecca Wallersteiner visits The Mother & The Weaver, an intimate new exhibition opening at the Foundling Museum (22 September to 2023 to 18th February 2024, that explores the extraordinary, multi-faceted experience of motherhood and the ties that bind.
The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider my mother was a weaver – Louise Bourgeois, 2001
An exciting new exhibition, The Mother and the Weaver: Art from the Ursula Hauser Collection at the Foundling Museum from 22nd September, curated by Tanya Barson explores the experience of motherhood and womanhood in all its aspects, focusing on love, loss, childhood, sexuality and identity, presenting over forty contemporary works from the Ursula Hauser Collection displayed alongside historic objects and works held in the Foundling Museum’s own collection. Titled The Mother and the Weaver the exhibition showcases many female artists including Louise Bourgeois, Rita Ackermann, Ida Applebroog, Marlene Dumas, Berlinde de Bruyckere and Sonia Gomes, amongst others.
Referencing the origins of Foundling through the vision of the artists, the show features the largest collection of everyday textiles from the eighteenth century (including 5,000 fabric scraps from the Hospital’s archives left by mothers.)
The Foundling Museum is one of the very few places in the UK where the public are able to see tokens left by desperate mothers who were forced by poverty, or the stigma of illegitimacy to leave their babies at the Foundling Hospital. This had been founded in 1739 for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children” by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram, who had become upset by seeing abandoned, wretched babies dying in the streets of London. When mothers left their babies with the Foundling Hospital they were asked to include a token to identify them should they ever reclaim their child. Many of these women owned almost nothing and were illiterate – they left personal, poignant items such hairpins, a scrap of ribbon, or fabric, a gaming token, or one in case the tag of a bottle marked “ale”. The act of leaving a child in this way was both a source of deep grief for child and parent and an act of love and hope through which women tried to secure their child’s future. Most of these children never saw their mother again.
Maternal presence, or absence, and the complex emotions that each arouses informs many of the works in the exhibition. The artists in the show explore these tensions through the lens of expectations around what it means to be a ‘good’ mother or woman from, from Carol Rama’s Seduzioni, 1984, to Rita Ackermann’s Mama, I love you, 2010. These subjects take on new meanings in the context of the Foundling Museum.
Some works explore the overwhelming experience of becoming a mother, such as Luchita Hurtado’s acrylic painting Birth, 2019, an image of childbirth viewed from the mother’s perspective. Others are more suggestive, hinting at complex histories of displacement and fractured identity. The artist Sonia Gomes, for example, was moved as a child from her Black maternal grandmother’s home to her white father’s family home. Working primarily with discarded textiles, Gomes evokes the memories we attach to such fragments in her sculptures, which form a dialogue with the works of Louise Bourgeois, as well as the fragments of textiles left as identifying ‘tokens’ by mothers leaving their children in the Foundling Hospital’s care.
We think back through our mothers if we are women said Virginia Woolf, who rebelled against societal expectations, which she believed had deprived her clever mother of the chances to fulfil her potential, turning her a martyr. Her mother, Julia Stephens died when Virginia was just 13 and she felt haunted by this for the rest of her life. The artist Louise Bourgeois, whose work is featured in the exhibition similarly lost her mother at a young age. Her mother, Josephine suffered from ill health and Louise had to care for her for long periods of time. She did not receive much help from her father – much of his time was occupied by his string of mistresses, which contributed to her fear of abandonment, a key theme in her work. Josephine died when Louise was just 22, while she was studying mathematics, at the Sorbonne, in 1932. Her mother’s death inspired Louise to abandon mathematics and to begin studying art. The exhibition’s title, The Mother and the
Weaver evokes Louise Bourgeois’ most well-known image: the spider, depicted primarily in a series of works that the artist began in her eighties. A bronze sculpture from this series is on display in the exhibition. For the artist the spider symbolised her mother, who had managed the family’s tapestry.
The emotional umbilical cord that ties us so tightly to our mothers is never completely severed – not even by death. A visit to the Foundling museum never fails to move. You will leave this exhibition with a lump in your throat.
The late artist Paula Rego was preoccupied by the darker side of womanhood, sexuality and motherhood. Drawing on folk traditions of her native Portugal, her powerful, disturbing picture Pregnant Girl Disposing of the Evidence (2009), executed in pastel and charcoal, explores fear, shame, defiance and pain – is being presented by Tanya Baxter Contemporary at the womanhood , held at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York Square, Kings Road, London, SW3, until Sunday, October 1st – one of the outstanding highlights of the Fair. Don’t miss seeing it.
The Mother and the Weaver until 28th February 2024,
at the The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London
WC1N 1AZ +44 (0)20 7841 3600 / foundlingmuseum.org.uk
Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00-17:00, Monday closed
Admission: Adults £10.50 with donation, Concessions £8.25 with
Free for 21 & under, Foundling Friends & National Art Pass holders
British Art Fair, at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York Square King’s Road, London, SW3 4RY.