A Shared Experience – Catalogue Foreword by Ghislaine Howard
The Maternity Unit is an extraordinary institution: it is here that the experience takes place that we have all shared – our naked entry into the world. Focused here are so many emotions and so many 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, the sense of fellowship between mothers and staff and the developing relationships between mothers, their partners and the new- born child.
The 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 the highly technological atmosphere of the Special Baby Unit where the skill 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.
I 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 rarely seen in art galleries.
Immediately after the births of my own two children I realised the irony that I, the mother, was the only one of those present 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 my own history.
It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that, above all, it has been my gender that has allowed me access to the 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, invisible.
The comparatively short time I have spent in the hospital has meant, of necessity, that I have had to work quickly, at the 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 resilience, but above all of our common humanity.
I 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 and children whose wholehearted participation has made this event possible.
A Shared Experience – Catalogue notes by David Peters Corbett
Over a period of four months from October 1992 to January 1993 Ghislaine Howard was artist in residence at St Mary’s Hospital, 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 Unit. The result is a powerful series of works in several media which describe the experience of hospital birth with an illuminating visual intelligence and an unsentimental compassion that includes the medical teams and the partners as well as the mothers and babies.
Anybody who has spent any time at all in hospital knows that it is a world at one remove from our normal lives. Only in hospital do our bodies become so public. They are probed, examined and exposed in 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.
Where the body is concerned these things are of little use as models of conduct, and for the duration of our stay the body is what we are. For the mother-to-be this situation is particularly acute. She means to be active, but she must be passive; she is not ill, but she must submit to treatment; she is not a patient, everybody tells her so, but in practice she is indistinguishable from one.
Howard sees this disconcerting aspect of the experience clearly and she powerfully describes it and the successive 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 forthrightness and authenticity.
In these paintings and drawings the women who are mothers-to-be live through the consequences of becoming, temporarily, only their bodies and of expecting a new role, that of mother, which is promised 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.
First of all, they wait. They lie or sit, expecting the event that will transform them from potential to actuality and usefulness, for the presence of the other life that they long for or, sometimes, that they fear or do not want. Then they are inspected, their full bellies are felt or listened to to check on the life within.
The pictures that describe this experience contrast the limbo of “expecting” with the continuing activities of others. A woman gazes partly stoically, partly dreamily at the ceiling as her stomach is palpated, another turns her head away as if to signal the irrelevance of the visitors who hover above her bed. The world continues to turn but the secret of its revolution, the separate but identical pairing of the baby who has not yet arrived and the mother who carries her, are still outside time, still waiting.
This static 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 face 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.
The 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 climactic moment is treated with a deliberate forthrightness that acknowledges its centrality. At this moment the emphasis on the body is concentrated into one event of meaningfulness and pain.
Neither here nor in the painting of the breech birth which accompanies it is the emergence of the new life presented as straightforwardly liberating. The woman still has to suffer and still has to be tended, as she has been up till then, by the professional lives that 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 passages cleared. The child is then shown to its mother, or, in another set of circumstances, given air or taken to be placed in the incubator.
The final section of the series examines the aftermath of the birth, the first minutes for the mother and baby of the rest of their lives. In several paintings the mother holds her child, initiating that process called bonding. In another a couple comfort each other in an embrace, hinting at a tragedy, the loss of a child and of what was expected from this pregnancy.
The 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.
In the canvas which depicts the moment of birth the woman, accompanied by her partner at top left, is surrounded by a team of medical staff. Elsewhere the bodies of the mothers-to-be are supervised as they undergo the medical procedures which attend birth; bodies are raised and lowered, are supported by stirrups for a breech delivery, lie in surgical 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 section.
But these procedures 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 repeatedly in the pictures are competent, professional, steady, but also, as in the 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 painting from all sides in the central birth scene are entirely confident in the job they are doing, but also tender, sympathetic. They are enabling, not forcing, the birth.
Throughout the drawings and paintings in the exhibition there is a theme of faces and the absence or concealment of faces. On the one hand Howard compels us to recognise and respond to expressions which communicate strongly; on the other, most of the faces in the work we cannot see.
There is an interplay between the expressions that can be read out of the smudged, apparently rapid notation, and the non-expressions of all those faces turned away or shielded for us: faces concealed by the surgical mask, by an embrace or by the medical personnel who cluster round, obscured by a preoccupation which seems to exclude us (with a job of work to be done, with the baby in the mother’s arms), or cut off by the picture frame or by unconsciousness.
In the one painting where there might be a direct meeting of glances between the spectator and the subject, the woman seems entirely separate within the privacy of her experience and her face is obscured by the oxygen mask strapped over nose and mouth.
Ghislaine Howard’s work exhibited here is about a subject that art has not dealt with before, the nature of hospital birth. It is a powerful and compelling achievement.