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Fred Hüning, Untitled (Lake), 2011 © Fred Hüning, courtesy of the artist

Photographer’s Gallery: Winter Exhibitions

24 October 2013 Mary Howell

The winter season sees another outstanding display from the Photographers’ Gallery, but what’s the best way to approach such a mixture of controversy, beauty and elegance?

My advice? Tackle the winter exhibitions upside down, head on. Not in a literal sense, no, but systematically; in a way which allows each exhibition to complement the one before, rather than fight for your attention. Tackling the top gallery’s compelling, graphic subject matter first permits a smooth journey down through the exhibitions.

Home Truths: Motherhood and Identity is this starting point. Similarly to its counterpart at the Foundling Museum, Home Truths: Motherhood and Loss, the exhibition delves deep into themes surrounding motherhood.

Eight artists have combated this ubiquitous subject, each from a unique perspective. Skillfully, curator Susan Bright has managed to balance the pieces’ visual and conceptual alliances with their contradictions. Through these thematic fluctuations, the exhibition triumphantly succeeds in its mission; challenging overplayed sentimental cliches of mothers and igniting debate around the representation of the mother figure.

Contrary to assumption, this is not an exhibition aimed just at women. Motherhood, after all, is universal. Similarly to how its Motherhood and Loss counterpart is rooted to maternal loss, Bright underpinned Motherhood and identity with shape shifting and identity change that accompanies becoming a mother. “Its really important for me that I kept that tight and that it didn’t turn into an illustrative show of here’s pregnancy, here’s giving birth. That’s not was it is at all. It’s a much stickier, more complicated place where your identity has changed from being absolutely one person into being understood in relation to somebody else.”

In some pieces, beauty lies at the foreground; chiefly the intimacy, love and aesthetic ease of Putz’s series. Other artists highlight their personal struggles with the guilt and confusion of post-partum depression, loss of identity, limits of endurance and the often unattainable balance of mother, marriage and career.

The ability to evoke disappointment and sorrow within Elina Brotherus’ Annunciation series is remarkable. She draws jarring parallels between biblical annunciation paintings, which depict the Virgin Mary’s celestial conception, and her own years of failed IVF treatment. Through their anchoring to religion, historic art and personal heartache, the pieces are sterile and poignant, communicating deep feelings of emptiness and loss effortlessly.

With comparable ease, Leigh Ledare’s Pretend Your Actually Alive will ignite feelings of either distaste or intrigue. Ledare’s work draws from his upbringing, where the lines of mother-son relationship, ethics and ephemera blur. Bright emphasised the content’s complexities. “It’s about the family unit, it’s about how his mother at the age of 50 is trying to deal with and come to terms with ageing. It’s about a lot of things and it really has to be understood on those terms rather than just taking some kind of explicit images out of context.” Yes this piece will divide opinion, but, more importantly, it will provoke the desired reassessment of motherhood cliches.

Melting down from Home Truths are the tones of love, child loss and relationship hardship that persist in a solo exhibition of the celebrated Parisian painter and photographer, Jacques Henri-Lartigue. Similarly to how Lartigue documented his entire life, this section of his portfolio captures the rise and decay of his first marriage to Madeleine Messager, fondly referred to as Bibi. As a chronological account of a decade long romance, it chimes back to the personal, biographical nature of Motherhood and Identity.

Lartigue fell for Bibi in 1919, describing her as “a sweet little thing who leaves you quite indifferent to her charms.” At first, she is central to Lartigue’s photography. Elegant, glamorous pictures reflect their life in the bustling art scene and high society of Paris. As time moves on, their marriage endures the death of their second child and Lartigues’ developing love for another woman. No longer the sole object of his desire, we see Bibi pushed back deeper, increasingly surrounded by other women, displaying a hierarchy that echoed Lartigue’s personal life.

Curator and dear friend of the late Henri-Lartigue, Maryse Cordesse, said the exhibition was a tribute to him. Having premiered the exhibition at Les Rencontres d'Arlesphotography festival earlier this year, she talked lovingly of her friend. “I would say, for him, he was always living with a third eye; his camera. He always had it. He was living through his camera, more than really living. He was deeply an artist.”

Signing off on this wonderful trio is the comparatively small, yet perfectly formed, Here, Far Away. Positioned in the Print Sales room, it showcases choice pickings from over thirty years of Pentti Sammallahti’s body of work.

Standing physically and thematically distant from the former two, this exhibition is somewhat of a pallet cleanser. The broad narrative and isolation in Sammallahti’s landscape and figurative works distils the intensity of Motherhood and Identity and Bibi. Known as the Finnish master of black and white, the atmospheric nature of his work rounds off the winter exhibitions in peaceful and humbling fashion.

Of course, you can combat The Photographers’ Gallery in whichever way you see fit! But it appears that this evocative diminuendo exists for a reason. Ending on a series that draws upon the idea of finding your place in the world enables a period of reflection; reflection on your place in the world, as Sammallahti intended, and on the previous exhibitions.

Home Truths: Motherhood and Identity, Bibi and Pentti Sammallahti: Here, Far Away run at The Photographers’ Gallery until the 5th January 2013, absolutely free of charge.

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