the making of Pregnant woman 2002
The National Gallery of Australia’s international paintings and
sculpture collection has many individual works which are particularly
important in the careers of the artists who made them. These are pivotal
works marking a turning point, forming a new start or a culmination of
a period of output. Examples include Willem de Kooning’s Woman
V, Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles, Amadeo Modigliani’s Standing
nude, Paul Cézanne’s Afternoon in Naples, Constantin
Brancusi’s Birds in space, Eva Hesse’s Contingent,
David Hockney’s A bigger Grand Canyon, Lucian Freud’s After
Cézanne, and the recent acquisition, Ron Mueck’s Pregnant
Ron Mueck was born in Melbourne and moved to England in the early 1980s. He became a successful model maker but found the work-to-order regime a challenging one. Eager to make more personal sculptures, his extraordinary Dead Dad, a small-scale hyper-real sculpture of his dead and naked father was the surprise show stopper at the London Royal Academy’s controversial show Sensation (1997) which featured works from the collection of Charles Saatchi.
Mueck’s huge 4.5m crouching Boy was the centrepiece of the Millennium Dome in London and of the Venice Biennale in 2001. The artist’s work is becoming ever more intriguing, ranging from smaller-than-life size naked figures to much larger, but never actual, life size. Consequently his hyper-realistic sculptures in fibreglass and silicone, while extraordinarily lifelike, challenge us by their odd scale. The psychological confrontation for the viewer is to recognise and assimilate two contradictory realities.
Pregnant woman is Mueck’s most ambitious work to date. The sculpture is monumental (2.5m high), utterly imposing and even intimidating when first experienced by the viewer. After a while, however, this majestic Earth Mother becomes familiar, unthreatening and endearing. She is exhausted, hands held back over her head; the face is tender and vulnerable. Her presence is a powerful one indeed, and she evokes a multitude of thoughts, ranging from the wonder of maternity and procreation to population control and the burden of female responsibility.
The London studio where Ron Mueck works is an amazing testament to his commitment. A mattress lies on the floor in the corner of the room, a simple resting place after all-night forays in sculpture making. There is a book on pregnancy amid cast off legs from preparatory sculptures strewn about on the floor.
Mueck is meticulous and scrupulous about verisimilitude. The feet of Pregnant woman are planted firmly on the ground supporting her weary pose. Nails, kneecaps, nipples, all are portrayed with scintillating realism, the consequence of flawless process.
Pregnant woman began with a series of small plaster maquettes. They allowed investigation of the outstretched arms in a variety of poses. The decision to make the figure a giant was a brave one, and the confidence that has carried it off so effectively is a mark of Mueck’s artistic maturity. After making three maquettes about 15cm high, Mueck tested his decision to sculpt a work much larger than life size by making three large drawings of the pregnant woman, seen in profile, each a different height. He was at that time artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, London, and, in order to test the scale, he took the drawings to the room where the sculpture would ultimately be exhibited.
Over three months Mueck worked with a single female model, beginning when she was already six months pregnant. He also used photographs — and, without doubt, there are also art historical precedents behind the sculpture as the artist absorbed the wonderful European Old Master collection in London. He made the figure in fibreglass but, because fibreglass is so hard, made a separate face in silicone, so that eyebrows and hair could be punched in with greater ease but no less perseverance. Tiny needles were used to punch in human hairs one by one in tedious repetition.
Pregnant woman is not a portrait. The invisible presence of the soon-to-be-born infant makes this sculpture one of the most fascinating images of maternity. Still considered a taboo in some cultures, many people are confronted by the sight of Pregnant woman. Nothing is sacred, nothing is private any more, some have said. But Pregnant woman is surely a secular Madonna, a hymn to the beauty of the life-giving which is shared so personally only by mothers.
Pregnant woman was included in exhibitions of Mueck’s work held at the National Gallery, London, from March to June 2003, at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, from November 2003 to January 2004, and the National Gallery, Berlin, in early 2004 before arriving at the National Gallery of Australia.
Pregnant woman was acquired for the National Gallery of Australia with the assistance of Tony and Carol Berg, who have been such generous and consistent supporters of the development of the Gallery’s international collection.