Exhibition reflects on the history of ‘un-pregnancy’ through art

A collaboration between Birkbeck academic Dr Isabel Davis and artist Anna Burel has produced a series of artworks depicting the history of ‘un-pregnancy’, which are currently exhibited at The Peltz Gallery. 

Dr Davis, from the Department of English and Humanities reflects on the research which led to the collaboration.

Finding out you’re not pregnant can be a very odd experience of nothing happening. While of course, there are plenty of people who feel relieved on discovering they aren’t going to be parents, there are conversely lots who feel disappointed, and often this isn’t the first time they’ve felt this way. So, they are (or their partner is) not pregnant … again. Grieving for something that never was, feels strange.

My Conceiving Histories project explores how this nothing, this thing that never was, a thing which I call ‘un-pregnancy’, appears in the historical archives. I am particularly interested in how people in the past thought about the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility. What do they have to say about trying to conceive, about on-going childlessness (involuntary or otherwise), about the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy, about not knowing whether they were pregnant or not and about early pregnancy loss? What I am finding is that there is a lot of archival material about this apparent nothing. If there are things that can be touched, seen and read in archives about un-pregnancy, then this experience can’t really be a nothing; it must be a something, after all.

To pursue this project, I teamed up with a visual artist Anna Burel who, for a long time, has been working on the female experience of the body, particularly the female body in the gynecological encounter. Like me, she is interested in history and thinking about the points of identification between people today and those in the past. Working together, we have started to look at all sorts of aspects of un-pregnancy; simulated, imagined, misdiagnosed and phantom pregnancies at different points in time, as well as the difficulties of diagnosing pregnancy before home testing. Our exhibition, which presents the work we have done in the first phase of this collaboration, is open at the Peltz Gallery, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and continues until 13 December.

In the exhibition we explore four curious case studies: Queen Mary I’s two false pregnancies (1554-1557); a strange fashion for simulating pregnancy by using a pad (1793); a science-fiction fantasy about discovering how to diagnose early pregnancy and date human gestation (1826); and materials from the Family Planning Association (FPA) archive concerning the international transport of live toads for use in the FPA’s pregnancy diagnostic centre (1949-1964).

To give you a fuller sense of just one of these, let me tell you about the strange fashion in 1793 for wearing what was known as The Pad, which simulated pregnancy. The Morning Herald, a contemporary newspaper tells us: “Pads continue to be worn; and on account of these the dress is still a loose gown of white muslin flounced in front, appearing to be put on with the negligence permitted to the supposed situation of the wearers.”

Contemporaries described it as a fashion which moved around from the back, where it functioned as a bustle, to the front. Most of the evidence for it is satirical. Contemporary cartoonists were savage, presenting The Pad as silly and French. They were particularly delighted, but also perhaps horrified by the idea that it was a social leveler, ironing out differences between rich and poor, large and slim, young and old – making a nonsense of the pregnancy swell as a social sign.

A one-act farce, The Pad by Robert Woodbridge opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden the same year. It presents three interlocking stories of couples disrupted because women have taken to wearing The Pad. The main protagonist, Lovejoke, sets out to teach these women a lesson not to ‘outstep the modesty of Nature’ by wearing one. Two of the stories end happily but the third is more bitter. In this story, Sir Simon Meagre and his wife are childless after years of trying; Lovejoke leads him to believe that they might finally have the child they’ve hoped for, although in truth his wife has just taken to wearing The Pad. When the truth comes out, Lovejoke makes an exception for Lady Meagre – she can continue to wear The Pad as consolation for her childlessness. ‘Poor comfort!’ Sir Simon replies, ‘sad substitute for a Son and Heir! – I thought to have had a little boronet [sic]’. Although it is ostensibly a comedy, the play ends on this dissonantly poignant note, bequeathing us some odd evidence for trying to conceive in history.

Anna’s work on this bizarre fashion object explores its tragicomic potential. Her series of photographs show women wearing The Pad, sometimes with fools’ caps. Using the typography of Woodbridge’s play to mark up Pads with dates and slogans, Anna’s photographs explore the emotions around the absence of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is very privatising and not being able to become pregnant can feel humiliating, as if one can’t get into an exclusive private club, or as if the world is laughing. Women and men have long learned to resort to silence about their struggles to become parents for fear of exposing themselves as in some way inadequate. Maternity clothes today emphasise pregnancy as a special category. The current Western aesthetic in maternity wear stresses the neatness of the pregnancy bump, isolating it and giving it clear definition in relation to the female body. For those looking on from the outside, this kind of definition – both to the contours of the pregnant body and to the community of those who can get pregnant – is sharply distinct from the ambiguities of a life lived in uncertainty about the future, the body, pregnancy and parenthood.

The eighteenth-century Pad offers an odd sort of reflection on these complex emotions and there isn’t the sort of evidence that one would really like; what women thought and felt about wearing it, what their motivations were and so on. The imaginative world that it suggests, however, is one in which women can somehow side-step their own longing and the socially isolating experience of un-pregnancy and temporarily enjoy looking pregnant. What if we could collapse the hard boundaries that we set up today, so firmly reinforced by the fashion industry and other institutions, between those who can fall pregnant and those who can’t? Such things are taboo for us: celebrities who fake pregnancies are vilified as if they’ve violated some sacred estate, anyone else is deemed mad.

Yet history and art offer a temporary and neutral space, in which we might think about ourselves and ask questions like: ‘what if …?’

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Peter Murray Memorial Lecture: ‘How to form a national collection’

Francesca Castelli, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses the recent Peter Murray Memorial Lecture, delivered by Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi. The lecture is named in honour of Peter Murray, who founded Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art in 1967 and is part of Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck, a series of events celebrating the Department’s 50th anniversary.

A full house with a captivated audience joined Birkbeck’s Clore Lecture Theatre on 30 November to listen to Dr Gabriele Finaldi as he took us through the events surrounding the foundation and the development of the collections of two museums: Madrid’s Prado and London’s National Gallery.

These two museums differ dramatically in their genesis. While the Madrid museum was very much conceived as ‘an act of royal generosity to the nation’, the London institution was born through the will of the British Parliament.

Opened in 1819 by Ferdinand VII as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, the Prado was to all intents and purposes a public showcase of the king’s personal collection. Indeed, all of the 311 pictures came from the Royal Residences in and around Madrid and were the works of Spanish artists. It was not until the nationalisation of Church property in 1868 and the incorporation of the holdings of the National Museum of Painting in 1872 that the distinctly local character of the collection started to move towards a more international dimension, with the introduction of works by Flemish and Italian masters like Rubens and Titian.

The National Gallery, on the other hand, was not born through the nationalisation of a royal art collection. It was instead established when Parliament offered a £60,000 grant for the purchase and display of 38 paintings from the estate of banker John Julius Angerstein, including Sebastiano Del Piombo’s s majestic Raising of Lazarus. The National Gallery opened its doors to the public on 10 May 1824 in Angerstein’s former residence at 100 Pall Mall, a building far too small and modest to accommodate a growing museum whose democratic ambition was to be ‘a gallery for all’. The collection was moved to its current location on Trafalgar Square in 1838 and was enriched with important Italian Renaissance works from the likes of Raphael and Correggio, as well as French paintings from the eighteenth century by Poussin and Claude through generous bequests. But it was van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, acquired in 1842, that seemed to pique the interest of Victorian crowds with its richness of detail and elegant symbolism.

The account offered by Dr Finaldi of the strength of the relationship between the National Gallery and its audience that became apparent during World War II was particularly poignant.  At a time when the museum was officially closed and the collection evacuated, former director Kenneth Clark began to organise daily piano concerts that were open to everyone. Myra Hess and other musicians played over 1,600 lunchtime concerts from late 1939 until the end of the war.  And in 1942, spurred by a letter written by a member of the public to The Times, Clark was persuaded to take one painting at a time out of storage and put it on display so that Londoners would have something to admire. This event marked the start of the tradition of the Picture of the Month that still exists today, and allowed the museum’s mission to offer the ‘enjoyment of beauty’ to be restored when it was needed the most.

Museums are thus places that bring people together and in more recent years both the National Gallery and the Prado have undergone extensive expansion projects aiming to provide a better environment for their visitors, as well as a modern space for their growing collection, temporary exhibitions and conservation facilities.

Dr Finaldi’s final point was about the opportunities offered by new technologies and social platforms and how these are instrumental in reaching out to new and larger audiences. Museums are called to have their own digital strategy in order to maximise the potential harnessed by the digitalisation of culture and to help people to experience art in different ways. Earlier this year, in a ground-breaking and unprecedented event, the five museums where the existing van Gogh Sunflowers are located, came together in a sort of virtual exhibition thanks to a live Facebook broadcast and gave life to a fully immersive digital experience supported by VR technology and Computer-generated Imagery.  An audience of some 6 million people connected to enjoy an interactive tour of the virtual gallery while van Gogh’s great-grandson shared his personal memories of the iconic pictures.

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The Man Booker at Birkbeck: author Julian Barnes on The Sense of an Ending

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker event at Birkbeck, which saw author Julian Barnes in conversation with Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing.

On 27 November 2017, prize-winning novelist, essayist, journalist, memoirist and art critic Julian Barnes came to Birkbeck for the annual Man Booker at Birkbeck event. Hundreds of Birkbeck students, alumni and staff – including many from Birkbeck’s popular and successful creative writing programmes – attended the event, while 2000 free copies of Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011), were distributed in the weeks beforehand. This is the seventh year of this ongoing, hugely successful initiative between Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation and, as Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, observed in her introduction, both institutions are committed to ‘the public good’ of bringing the highest cultural and intellectual achievements, including the very best of contemporary literature, to the widest possible audience.

In a genial, urbane and erudite exchange, Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck, discussed The Sense of an Ending with Barnes, interrogating him about the novel’s genesis, central concerns and themes, and readers’ responses. The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on the pleasures and perils of ageing, the slipperiness of memory, the contingency of identity, and the sting of remorse. It is narrated in the first-person by Tony Webster, an affable, very British everyman, who has happily – perhaps even smugly – sailed through life with as little friction and emotional upset as possible. In the first part of the novel, we are treated to Tony’s blandly straightforward memories of his sixth-form and university days, as the repressed 1960s begin to sputter into life with the falling away of old prohibitions. In a bravura middle section, Barnes glosses over four decades of Tony’s very ordinary life in just five paragraphs, emphasising the swift passage of time and the terse eulogy of a man who has lived entirely according to his own fixed self-image as a ‘regular, reliable, honest chap’, in Barnes’s words. In the second half of the novel, Tony’s life is upended by revelations about the death by suicide, forty years previously, of his precociously brilliant school friend, Adrian, and the return to his life of his acerbic first girlfriend, Veronica.

In a tussle over ownership of Adrian’s lost diary, Tony endures a series of baffling, bruising encounters with an indignant Veronica, whose constant refrain is, ‘You don’t get it, but then you never did’. The recovery of a half-remembered letter he sent Adrian in a fit of pique overturns his quietism, revealing a moment of youthful callousness that belies his lifelong self-image as an amiable, decent and morally equitable person. Tony is also confronted with uncomfortable truths about a child secretly fathered by Adrian, forcing him to reassess his memories and unleashing an irremediable, guilty sense of responsibility for contributing to Adrian’s suicidal despair. We might regard Tony as ‘cowardly’, Barnes observed, or as ‘emotionally practical’, but he is less an unreliable narrator than a narrator who simply gets things wrong.

Barnes located the origins of the novel in his 2008 memoir, Nothing to be Frightened of, which explored his own intense fear of dying and death. While writing this piece, he shared with his philosopher brother a memory of their grandfather slaughtering chickens, which his brother remembered so differently as to present Barnes with two alternative, ‘incompatible’ memories. This powered his interest in the precariousness of memory, which has profound implications for our sense of self, but also for the writing of history more generally. In the novel’s early scenes, the young Adrian quotes a historian invented by Barnes – whom some readers have fruitlessly Googled and even quoted as if he were real – who argues, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ The Sense of an Ending is thus shot through with concerns about causation, memory and the writing of personal and national histories. This ‘comic beginning’ to the novel was accompanied by the personal discovery of the death by suicide of a brilliant school friend many years before, which encouraged Barnes to explore in fiction how we can think of the dead as alive and fantasise about their unlived lives.

Barnes admitted that he liked wielding the authorial tool of a hidden secret, enlisting the reader as a detective or a historian, who must piece together events from Tony’s unreliable memories. Barnes also confessed to enjoying inflicting a correctional revelation on his complacent narrator, unearthing his buried, youthful capacity for ‘great emotional violence’, as well as delivering a shock to the reader, who has taken Tony at his word and understood him as essentially mild. Through Tony, Barnes explores how our memories, which can feel utterly truthful and foundational to our sense of self, can be sanitised, redacted and preserved in mental aspic. Barnes confessed that he shares Veronica’s punitiveness, as we come to understand the profoundly damaging effect Tony’s blithe letter had on her.  ‘Remorse’, Barnes expounded, has its etymology in Latin and originally meant ‘to bite again’, and it is through the sharpness of his regret that Tony comes to a deeper understanding of himself, his history and his actions.

Barnes discussed his own belief that our character is largely fixed in childhood and the illusoriness of our adolescent sense that our life ‘as free philosophical individuals’ will fully begin when we become adults. In distinction to existential philosophy, which emphasises individual freedom and action and which Barnes’s young characters affectedly adopt, Barnes argues that ‘your room for manoeuvre in your life is smaller than you think’ – as Tony painfully learns. An audience member remarked on Tony’s retreat into the mundane when confronted with uncomfortable truths – he instigates a hilariously petty discussion about thick-cut chips in a pub when he realises that he has met Adrian’s now-grown son – and Barnes revealed his own preoccupation, at a dear friend’s funeral, with the architectural history of the church in which the service was taking place. Grief, he argued, ‘is not as it is written down’ because ‘we oscillate between different levels’ and our grief is rarely unmixed with other emotions, responses and thoughts.

In reply to questions from creative writing students, Barnes confirmed his abiding interest in form and discussed the ‘technical challenge’ of a novel in which the bulk of a person’s life is hastily summarised and the emphasis is rather on the bookends to Tony’s existence – his youthful education, followed by his retirement. The authorial ability to move a narrative through time is something Barnes feels becomes stronger with age. For Barnes, form encompasses style, design and viewpoint and he quoted Flaubert’s observation that form needs an idea – and vice versa. For Barnes, when these two elements – form and idea – cross, there is a ‘fizz’, like electricity passing along a wire. Barnes insisted on the centrality of truth-telling to the art of fiction, arguing that it encompasses and expresses complex ‘truths [that] can’t be reduced to bullet-points or Christmas cracker mottos.’ Although he is an accomplished critic of art, Barnes argued that the novel, with its unique depth and intimacy, cannot be supplanted by other art forms.

The audience was interested in the film adaptation of the novel – ‘Take the money and run!’ was Barnes’s droll advice – Barnes’s influences, readerly responses to Tony, what Barnes is currently reading and his interest in translated literature. This successful, enjoyable evening confirmed yet again that Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation are a natural fit, with both offering multiple opportunities for cultural exchange, intellectual advancement and literary enjoyment.

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Knowledge without borders

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, addresses the College’s newest graduates as she congratulates them on their achievements during Graduation Week.

In her speech, she emphasises that the upheavals of a changing world and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union should not be allowed to stand in the way of knowledge-sharing and education, and how our new graduates can help to break down borders.

It is always a great pleasure to be with you here and offer my congratulations to you on your success. This is a day you will always remember; a watershed in your lives, your careers, that will have a lasting influence on how you live your future life – where you go, what you do and. most importantly, what satisfaction it brings you.

When I look out across a sea of faces and listen to your names, I am impressed by the range and diversity of our graduates. As for your names – you may notice that I try to catch the first name of each of you as I meet you as you cross the platform. That’s because each of you matters individually to Birkbeck. It’s not always easy; I can’t always get it right. There are some names that are not familiar to my own background in the north of England. But even as I hesitate in my wish to get it right, I take pleasure in knowing what a global reach Birkbeck has. I am always delighted to speak with those of you from places across the world. Birkbeck embraces you within its academic fold. And that goes too for my fellow Europeans.

Indeed, I want to say something more about this sense of belonging and the barriers that inhibit it. These are troubled times, when matters of identity – who you are and where you came from – are increasingly used to define and, indeed, restrict what you can do, where you can work and where you can make your home. The whole of Europe – and indeed the larger world – has a long history of men who drew lines on maps and made laws giving power to those lines. We are the inheritors of those maps, and we both thrive and suffer because of them. Not just in Europe but across the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Americas  – tribes of mankind have settled and developed, have lived within those lines and traded across them. They are the nation states we have today.

I, the people on this platform and all of you enjoy crossing those lines.  As a young student long ago I remember being woken in the night on the train south by a man in uniform demanding my passport and shouting:  “We are now crossing into Switzerland.” I was thrilled. At the first station I got out to buy fresh Swiss coffee and cakes. It was all so new. I had grown up in a country at war so, of course, only the servicemen of our armed forces got to travel abroad. France, Belgium, Holland and beyond were all occupied by the Germans. I got my first taste of crossing a frontier when I went to France at the age of 16.

I offer these personal reminiscences to show just how much times have changed. And then something important happened: the foundations of what we today call the European Union were created. And something happened in our family, too. Something I had never seen before: my father wept. He wept with joy that never, never again would there be war on the continent of Europe such as he had seen twice in his lifetime: the First World War with its death toll of 17 million. And the Second World War, including the war in the Pacific, with over 50 million dead.

He cried for himself and for his children: they would inherit a safer, more coherent Europe. And so it came about.

But wars did happen, and barriers took on a new significance. In the Middle East, and across Africa, people fled their homelands, crossed legal lines between countries to seek refuge from conflict or to seek a better life for themselves. They crossed frontiers in their millions and, in so doing, changed not only their own lives but the lives of those from whom they sought asylum. One of the outcomes of these shifts has created the world we have today: a world at odds with itself, finding it hard to formulate new rules by which to live – and, incidentally, defying the precepts of many of the world’s great religions which is always to “welcome the stranger”; make him welcome within your gates. People have increasingly become dogmatic, hostile, uneasy about their lives and their homelands.

But there is another – and, I believe, more powerful – impulse at work in the world: and we here today can be part of it. Knowledge is universal. The discoveries of science, medicine, social welfare, anthropology, literature, cultural studies are shared by scholars and institutes of learning around the world. It is crossing lines. It knows no boundaries.   The wisdom of study, the richness of shared understanding, the value of scholarship is something we are taking part in, simply by being here today.

Your remit extends around the world and your future careers will reach into many countries and communities. What we have in common is stronger than what divides us; stronger than the lines on the map; and we are here today to celebrate that shared outlook. Congratulations again to you all.

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