La Maternité

La Maternité, 1973
Joan Miró (1893–1983)

La Maternité explores one of the oldest themes in art: maternity. Like famous antecedents such as the Paleolithic Willendorf Venus, almost every element of the sculpture’s form and proportions embodies associations with womanhood and motherhood, including the swelling and growth associated with sexuality, fertility, and pregnancy.

The central oval opening resembles abstracted female sexual organs, a womblike recess, or the split in an embryonic seed or cell. The void in this opening suggests that fertilization has not yet taken place, or perhaps that a birth already has occurred.

The striking low-lying proportions of La Maternité strongly suggest that this primordial figure arises from the earth. Its biomorphic form hovers ambiguously between the animal and the human, reminding viewers of their animal origins and natures. Associations with aqueous environments (including cells or wombs) are evoked by the smooth, globular form that seems to glide across the ground surface; by the waterbird-like neck and bifurcated eyes/bill; and by the two rear appendages, which resemble bollards, the steel posts used to secure ships to a pier.

Like an embryo, the central nurturing mass appears to be growing armlike or nipplelike appendages in various states of development. The upraised appendages evoke both the plea of a needy offspring and the proffered embrace and breasts of a nurturing mother. These appendages also can be seen as protophallic; and, in conjunction with the oval opening, invokes both male and female principles. The figure’s anatomy is evocative of sex and the desire for union, as well as birth and postpartum separation. Through its powerful physical presence, Miró’s La Maternité revitalizes one of art’s oldest themes.

Although Miró never formally joined the European Surrealists, like that group of artists he drew inspiration from the spatial innovations of Cubism, the Dada movement’s embrace of the irrational, and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung regarding unconscious thought and collective archetypes.

Fascinated by childlike, primitive, or irrational mental states and pictorial forms, Miró embraced automatism, spontaneous acts of artistic creation that rejected any prior self-censorship or subsequent editing. He advocated starvation, sleep deprivation, and hallucinogenic drugs as ways of unleashing unconventional forms of creativity. Miró’s expressed desire to subvert traditional painting also led him to project his innovative ideas into three-dimensional assemblages and sculptures.

Joan Miró (1893—1983)
La Maternité, 1973
Museum purchase, gift of Bernard and Barbro Osher

Listen to Colin B. Bailey, Director of Museums, provide his perspective on Joan Miró’s La Maternité.