Subverting the Madonna and Child

Catherine Opie’s Self-​Portrait/Nursing subverts the iconography of the Western canon, manipulating the Madonna and Child icon in order to criticize the societal and cultural context the photographer lives in. The complexity of this photograph lends it to multiple levels of analysis, each pinned on subverting the traditional image of the Madonna and Child. There is, first, a question of femininity — the Madonna and Child has been used by artists, mostly men, to normalize (if not literally canonize) specific, restrictive ideals of femininity, purity, and women’s role in society — and of how Catherine Opie defines her own feminine ideal. Then, there is a question of power, as Opie reclaims a traditionally passive image into that of one of an active participant through her dual roles as the subject/mother and photographer/creator. Finally, there is also a question of the role the genre of the photograph plays, and how that influences the analysis of it — it is a portrait, but also a self-​portrait. It also falls into the genre of an artistic nude, though one that is not meant to be enticing. And is it, in a sense, a documentary photograph as well ? Is this photograph easily aligned into one specific genre, and if it cannot be, does that lend more meaning to it ? First, though, what is the art historical context of the Madonna and Child iconography ?

This is not a photograph that only speaks to other photographs, and instead speaks more broadly to the history of representation of women in Western art. The traditional Madonna and Child depicts a pious, innocent Mary and a doubly innocent Jesus. Various painters, and this is a painterly tableau, have depicted both Mary and Jesus as particularly human or supernatural (there are plenty of Madonnas and Children with halos and other symbols of religious ascension) depending on where exactly they fall on the line between Renaissance and earlier, so the straightforward, human-​not-​supernatural qualities of the portrait do not greatly inform the reading of the photograph. Instead, what is important to note is the focus on piety and innocence in the traditional depictions of Mary and her child. They are usually fair-​skinned, draped in voluminous clothing (or at least, Mary is), sometimes white. They usually stare down at their child, passive to the viewer’s gaze. Sometimes the background is plain, sometimes the settings are opulent, and sometimes the subjects are bathed in soft light. The Madonna establishes an ideal of femininity based in motherhood and purity (Mary was, after all, born without original sin).

Opie’s photograph references the Madonna and Child in content, and references painting as well in its form. It does not immediately look like an image that would only be produced photographically, with its soft light and Hans Holbein-​like background. On closer inspection, however, the viewer is subtly reminded that this is a photograph, with Opie’s elbow and hands extending beyond the frame, which was not a common technique of painters during the original popularity of the Madonna and Child. Innocence is still a signifier sitting gently on the mind thanks to the blonde-​haired, pale, immaculate baby.

One of the first immediately recognizable subversions of the Madonna and Child comes in Opie herself. Her hair is cropped short, and not perfectly combed. She is visibly tattooed. She is, also, naked (and this is, too, where the genre-​mixing and more art historical reference comes in). Upon closer inspection, her chest is branded (by herself), “Pervert” (complete with angelic wings). Her complexion is rosy, her skin bumpy and freckled. Armpit hair sneaks out. Opie is far from fitting the traditional image of the Madonna (on top of out-​of-​photograph knowledge of her sexuality as a lesbian). She is not the most beloved woman in Christianity, she is an outcast — the signifiers of her appearance (tattoos, body modifications, hair). She has been marginalized by society (“pervert”). Yet here she is, cradling a traditionally beautiful, readable-​as-​perfect, baby. This is the link, this is the normalizing step for her and her work — she is not some sort of monster because she does not fit patriarchal ideals; she is human, she is a mother, and she loves and protects her child. Here she signals that femininity may not just be rooted in the patriarchal definitions, but in the connection with humanity (here, through the child). (More problematically, it might also suggest that femininity or womanhood is related to one’s ability to have a child, but this might also just be Opie’s own, personal definition of her femininity — and it is important to consider that she, herself gets to define that femininity.)

While Opie might mimic the post and the form of the Madonna and child, her active nature in it questions not just the Madonna tableau, but also the genre of nude photography. In a larger conversation about women’s role in art (see : Guerilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum ?), Opie has posed as nude as the traditional Madonna. This asks us to question why we might see one form of nudity (the child) as pure and innocent, but not the other (the adult, especially the “pervert” adult). On another level, this engages with the history of the nude itself. Opie here is somewhat passively posed (gazing at her child, not the viewer) but unlike traditional nudes, she is not offering herself up to the viewer. This is not an erotic photograph, and Opie is not objectifying herself for the viewer’s pleasure. Important here is Opie’s dual role as both the subject and the photographer; this is a self-​portrait. She has taken an active role in the making of this photograph, with minimal exploitation involved.[1] The subversion of the nude genre through her active creation of this work references both photography and painting, especially through the larger context of the mash-​up of painterly and photographic forms. Thus in this photograph, motherhood is not just something that happened to her beyond her wishes — she chose to be a mother, to bring this life into this world, unlike Mary who, canonically, did not have much of a choice to be the mother of god. Important, too, is the nursing. Opie, our Madonna, is not just holding her Child, they are in an active relationship. The passivity of the other Madonnas and their Children is broken with what is a taboo yet natural action itself : nursing. This act is so subversive that nursing is often banned in public. Women, out of necessity, sometimes hide their children behind a kind of modesty-​cloth. Segments of the maternity industry are dedicated to such garments. And yet in this photograph, there is an earnest affirmation that one should not be ashamed of nursing their child, of being a mother, of being a woman. She literally bares it all, in the form of this traditional icon traditionally used to, in the sense of patriarchal structural violence, oppress women. Instead, it is a celebration with its warm red backdrop and its soft lighting. Here is life, here is humanity, here is a woman who is probably not well accepted in the world, even the allegedly progressive West.

This photograph’s subversive nature works because it is playing off of the Madonna and Child tableau. It references this mass of signifiers we have stored up in our minds, bringing greater meaning to the photograph. This is not just a (self-​) portrait of a woman and a child. The way she holds him fits our own personal “truth.” John Berger stresses the importance of context and our cultural education when he talks about his “quantum of truth” idea. “A photograph is effective when the chosen moment which it records contains a quantum of truth which is generally applicable… Nor can this truth ever be independent of the spectator. For the man with a Polyfoto of his girl in his pocket, the quantum of truth in an ‘impersonal’ photograph must still depend upon the general categories already in the spectator’s mind.”[2] It is not so important to this essay whether or not Self-​Portrait/Nursing is effective as a (subversion/portrait/nude/documentary photograph), but whether or not it is subversive lies in whether or not it has this “quantum of truth.” This photograph will only be “effective,” subversive, for those people who have all of this Christian/art history in their heads. One needs to understand the cultural and societal contexts (homophobia and misogyny) pervasive in the time of the photograph (2005). Those are the “general categories” which inform the “truth which is generally applicable.” The “chosen moment” here, though, is a constructed tableau, referencing a very old archetype. Berger says that photographs are not (universal) truth, but instead, “Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality.” Berger is telling us that a photograph is a representation of the photographer’s reality.

Opie mixes her reality with art history and creates a photograph that hopes to distort and question our own preconceived notions of our own realities. It might ask us, how much of our ideas of femininity come from old norms ? Opie creates agency for herself by recreating a photograph whose major subject lacked it, through subverting the Madonna and Child. She created her own feminine ideal/reality. She looked at art itself, and the history of women (and their passivity as subjects and exclusion as creators and agents), and asks us to also look. The overall effect of the photograph is less a self-​portrait and more an indictment. Opie has used her identity as a lens through which we might reexamine the canon, and question its treatment of the marginalized (in this specific case, a not-​traditionally-​feminine mother).



[1] I hesitate to say no exploitation, because while this may involve no erotic/sexual exploitation, Opie is still using her body and her image (and that of her son). It’s just a different type of exploitation (though one that is much, much less problematic), and this is as much a linguistic question as it is an ethical/artistic one, and thus beyond the bounds of this essay.

[2] Berger, John. “Understanding a Photograph,” reprinted in Trachtenberg, p. 294.